I read something in The Crucible the other day:
These [Puritans] had no ritual for the washing away of sins. It is another trait we inherited from them, and it has helped to discipline us as well as to breed hypocrisy among us.
If you sin once, according to the Puritans, you sin forever; a stain upon the cloth of the soul can never be washed out. And so goes the world.
Forgiveness for things long past has been sparse from the beginning of history: the mythologies of many cultures, from early to advanced, are littered with heroes besieged by vengeance for things they did years ago. It makes sense, after all. Is a sin not a sin, a grievance not a grievance? Wasn’t the fundamental law of Babylon “an eye for an eye?”
Is it right to punish someone for sins previously committed? At first glance this question has an obvious answer. Yes. Of course yes. A thousand times yes. A sin warrants punishment, both as penance and deterrent. But then you have to ask, what is a sin? What warrants punishment?
Basically, if you had a choice between an equally easy right thing and wrong thing, then you would be expected to pick the right one, no? And someone who would not would have a mental illness, because the definition of a healthy human being appears to hinge on the presence of a conscience. Except most choices between wrong and right are severely stacked in the direction of wrong. Your conscience is supposed to know what’s right. If it doesn’t it’s not your fault; that is a mental illness.
The reason why jails exist is because peoples’ consciences were judged to have given out. They are punished for weakness. Call it immorality, selfishness, sadism - convicts do penance for a weakness of the conscience. You choose, you lose.
But can something be called a choice if there is no other option? Or, even, if someone’s conscience weights righteousness as less than opposing influences, leading to a choice of the wrong, then is it not a fault of the conscience, thus falling under the category of “mental illness?” As neuroethics marches on, there is always the question of responsibility. How can a human being be responsible when time is linear, paths singular, history indelible?
A couple hundred years later, it seems like neuroscience proves the Puritans right: predetermination does exist, not necessarily by the laser-guided hand of God, but instead by the luck of the draw. It is lucky to be born sane, well-supported, educated.
And our judicial system recognizes it. There now exist countermeasures against the random chance that someone will be born with a cracked moral compass; there is the insanity defense. There is therapy. For the poor and/or ignorant, there is an attempt at a public school system, although the punishments are as tough as ever for those who fall through the cracks.
But for the rest of us, well, we are lucky. And since nothing comes for free, we must then bear the full weight of our failings.