Face Value

Suppose that Schweitzer and Gandhi are equally saintly and that Green and White are equally unsavory characters with long criminal records. Suppose that on separate occasions Green gratuitously slaps Schweitzer in the face, Schweitzer gratuitously slaps White in the face, and Gandhi gratuitously slaps Schweitzer in the face. If guilt were proportional, not just to the offence, but to the moral uprightness of the offended party, then Green would incur more guilt and liability to punishment than would Schweitzer. For since Schweitzer is worthier than White, Green’s failure to show respect for Schweitzer was more grievous than Schweitzer’s failure to show respect for White. Similarly, Gandhi’s action would be more culpable than Schweitzer’s. In fact, I think we are more apt to consider guilt as directly proportional to the nature of the offender than to the nature of the offended party. Schweitzer’s action in slapping White is, if anything, more culpable than Green’s action in slapping Schweitzer. In view of Schweitzer’s long-standing habits of self-control and moral behaviour, we should expect more from him than from Green who has never developed these habits. Similarly, we should expect more from Gandhi. Nor would we say that Gandhi’s act was more culpable than Schweitzer’s. We might even have some inclination to be less outraged at Gandhi, since he was at least ‘picking on someone’ of his own moral stature.

— Marilyn McCord Adams, “Hell and the God of Justice,” Religious Studies 11:4 [December 1975], 433-447