Is Collective Punishment Always Wrong?

As readers of this blog are probably aware, I am not a fan of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. I find the blockade to be morally unjustifiable and ultimately not in the interests of Israel’s security. Yet I do wonder about some of the moral claims made in the course of the controversy.

For example, a recent Vox Nova post by contributor Morning’s Minion contains the following aside:

Remember, collective punishment is absolutely forbidden under the moral law.

Morning’s Minion, of course, is hardly the only one to make this point, and at first blush it seems fairly sensible and obvious. It’s easy to see why punishing one person for the crimes of another, which is what collective punishment seems to consist in, would be morally objectionable, and one might readily conclude that, just as a straightforward application of moral logic, collective punishment is always and everywhere morally wrong.

But is that right? Imagine, for a moment, a teacher writing on a blackboard in front of a class of 3rd graders. Every time she turns around to write on the board, she is hit with spitballs. She can’t see where the spitballs are coming from exactly, and has no way of knowing just which of her students is the culprit, nor can she complete her lesson without turning her back on the students to write on the board. Finally in frustration she announces that unless the spitballs stop or the students responsible step forward the entire class will get detention. This would appear to be a clear cut case of collective punishment. Yet it also seems clear (to me at least) that there is nothing immoral or evil about what the teacher is doing. Indeed, it may be the only method she has to keep the peace in the classroom so that she can complete her lesson.

One could argue, I suppose, that what is happening to the class is not really collective punishment, but rather that each of the students is being punished for not doing more to stop other students from sending the spitballs her way. But this, it seems to me, proves too much, as for pretty much any example of purportedly collective punishment it will be possible to redescribe the situation as one where people are being punished individually for their own actions or inactions (for example, one might say that the residents of Gaza are not being punished collectively but are being punished individually for not doing more to stop the rockets Hamas and others are launching into Israel). But if that is the case, then the claim that collective punishment was inherently immoral would be akin to the claim that it was wrong to eat unicorn meat, empty even if true.

Of course, to say that collective punishment is not always wrong is not to say that it is always right. And, as I’ve indicated above, I do think the blockade of Gaza is wrong. So I might well be accused to splitting hairs. Yet the underlying moral issue is an important one, even if it isn’t determinative in a particular case.

44 Responses to Is Collective Punishment Always Wrong?

  1. Elaine Krewer says:

    Considering the fact that our entire faith is based on the concept of collective guilt (Original Sin) and collective punishment (death) combined with collective redemption (achieved by Christ), it would be kind of difficult to argue that collective punishment is always and everywhere inherently evil.

    Also, weren’t all of ancient Israel’s military defeats and even the Bablylonian exile itself presented in Scripture as a collective punishment for the sins of the nation — meaning in effect, the sins of the king, since such punishment always turned on whether or not the king was faithful to the Lord or not, regardless of what the rest of the nation did.

    To top it all off, didn’t Our Lady of Fatima state that World War II (referred to as “another and greater war” because it hadn’t happened yet), and in fact ALL wars, were a collective punishment for sin? I realize that is private revelation and not part of the deposit of faith, but it is not contrary to the faith to accept this.

    I suppose one could argue that collective punishment is something that ought to be reserved to God alone and for human beings to attempt it is a form or presumption or pride.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Popes used to place entire nations or regions of nations under the interdict for reasons that they deemed sufficient.

    Jesus makes several references to collective punishment in the New Testament:

    “Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes.”

    “Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.”

  3. restrainedradical says:

    The analogy to detention was helpful. Maybe the distinction is the nature of the punishment? If a murderer can be one of two people, the other being entirely innocent, we can justly detain them both but we can’t justly imprison both of them. Maybe collectively punishing a people by denying them the means of survival is always wrong.

  4. MikeInOhio says:

    It also prompts the question: Who is punishing the Gazan Palestinians? I have read (admittedly, not witnessed) that large amounts of supplies are shipped from Israel, and markets in Gaza have plenty of goods. Even the media claim that the Israelis did not allow chocolate to cross the border was apparently false.

    On the other hand, Hamas is running a totalitarian religious terror state. And yet, Hamas won the elections to achieve power, and still enjoy considerable popularity there.

    So, is this ‘punishment’ and are the recipients really so far removed from responsibility?

  5. n4nadmin says:

    Whether or not collective punishment is right or wrong is irrelevant to this issue – the Israelis aren’t punishing anyone, collectively or otherwise. Hamas and Israel are in a state of war and Israel is carrying out a legitimate war measure – blockade. In point of fact, Israel’s blockade is softer and more merciful than the Union blockade of the South in the Civil War or the British blockade of Germany in the World Wars. Essentially, those earlier blockades were of everything – not just weapons of war, but of anything which could conceivably help the other side. Merely allowing something as simple as bread to come through puts Israel on a higher moral plane, blockade-wise, than us.

