Philosophical trolling

I was poking around at YH&C when I read a post about bin Laden’s death. I liked that post, but within it was a Bryan Caplan article that asked what’s wrong with revenge? Expecting an interesting read, I found myself looking at a little philosophical troll:

My point: Bring up revenge, and most people get upset and speak in platitudes. I’d like to know: What’s wrong with revenge?

They do that because it would be tedious to justify every last point down to the tiniest detail. Imagine making an argument about the proper punishment for rapists when some troll swings on by and starts asking “but what’s wrong with rape?!”

To be more specific: Suppose X is the most severe morally acceptable punishment for act Y committed by person Z. Suppose that the government fails to do anything about Y. What’s wrong if a person personally affected by act Y does X to Z?

This fails to get at the heart of Caplan’s concern. He wants to know what’s wrong with revenge, but the scenario he’s proposing does not necessarily entail revenge. If imprisonment for 5 years is the most severe and morally acceptable punishment for an act someone committed and the government fails to act, it is not inherently revenge for me to put that person in my own prison (even if the act personally affected me).

I won’t accept “No one has the right to take the law into his own hands” as an answer. I want to hear some reasons why no one has this right.

Too bad. That’s the heart of the proposition. Of course, we know from the title of the article and the preceding paragraphs that Caplan didn’t mean to say what he did, but here we are.

A few possibilities:

1. “Maybe Z didn’t really do Y.” This is an argument against misguided revenge, not revenge per se.

As pointed out earlier, this assumes that taking the laws into one’s own hand is inherently revenge. It isn’t.

2. “The person might inflict more than X on Z for doing Y.” Again, this is an argument against excessive revenge, not revenge per se.

Again, assumes revenge that has not been shown. Just as with number 1, this objection gets to the heart of what Caplan actually proposed, not what he meant to propose.

3. “Revenge leads to chaos and/or multiple rounds of reprisal.” This seems unduly alarmist. Most people are cowards, and punishing heinous acts is a public good. Even if “justified revenge” were an affirmative legal defense, few people would take advantange (sic) of it. Indeed, if anything, the market under-supplies revenge.

This is a non-sequitur in reference to the original scenario given by Caplan, but it does get back to what he meant to address. Yet he still misses the mark. Let’s grant that this objection is too alarmist. Is it entirely false, though? Does revenge lead to unnecessary secondary effects, even if they are not wide-spread? And are we willing to accept those consequences? Caplan assumes we are so long as they are for a greater public good. This, however, does not necessarily address the morality of incurring those effects. That is, take the issue of spanking. One argument in favor of spanking one’s own children is that it keeps them in line and teaches them discipline. Yet as frequent readers of FTSOS I know, I detest that argument. The issue is not over effectiveness, but right and wrong. As I said in a previous post, shooting a baby in the face will be effective to get it to stop crying, but that is wholly irrelevant to whether or not that is an okay act.

4. “X, the most severe morally acceptable punishment, is zero.” Besides being crazy, this is an argument against any system of criminal justice, not just revenge. Ever seen the bumper sticker “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong?” You could just as easily have a bumper sticker saying “Why do we imprison people who imprison people to show that imprisoning is wrong?”

The first part of this is a pure strawman. The second part – which is apparently an effort to keep up the non-sequiturs – is two arguments which are not parallel. Both are actually good questions and require individual justifications. The first question has two main justifications. First, if one does not value life at all times, murder away. Second, it is better to destroy one life for the good of the whole. I don’t think many people really want to glom onto the first option, and the second option loses its gusto once one sees the complete lack of need to murder a shackled guy who is behind bars. The second question can use the same two justifications, substituting “liberty” for “life”. If one does not value liberty at all times, imprison away. Or, if it is better to limit the liberty of one for good of the whole, then there is a justification. We tend to use that last one (and it doesn’t lose its gusto).

There are other anti-revenge arguments, but I doubt they’ll fare much better. (Feel free to disagree in the comments…) What’s interesting to me is that while most people officially condemn all acts of revenge, 80% of all action movies depict revenge as not only morally acceptable, but morally required. Sin City is an extreme case, but its stance is mainstream. In the latest Die Hard sequel (thumbs down, BTW), for example, Bruce Willis keeps saying that he’s going to find the bad guys and “Kill them” – not “Kill them if I must do so in self-defense.”

It’s poetic justice. That is not synonymous with unqualified justice.

The reason why there is something wrong with revenge is that it is a purely emotional response. In a system of law, or for those who simply value rationality, reasoning is necessary to form our responses. Indeed, the very idea of “justice” necessarily relies upon the notion that what is right and wrong has a rational basis. That rational basis extends to how we respond to wrongs; if we do away with our reasoning, we are inherently operating outside the bounds of justice – even if our actions happen to agree with it anyway.

10 Responses

  1. You got it right. Some people don’t understand the difference between justice and revenge.

  2. Revenge is an understandable human emotional response. To rationalize it, especially after the fact, is ludicrous.

  3. I think you liked the original post because it included those amazing clips of Christopher Hitchens talking about Jerry Falwell =)

    If I ever miss an excuse to reshare them, then I have failed as a blogger

  4. is a lie a still a lie in any ethical way if it’s typed on the internet ? I honestly don’t’ think it is. Where else can someone engage someone on political issues w/o the threat of physical reprise. Even if its a setup at a political page everyone come to argue either way ir prove their point. Its like maybe in high school maybe someone teased u… If you took yourself too seriously It might have hurt more if you didn’t? I got trolled pretty hard on a band i likes fb page then discovered political pages that are trolls. After awhile I kind felt like it freed me from whatever self-righteous quest I was on taking sides. I dunno but if we cushion every little thing we can aren’t we hindering the process of “evolution” or at least growing? I think people that get offended are really the ones we gotta worry about as far as power trips and control. I wouldn’t hurt a fly but iIll admit ive done this but never considered it to be with Mal intent… I looked at more like Morpheus and co freeing minds from the matrix but ppl with money and houses are offended quite easily they got alot to think about if they see things for what they are. There’s no such thing as coincidence.
    ehwtf “dont take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive” yep van wilder
    I’ve heard the Jesus troll is quite effective with lib’s fro example :)

  5. yeah i typed it fast… the most educated ppl are the ones that have the hardest time believing i got em with these grammar issues.

  6. so Socrates was a troll?

  7. The basis of right and wrong is the Holy Whim of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings,

  8. Go get mental help for you delusions, Ejercito.

  9. I believe he was being derisive towards religious ideas of right and wrong.

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