One of the striking features of recent decades in Australia and many Western countries has been the apparent contrast between a regnant ethical framework that highlights tolerance, and an increasingly punitive approach to law and punishment for lawbreaking.
Take, for two examples, the issues of violence in our cities, and the Kyle and Jackie O 'lie detector' incident. The ethics of tolerance suggests people should be able to choose for themselves how much they drink, when they drink, and how they profit from others' drinking. And it suggests that people are entitled to listen to what they want, and to profit from providing others with what they wish to hear.
But it simultaneously demands that people be harshly punished for acting violently when they are drunk, and for putting to air material which some people don't think that others should hear.
In assessing this contrast it may be helpful to look more broadly at the large gap that exists between the large principles or ideals by which we regulate human behaviour and the messy reality in which we violate these principles routinely. Contemporary culture has its ways of dealing with this gap. Christian understandings of it have historically been influential, and pose helpful questions.
In contemporary culture, moral beliefs are commonly held to be a matter of individual choice. Social codes are ideally decided democratically by common agreement. But transgressions of the social code are regarded as unforgivable. When people in showbiz act disrespectfully and young people act violently or lustfully, they must variously be hunted, shamed, sacked and jailed, if necessary indefinitely.
The way in which the media dramatise incidents that appear to breach moral codes is illuminating. The media expresses outrage at particular events, and asks a range of individuals to comment. Victims and their relatives, relatives or members of the same ethnic communities as the transgressors, ordinary people and authorities from child psychologists to prime ministers offer comment. They inevitably choose to be outraged.
So the moral principle is established and confirmed by majority and expert opinion. The media then demand harsher penalties in order to underline this triumph of the common will.
It appears that tolerance of individual choice with respect to moral principles does not lead to a relaxed society. It rather occasions anxiety that egregiously bad behaviour will white ant the foundations of a secure society. This anxiety is then discharged by action that asserts moral principles decisively and inflexibly. The messiness of daily life is effectively transferred to the business of stating moral principles.
The human interactions involved in crime are then treated inflexibly with no respect to circumstances and background. Ultimately this fails to do justice to reality, with the result that both the people punished and society at large suffer.
Christian ways of dealing with the tension between principles and a messy reality generally endorse strong principles, and explore the complexities and the limitations of human behaviour. In Western Christianity, there are two broad approaches.
That adopted by St Augustine and followed by Protestant Reformers, holds that God gives human beings instructions on how to live, and that these are binding. But because of the Fall, human beings can neither recognise God's law nor obey it consistently.
Christ enters this messiness of the human condition and takes on our guilt. When we live in faith, our moral judgment is still impaired, but we are freed to live generously. We live faithfully in the messiness of ordinary life by recalling the grace of God offered in Christ.
When translated into reflection on crime and punishment, this approach would recognise that individuals and society are irremediably sinful, but that people are open to new vision and a change of life. Sanctions for wrongdoing are necessary to provide space for society and individuals to focus on what matters and to reform.
The second approach, associated with Thomas Aquinas, is shared by many Catholics. Here, ideals and moral principles are written into the nature of things. The consequences of the Fall make human life inherently messy. But we can overcome our self-interest and weakness of will, and so recognise by what principles we must live and, with God's grace, follow them.
The messiness of human life is addressed in two ways: by clarifying the application of ethical principles to the complexities of everyday life, and by encouraging people to live, if not perfectly, at least more generously. Life is seen as a journey on which small steps towards better living should be welcomed, without compromising the claim of high principles.
When applied to crime and punishment, this account also encourages us to look compassionately and realistically at the messy reality of human life, to consider mitigating circumstances, and include in punishment for wrong doing a space where people can decide and learn to live better.
Neither Christian approach to the gap between ideals and actual behaviour guarantees a rational approach to crime and punishment. Both have coexisted comfortably with barbarous penal systems.
But they do point to the weakness of moral frameworks that emphasise individual choice and assume that we enjoy an unclouded rationality. These frameworks promise simplicity where there is complexity, and as a result endorse harshness where there ought to be flexibility.
Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.