    Collective punishment would be to, say, area bomb a section of Gaza from which rockets are fired – unless something like that happens, Israel is not in the business of punishing, at all.

    Mark Noonan

  6. T. Shaw says:

    Not sure if MM is a theologian.

    When I (torture myself) read the male-of-the-bovine-species-feces they spew over at vn, the following thought rolls through my alleged mind: “Theology is making up stuff about God to advance some secular humanist agenda item.”

  7. First of all, Chuck Schumer’s comment is disgusting.

    Having said this, I hasten to add that it is irrelevant, and the attempt, which Morning’s Minion so egregiously makes, to color the Israeli security action with the moral squalor of a US Senator, would be outrageous if it were not comic in its transparent absurdity.


  8. restrainedradical says:

    I think Schumer is wrong but his rationale is not any different from the rationale for the embargo on Cuba.

  9. Oh, and to answer your question: sic et non.

    Yes, it seems that there is no positively constituted human authority capable of justly meting out punishment collectively, i.e., upon a group constituted not by each member’s peccaminous and/or criminal participation in a given act or series of acts (or policies), but by some other criterion.

    His scriptis, a blockade is not properly an act of punishment. The point is: most acts that would bring suffering upon a group or population, generally, are not punitive acts, properly speaking. They might be discutble and even condemnable under other areas of the moral law, but not under the prohibition against “collective punishment”.


  10. Obviously, I am speaking of positively constituted judiciary authority.

    The squad leader who confines all his men to base because of one man’s transgression is another matter.


  11. restrainedradical says:

    Lazy Disciple, I would imagine that a blockade that denies the population of necessities for survival would be punishment, no?

  12. Mike Petrik says:

    I suspect the purpose of the blockade is prophylactic not penitential. While I do not claim that this distinction resolves all moral questions, I do speculate that evaluating these questions by using a “morality of punishment” analysis probably muddies the waters.

  13. Pauli says:

    Why is this not being more widely reported? Because it disrupts the narrative?

  14. Art Deco says:

    The difficulty with Minion’s principle stated in those terms is that any penalty has knock-on effects on the persons proximate to those punished, because life is lived socially, and can thus be conceived of as ‘collective punishment’.

  15. Blackadder says:

    First of all, Chuck Schumer’s comment is disgusting.

    Schumer’s comments are in keeping with comments Israeli officials have made about the purpose of the blockade. So if you find them disgusting….

  16. I believe collective punishment is always wrong. In the schoolchild case, we are talking about a mere peccadillo. But it still violates the principle of justice, and even children know that (I rememember vivly how unfair I felt these little “collective punishments” as a child).

    But the matter of hand is not a mere peccadillo. It is a war crime. It is a systemic deprival of 1.5 million people of their basic rights – to food, shelter, employment, healthcare.

    Let us not forget what is happening in Gaza:

    (1) Severe food shortages. Chronic malnutrition at 10 percent. Over 60 percent of households are food insecure. 80 percent depend on humanitarian aid.

    (2) Serious water shortages. Israel refuses to allow the sewage system be repaired, so that 95 percent of drinking water is contaminated and unfit for consumption.

    (3) Industry decimated. 98 percent of industrial operations have shut down. Exports practically banned. Unemployment at 42 percent. Fishing catch down 47 percent.

    (4) Severe electricity shortages, as Israel refused to allow the reconstruction of Gaza’s only power plant after bombing it (from 140 to 80 megawatts in 2006, 60 megawatts in 2009, 30 megawatts in 2010). Most have power cuts from 8-12 hours a day.

    (5) Healthcare in crisis. 15 of 27 hospitals, 43 of 110 of primary care facilities, and 29 of its 148 ambulances were damaged or destroyed, and not rebuilt of replaced. 21 percent of permits to leave for emergency medical treatment were denied or delayed, sometimes resulting in death.

  17. Sydney Carton says:

    Gee, perhaps if the Palestinians weren’t so devoted to the murder of Jews they’d have the resources to farm (remember those greenhouses they destroyed when Israel left Gaza?), repair their sewer, engage in productive industry instead of suicide bomb-making, etc.

    I’m not really feeling sympathetic to a society whose entire existence revolves around murdering Jews.

  18. Sydney Carton says:

    Oh, and I agree with T.Shaw. It’s stupid to take seriously anything the VN sophists say. Their entire agenda is liberalism. Catholicism for them is a means to an end.

