Revenge – an unjust necessity?
Recently, I have come to seemingly hap hazardously stumble over a series of texts and events that all circulate around what I always considered base and somewhat repulsive desires to hurt fellow human beings on what is considered good grounds. Some months ago, I wrote a post here about so-called shaming sites that expose in particular sex criminals, where law-abiding citizens are given the opportunity to add to the suffering of sex offenders by spreading information about them, and making sure that whatever the legal punishment has been, they shall not get away that easily with the appalling crimes they have committed. Since then, New York Times has published an article about the merit of spite, and an opinion piece by Norwegian crime novel author Jo Nesbo entitled ‘Revenge, My Lovely’ on the value of revenge. Here in Oxford, Martha Nussbaum has given the first of a series of lectures on ‘Anger and Forgiveness’ where she addresses the same desire to hurt wrongdoers. Interest for this phenomenon is à la mode, and I will suggest that this might be because it reveals a tension in our society that is very difficult to deal with.
Nussbaum, Nesbo, and to some extent the researchers who study spite seem to agree about this: anger, desire for revenge and spiteful feelings are part of what it is to be human, and our system of justice, to some extent at least, replace and liberates us from these urges. While Nussbaum refers to ancient Greek literature, Nesbo invokes Viking times, clan societies in Albania, and popular sentiments directed against Nazi-collaborators in post-WWII Norway. The psychological research on spite, in turn, maps the apparently intrinsic human “urge to punish, hurt, humiliate or harass [a perceived wrongdoer], even when one gains no obvious benefit and may well pay a cost”, and evolutionary theorists suggest the following explanation: “human decency and cooperation require a certain degree of so-called altruistic punishment: the willingness of some individuals to punish rule breakers even when the infraction does not directly affect them.”
Institutionalized punishment enables human decency and cooperation, but it also takes the place of, and canalizes, the urges that we find ourselves with after millennia of evolution, or so the story we are told seems to go. It might be true that, as Nesbo puts it: “Unless we are talking about our own sins, we cannot live with the idea of criminals not being punished.” Institutionalized punishment, thus, plays two quite distinct roles: (1) it is the instrument of justice, but it is also (2) that which rids us of innate urges to punish, hurt, humiliate and harass wrongdoers.
This raises an issue that at least for me is new: To what extent does punishment get its justification from this latter value? Institutionalized punishment is usually defended on the basis that it preserves justice: it deters potential criminals from committing crimes; it protects rights; it restores justice. What if punishment instead (or at least also) is a necessary component of a social order that by alleviating us from urges to revenge enables human beings to flourish and to develop their more appealing sides? Could it be that the desire to punish, revenge and spite are so intrinsically ingrained in us so that a justice system that we fail to recognize as thoroughly and sufficiently retributive fails to suppress these urges in us, and in extension fails to lay the grounds for a peaceful society in which we can truly flourish?
The value of the punishment would perhaps partly lie in that it discourages potential criminals from committing the crime for which it is a consequence, that it restores some divine balance or protect liberal rights, but also in that it liberates individuals who otherwise would commit a completely different type of crime, or otherwise undesirable actions, that would be bad for others, but especially for themselves. Perhaps we do not, and should not, punish criminals because it is just to do so, but because our base, inherited instincts otherwise get the better of us? Could it then be that retributive punishment is in fact a form of paternalism that is directed against us, the victims, the innocent, the law-abiding citizens? Is it a form of paternalism that forces us to be free from our desire for revenge?
This is of course anecdotal and highly speculative, and the suggestion relies on numerous contingencies that cannot be addressed without empirical studies. The question of how far these psychological human needs go remains disputed. We also do not know enough about how hard it is to overcome these urges in other ways. Nussbaum, in relation to this, draws our attention to the importance of another innately human capacity: the capacity to forgive, a value and an activity that, it seems, would find no place in a society that takes due revenge on wrongdoers. Yet, we seem to have good reasons to believe that we are not particularly good at forgiving, indicated, at least, by the prevalence of spite and the popularity of shaming sites, and with further support in all our quotidian lives.
Do we then face the choice between (1) defending a retributive, potentially unjust, justice system that saves citizens from an alienated life in which they are consumed by desires for revenge, and (2) a penal system that attempts to be just, but that fails to canalize our innate urges, and that leaves it up to each single individual to find it in herself to overcome these feelings, and to try to forgive wrongdoers? The first alternative seems illiberal, unjust and essentially paternalistic, but it has at least in the past been considered necessary at numerous occasions. Nesbo refers to how his father, after the war, was imprisoned for having been enlisted in the Norwegian army that collaborated with the Germans, and accepted the punishment even though he had not broken any laws, because the Norwegian people needed revenge. Legal scholars have repeatedly pointed out the juridical shortcomings of the Nuremberg trials, which again might have been necessary. In more recent times, we can recall the scenes that were reported from the United States after bin Laden was killed, in effect an act of vengeance that judging from the faces people on the streets canalized a deeply rooted urge for revenge. The second alternative at least strives to be just, but leaves us all with what I suppose for many will seem an insurmountable task: finding the capacity within to forgive also the most appalling crimes.