I want to open by saying (which will prove ironic in light of what I want to say) that I am currently reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for my sins.
I have elsewhere said that I think the fundamental dividing line between right and left in US politics can be quickly characterized by their different understandings of what justice means. To be blunt: I think this is one of the two or three most cogent and valuable insights I have had in my life. So I violate my usual rule of not repeating myself to express the basic idea again in this post.
It’s not like anything I have ever proposed in print has been taken up by others. But this one insight I do think could be of use, so it disturbs my sangfroid in ways the general disregard for my writings does not.
Here’s the basic idea—and how it relates to Dante. In the Paradiso, Canto 7, Dante is at pains to explain the logic of the Crucifixion. Basically, he says that forgiveness of an offense is not enough. Justice is not served unless there is also “atonement.” Some price must be exacted in order to cancel the debt the offense has created. (These economic metaphors are completely and utterly inescapable once some “payment” is required for having done wrong. Similarly, one cannot avoid talking about “reward” for good deeds when operating within the same paradigm.)
Of course, Dante’s Inferno is the place for individualized atonement—and Dante can barely conceal his glee that the big reprobates have to pay the price forever. No atonement can suffice in their case. The Crucifixion is about atonement for original sin, for the whole mass of human sins. Canto 7 explains why only the suffering of Christ could erase that stain. God can’t just forgive mankind its misdeeds. (Of course, it’s easy to ask “why not?” And it won’t surprise you that Dante’s answer to that question is tortured and not very convincing. His answer: humans, via Adam’s sin, had fallen from the perfection with which they were created. Being imperfect, humans could not themselves restore their perfection. Only God could do that–and he could only do it be becoming human himself and “atoning” for Adam’s sin by suffering death by Crucifixion. And answer that raises more questions than it answers–in my humble opinion.)
When it comes to individualized punishment in hell, Dante is usually a bit too human to rejoice in the sufferings endured by those he encounters, but he has no doubt of the justice of their being there, as stated (among other instances) in lines 10-12 of Canto 15 of the Paradiso. “It is well the he grieve without end who, for love of a thing that does not last eternally, divests himself of that other love” (where the “other love” is the love for and of God, a love that does last eternally.) There is just no atonement at all available for some people.
In short, there is always a soupcon of sadism and of self-satisfaction in the justice that motivates the right: people should get what they deserve. So the bad guys should be punished, and the good guys (me!) deserve all the rewards you can pile up. Meritocracy with a vengeance (quite literally).
The harshness is the point; it cannot be siphoned out to create some sort of “compassionate conservatism.” Even if the paternalism imagined in compassionate conservatism were to be enacted, it would be within the strict limits of the family (i.e. citizenry). Dubya may actually have been a sincerely compassionate guy, a true believer in No Child Left Behind (a noble slogan after all). But the compassion was certainly not going to extend to Afghans or Iraqis. The right is fueled by righteous indignation—and the desire to meet out punishment to those who “deserve” it, while augmenting the spoils divided up among the blessed.
That’s why American conservatism is shot through and through with a certain version of Christianity. Meritocracy—and the outraged sense that taxes take my hard-earned and well-deserved wealth and give it to the unworthy—is just another version of a religion built upon dividing sinners from non-sinners, and equating justice with the sinners getting hell and the non-sinners getting heaven.
Leftists are talking of something altogether different when they talk of justice. Maybe you could torture the left wing notion of justice into the language of “desert.” But the idea centers on what people deserve by the basic fact of being human. What we owe to one another as humans. Some basic set of ways to satisfy fundamental material and psychological/social needs. The things required to render a life worth living. The means to forging a flourishing life. Shame unto the society that begrudges those things to any in its midst. Such a society is unjust.
The left’s idea of justice has some Biblical sources as well (of course). But as Dante’s poem reminds us: ministers of vengeance and cupidity seem to usually have the upper hand in the Christian churches. There are always heathens and heretics at the door—and surely god does not want you to extend a helping hand to them. All that love your enemies stuff is overwritten by the doctrine of god’s eventual justice, of the fact of hell. If even God can’t love wicked humans, but sends them to hell, then there is a definite limit to what enemies you are enjoined to love.
So the two sides talk past one another. The right sees threats, enemies, and (simply in some cases) the undeserving. The reprobate not only bring suffering upon themselves, but it also outrageous if society does not act to punish them, to make them pay for their waywardness. Why leave punishment to the next world when you can get the jump of divine vengeance in this one?
The left (bleeding heart liberals) saves its indignation for the cruelty of a society that treats those it deems unworthy so harshly. Its cries for justice are for society to do right by these neglected souls, not to heap more suffering upon them.