  19. Pauli says:

    Yes, but it would be nice if MM really did believe all that tripe about the Palestinians. Then one of us could sell him the Brooklyn Bridge.

  20. Colin Gormley says:

    “Remember, collective punishment is absolutely forbidden under the moral law.”


    “I believe collective punishment is always wrong.”

    The claim has lessened. I also find this curious givne the concept of Original Sin, the punishment of nations, etc.

    Seems to me that if we are to act in solidarity (as MM and other VN contributors would suggest with things such as the health care bill) then it is also possible that we can be punished collectively as a society. Indeed the claim that we cannot be punished as a group smacks of the individualism that MM and others on VN continue to reject out of hand.


  21. Blackadder says:

    I don’t think original sin counts as collective punishment in Catholic theology (which is to say that it is something inherited rather than imputed).

    The issue of the judgment of nations is trickier, but I think we should always be cautious in trying to apply examples from the Old Testament outside their historical context.

  22. Pauli says:

    So what is the “historical context” of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham tries to strike a bargain with the Lord and keeps lowering the bar. God agrees at every point, but trashes the joint anyway.

    But I guess God wouldn’t do that nowadays because He has decided that gays aren’t that bad.

    I’m not claiming this is the way to look at things, just throwing some stuff at the wall and seeing if it sticks. Get out the heresy meter if you want.

  23. It is always wrong to punish an innocent person. God does not punish the innocent – to claim otherwise is the embrace the very voluntarism that the pope condemned in his infamous Regensburg address. It will not do to read the OT as a fundamentalist.

  24. Blackadder says:

    So what is the “historical context” of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?

    God said He would spare the entire city if there were ten innocent people there. It turned out that there were only 4-6 innocent people in the city, so He destroyed it after telling the six to leave. It hardly seems a good example of collective punishment in action (do you really think that in all of Gaza you couldn’t find ten people who hate Hamas?)

  25. Colin Gormley says:

    “I don’t think original sin counts as collective punishment in Catholic theology (which is to say that it is something inherited rather than imputed). ”

    Fair enough.

    “It is always wrong to punish an innocent person.”

    MM, that’s the point. Can we be punished collectively for the sins of a nation? As we can do good as a society we do evil as well. As such I see no logical reason why we cannot be punished as a nation for the sin of abortion, for example.

    It seems to me that if we are to maintain that we are tied to a society and therefore are responsible for doing good we can in turn be punished for doing evil as a society, even if as an individual might hold opinions contrary to the society’s. We cannot be wholly innocent of a society’s sins if we are also responsible for that society’s well being, right? The society is an aspect of who we are.

  26. Pauli says:

    If I were Lot I might feel a little punished to have my wife whacked on the way out. Of course I might feel a little to blame as well. I mean, if he was like me he was probably always saying “Honey did you turn off the teakettle?”

    (BTW, I’m not thinking about the Hamas/Gaza thing. It’s too obvious to even discuss seriously.)

  27. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I assume the first born of Egypt, slain in the final plague on Egypt before the Hebrews were liberated, are following this discussion in the next life and saying, “Now they tell us!” Unless the Old Testament in many passages is going to be rendered devoid of the meaning that is obviously meant to be conveyed, I do not see how any Christian can argue with a straight face that God is opposed to collective punishment when it suits His purposes. The Faith is useless indeed if we simply invent away hard passages in Scripture which do not comport with modern concepts of morality.

  28. Jay Anderson says:

    I don’t care to make a point about collective punishment, per se, but rather I post this in response to MM’s comment about God not punishing the innocent and about reading OT scripture like a “fundamentalist”.

    What does it mean to be admonished not to “read the Old Testament as a fundamentalist”? I generally see such terminology used whenever there is something in OT scripture that makes certain people uncomfortable because it is at odds with their particular world view.

    Is it meant in the sense that we are not to read ANYTHING in the OT historically? That the OT isn’t to have any practical applicability to our own lives and circumstances?

    Let’s take, for example, the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C. and the fall and ensuing captivity of the Southern Kingdom of Judah to Babylon in 587 B.C. These are ACTUAL historical events for which the divinely inspired word of God makes some specific claims: namely, that the people of those two kingdoms were being punished – collectively – for falling away from God.

    Was EVERYONE who was affected by this punishment “guilty”? Was Jeremiah guilty? Did Jeremiah suffer, along with the rest of the people of Judah, the loss of his homeland and the Temple where his people had worshipped? See, e.g., Lamentations.

