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The Innocent Shall Not Be Punished



In Deuteronomy 5 the third of the ten commandments is, in part:

"... For I your God יהוה am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments..."


The actual meaning of this commandment is to show a contrast between God's anger compared to God's mercy.

But this is contradicted by Jeremiah 31:30, which goes on to limit sins to the person who commits them:

"...But every one shall die for their own sins: whosoever eats sour grapes, their teeth shall be blunted..."

We do not condemn children for their parents sins: that is to say: children are not responsible for their parents' transgressions, legally or morally.


I was raised to believe that where descendants suffered disadavantages due to their parents' status, society should examine its role in the disadvantage and compensate the next generation for the disadvantage of the parents. Hence the distributive justice philosophy of John Rawls in which he states that "... society as a fair system of cooperation over time, from one generation to the next..." (Political Liberalism p. 14) An advantaged group may have the results of their advantages removed in order to repair the disadvantage to a group deprived of advantage (e.g.- higher taxation for the wealthy as correcting the disadvantages of capitalism). But the advantaged are not guilty of a crime. They simply received unequal benefits as members of an unfair system made right.


Michael Walzer, in his book Spheres of Justice, discusses social structures to fairly distribute the goods of society. But the argument again regards an unfair society, not guilty members of the societyl. That is he is not discussing those who bear the responsibility for criminal acts and therefore may be caused to physically suffer as society's response.

Colonialism is now accepted as an unfair social policy. It deprived other nations and individuals of the social and monetary benefits of the societies imposing the colonialist policies. But it was a product of the accepted social, political and economic systems of the times. In our days colonialism is considered immoral, just as the power of medieval monarchs or The Church are considered immoral today.


Rawls and Walzer discuss the unfair political advantages of those whose wealth position transfers into political power and hence coercive power over others. But these advantages result from an imperfect social system requiring correction, not criminal actions.


Each person, as in Jeremiah 31:30, ought morally to be judged according to that person's actions. Blame for criminal conduct does not transfer between generations. A fair minded person will relinquish their inherited advantages in order to create a just society. But s/he will not be jailed for a parent's indiscretions.


Each person's morality is to be judged by their own actions. They may be deprived of their social position or wealth inherited through an unjust society, but not incarcerated or beaten for actions they never committed.

Hence, the illogic of racism, antisemitism, or Islamism. Each of these prejudices condemn an individual not for their position in society, but as though they had committed a crime and deserve punishment. It's one thing to insist an advantaged person forsake their advantages, or even deny their the fruits of unjust social gains, resulting in greater wealth and status. It's quite another to treat them as criminals and persecute them for actions they never committed, as though they had broken a law.


Fairness is an essential concept to a functioning democracy. Punishing the innocent by judging them as criminally guilty of actions they never committed and perhaps even disagree with can only fracture society, not repair its injustices.

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