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In order for something to be a punishment, must there be an ending to it?

Hell, many say, is a punishment. But isn't the purpose of a punishment to try to make somebody learn that what they did was wrong and make them a "better person"?

Many believe in eternity in hell, but how can this be? What is the point of "punishing" somebody forever, if they will never be able to do good again? If they will never be faced with another opportunity to be a better person?

November 2, 2007

Response from Allen Stairs on November 3, 2007

A good question! As it turns out, not everyone agrees that the purpose of punishment is to reform people. In fact, some philosophers (Kant is perhaps the foremost) held that the only justification for punishment is that the person deserves it, and if we punish for the sake of making someone better, we fail to show proper respect for them -- we manipulate them for our own ends.

Setting the question of Hell aside for the moment, we can see that the argument you raise, if correct, would also count against capital punishment. But whatever one's views on the rightness of capital punishment, the widespread support it has in some places makes clear that many people see punishment as a matter of giving people what they deserve rather than reforming them. This idea, fleshed oout and elaborated, is often called the retributive theory of punishment, though it's important not to confuse retribution with revenge. Retributive theorists would maintain that the punishment must always be proportional to the crime, and so excessive punishment -- say, sentencing a petty thief to 20 years in prison -- would be wrong. Kant went further. He insisted that even in executing a murderer, we must respect his humanity. "His death... must be kept free from all maltreatment that would make the humanity suffering in his person loathsome or abominable," Kant wrote. Whether executing someone is really consistent with respecting his humanity is open to debate, but Kant insisted that justice demands that the murderer's punishment must fit his crime, and hence nothing short of execution will do. Whether we agree or not, what's clear is that the aim of the punishment here is not to make someone a "better person" but to serve a particular conception of justice.

But now we can return to your worry about hell, and what we see is that no matter what our view of punishment, it's hard to understand how anything a finite human being does could earn them a never-ending stay in Hell. In fact, many religious people agree. Not all believers think that everyone outside of those who confess the proper doctrine are destined for an eternity of torment. Those who do have a conception of punishment that reformers and retributivists alike are bound to find puzzling and repugnant.


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