  29. Art Deco says:

    It is a war crime. It is a systemic deprival of 1.5 million people of their basic rights

    The bulk of those 1.5 million and all of the political leadership prefer the current situation to feasible alternatives, because the feasible alternatives require they give up something they value that most folk would not. Their claim on anyone’s sympathy is exceedingly limited.

  30. Blackadder says:

    The bulk of those 1.5 million and all of the political leadership prefer the current situation to feasible alternatives

    The bulk of the 1.5 million are children.

  31. Eric Brown says:


    I don’t the point is that you cannot read the OT historically as if everything is merely metaphorical and/or allegorical.

    For example, the Psalmist often prays for not simply deliverance from his enemies, not even just the death of his enemies, but at times, he prays for their utter annihilation and eternal damnation. But we are instructed in the Gospel to love and pray for our enemies.

    The Old Testament permits divorce, but Jesus instructs the Jews that the ordinance given to them was because of the hardness of their heart — and had they understood the true spirit of the law, they would not have reached the conclusion they had.

    I think “Dei Verbum” assists in this endeavor because it illuminates the question of inspiration — and how something inspired to be included in the Sacred Text need not be taken as “dogmatic,” if read in a literal (at-face-value) manner (e.g. read Sirach and the Sacred Author’s theological treatment of women).

    So I think I share your fundamental concern and I’m not sure we disagree.

    But MM’s point about a fundamentalist reading of the OT being problematic is obviously correct — though I’m not sure who was being a fundamentalist (I didn’t thoroughly read throught the comments). A literal reading of the Psalms could lead one to believe that it is morally acceptable to bash the heads of your enemy’s infants against rocks — or in the words of the Psalmist, “blessed” is he who does these things (cf. Psalm 137).

    There are other instances where certain OT realities seem to clash to a degree with the Gospels and/or the paradigm of moral theology, particularly natural law thinking, promulgated in the Church.

    Obviously none of this means the Old Testament is to be ignored or subordinated to the New Testament. It is a question of biblical hermeneutics and the proper methodology of reading and interpreting the Sacred Text particularly given the varying historical circumstances of each text as well as the fact that each a number of the books are different genres, e.g. letters, apocalyptic texts, gospels, etc.

  32. Eric Brown says:

    Also see Sirach 25 — the Fall is blamed entirely on women. In patristics, it always “fault of Adam” — as St. Augustine so popularly termed it — when the subject of original sin occurs. So again there is a question of biblical hermeneutics.

  33. Pauli says:

    The bulk of the 1.5 million are children.

    Yeah, you’ll get that when you allow multiple wives.

  34. Art Deco says:

    The bulk of the 1.5 million are children.

    The median age in the Gaza Strip is 17.5 years, so, no.

    And the primary responsibility for their welfare does not lie with the Israel Defense Force.

  35. In regards to the Babylonian Captivity, I could see arguing that when the Bible talks about it being because of Israel’s sins, it doesn’t necessarily mean that because of their idol worshiping God specifically “helped” the Babylonians in some way, or that God would in some definite way not have allowed the Babylonians to conquers Israel if they had been more faithful to some specific degree. Scripture could be describing the Captivity as an opportunity for Israel to expiate its sins, without asserting a direct cause and effect relationship.

    However, this strikes me as pretty clearly going against how both the authors and most of those within the Church have interpreted such passages them through history. My personal tendency is to take such expressions as metaphorical in the context of my life, but that doesn’t mean I’m right and it certainly doesn’t mean one can simply assume that because one tends not to see misfortunes as being “punishments” from God, that therefore one may discount anything in scripture which runs contrary to one’s preference.

    I have to agree with Blackadder’s basic point: there are situations in which collective punishment is not unjust, I don’t think that we can assert that it is “always wrong”. (And I say this while agreeing that the blockade is not right in its current form.)

    If I can make a suggestion with tongue only slightly in cheek — it strikes me that an absolute assertion that no form of collective punishment is ever justified can only spring from a form of radical individualism, whereby we refuse to admit the possibility that a group as a whole may share in guilt, or indeed that communities or countries in fact exist.

    I could certainly see that many severe sorts of punishment are always unjust if applied collectively, and I would have no problem with the claim that the practice of punishing randomly selected people (along the lines of: turn over the guerrillas or we’ll execute ten randomly chosen people from the village) is always wrong, but I don’t see that one could claim that an example such as the school example is unjust, in part because it’s a situation where everyone by action or inaction shares a degree of culpability.

