From Here to Eternity

The temporal aspect of punishment extends beyond the span between the crime and its punishment. The severity of the punishment is also measured in terms of its duration. And death puts a definitive end to all man-made durations. This interference of death in our temporal horizons messes up what we mean by proportional punishment, which is the reason behind the general lack of gratification on Madoff’s long sentence. If a heinous crime like a senseless murder brings about only a life-sentence, and if you know that “life” means only a couple of months or so, then the punishment in and of itself is incapable of deterring the crime. And when the crime is not as senseless, but prompted by careful material considerations, it is a deliberate risk-reward analysis that determines its commission. A comprehensive risk-reward analysis would involve, I imagine, a consideration of the probability of detection, the intensity and duration of the potential punishment, and the time one has to enjoy the spoils and/or suffer the punishment. There may be other factors to consider, of course. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t actually done such analyses. Not yet.

The smallpox story I mentioned earlier brings these considerations to the foreground, along with how the relatively high probability of death from the disease affects them. Knowing that there isn’t much time to enjoy life (or face the music), two older gentlemen of the story decide to go and feast themselves on a local prostitute of the village whom they have been eying for a while. It is not that the consequences (spousal anger, bad diseases etc.) of their action have changed. Just that their potential duration has decreased drastically because of the outbreak of smallpox. Knowledge of our death has a dramatic effect on our moral inhibitions born out of risk-reward analyses.

It is in this light that we have to examine clichéd statements like, “Live in the present moment,” or “Live everyday as though it is your last.” What do these statements really mean? The second one is especially interesting because it makes a direct reference to death. Is it asking us to shed our inhibitions vis-à-vis all our actions? If so, it may not be such a positive invitation (which, of course, is a statement of value-judgment emanating form a sense of a morality of unknown origins). Or it could be a simple exhortation not to procrastinate — a positive thing by the same uncertain morality.

“Living in the present” is even more puzzling. I guess it comes from the Zen notion of “here” and “now.” I can kind of understand the Zen notion in terms of cognitive neuroscience, although that is the sort of thing that Zen would ask us not to do — understanding one thing in terms of something else. According to the Zen school, an experience has to be assimilated before the intellect has a chance to color it in terms of preconceived notions and filters. In the absolute stillness of a mind, presumably brought about by years of introspection and intense mediation, experiences take on perceptually accurate and intellectually uncolored forms, which they say is a good thing. If the statement “Live in the present moment” refers to this mode of experiencing life, fine, I can go with that, even though I cannot fully understand it because I am not a Zen master. And if I was, I probably wouldn’t worry too much about logically understanding stuff. Understanding is merely a misguided intellectual exercise in futility.

As a moral statement, however, this invitation to live in the present moment leaves much to be desired. Is it an invitation to ignore the consequences of your actions? You compartmentalize your timeline into a large past, a large future and tiny present. You ignore the past and the future, and live in the present. No regrets. No anxieties. What else could this slogan “Live in the present moment” mean?