  36. Eric Brown says:

    You raise a good point DC, albeit indirectly. In the Old Testament, it is evident that the Israelites believed that misfortunes were a “punishment” for sin. If something bad happened to you, it was because God was punishing you for it. But in the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case. The story of the blind man in the Gospel of John comes to mind — where the Pharisees are sure his blindness is the result of his own personal sinfulness.

  37. Good point.

    To refine slighter further: From the gospels we get the feeling that at least some Jews in the time of Jesus believed that basically all misfortunes were the result of some kind of sin. Jesus clearly rejects that. (The blind man, the fallen tower, etc.) Arguably, this was off base from the OT view anyway, since in Job we have someone who suffered great misfortune which was not the result of any sin.

    However, I think that that many of us now (and I’d count myself here) tend to go to the other extreme and assume that misfortunes are never punishment sin, that “bad things just happen”, and I’m not clear that this is necessarily what Jesus is saying. So far as I can tell, it could be that some misfortunes are not the result of sin, but others are. Or it could be that they are the result of sin in one sense, but not in other senses.

    No matter how well it comports with my prefered way of viewing the world, I guess I’m hesitant to rule out the idea that some misfortunes may in fact be punishments from God (especially in some cases in the OT where the prophets say outright that they are), though I’m certainly skeptical enough that I wouldn’t necessarily believe anyone who claimed that any particular misfortune was punishment for any particular sin.

  38. afl says:

    what i continue not to understand is that Israel will allow the ships in thier port so they can make sure the supplies are those intended to aiid the people but want to ascertain there are no arms or counterbrand and guarantee the delivery of the goods into Gaza. why does this not seem reasonable, erspecially when arms are intended to contiune the confict.

  39. Blackadder says:


    The blockade isn’t limited to arms.

  40. Jay Anderson says:

    Good points, Darwin and Eric.

    I guess my take on it is that either Jeremiah was truly a prophet of the Lord, delivering God’s message that misfortune was about to fall upon Judah for their sins, or he was the equivalent of an OT Pat Robertson, blaming completely unrelated misfortunes on the collective sin of the nation. I’m not sure if this makes my reading of the OT “fundamentalist” or not, but I choose to believe the former.

    If it’s the latter, then I suppose we can pay about as much attention to the book of Jeremiah as we pay to The 700 Club.


  41. Jay Anderson says:

    Or maybe it’s the fact that I put it in terms of that either/or without leaving room for a more “nuanced” reading that marks me as a “fundamentalist”.


  42. n4nadmin says:

    Morning’s Minion,

    So, a blockade is collective punishment and health care is a right? How so? Seems to me that a blockade is just that – and if you can come up with a logical argument which determines that someone who voluntarily enters the medical profession becomes encumbered with an absolute obligation to treat people, then I’d like to hear it.

    Mark Noonan

  43. Kevin in El Paso says:

    When the Gazans, the West Bankers, the Lebonese, or the Egyptians for that matter, begin the process of demonstrating an intolerance for those who smuggle weapons (large and small) into their territories for the purpose of releasing them toward or in Israel, with the hoped for civilian casualties, I may take seriously any discussions about Israeli “punishment”, collective or otherwise, of the willing subjects of the Hamas regime.
    Until then, a day that will not occur while the fires burn in hell, all of the hand-wringing over the plight of these willful unlawful combatants makes me nauseous.

  44. Modern criminal law does not recognize collective punishment. Only those found guilty as individuals are punished under modern criminal law. No State openly claims the right to inflict collective punishment. The reason is that such form of punishment is considered contrary to human rights and humanitarian law.

    Yet, feelings sometimes tend to blur our vision. We may sometimes feel that entire groups or societies should be rightfully punished, or coerced, in order to bring about more justice. One particular case in point is the State of Israel, in which the public willingly supports policies generally regarded as war crimes. By inflicting hardship on such a public, so goes the reasoning, that public would perhaps refrain from supporting politicians who pursue such criminal policies. The theory bases on the premise that the Israeli public enjoys democratic rights and can, without incurring hardship, remove their government by peaceful, electoral means.

    The policy of collective punishment would thus be applicable particularly against democratic societies, because a democratic government truly represents the will of its citizens (or at least the majority of the citizens).

    The question arises therefore, whether collective punishment should be allowed where the targeted victims possess real and viable choices and are not enduring duress or danger by opposing certain policies. A further question will have to be answered: Who would be in a position to assess the degree of freedom by the targeted victims of collective punishment? And why should those individuals within the targeted collective who strive to oppose the criminal acts of their government and even incur risks in doing so, be equally punished?

    The answer to the above conundrum would seem to be that punishment or coercion should be targeted against specific individuals or institutions who refuse to oppose criminal policies.

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