Revenge justice is no justice at all

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to lurk at the website reddit. It’s a good site for finding a lot different links to a huge variety of content. From long form articles to short news pieces to funny pictures that will show up on your Facebook newsfeed two days later, reddit offers a lot. Unfortunately, it is also subject to being a hivemind. It isn’t like, say, Freethought Blogs, but it does sometimes have a few of the same problems. The only thing that saves it from being unbearable is the sheer number of users (which is around 175 million according to Wiki) from around the globe. Still, though. It has it problems. Let’s take reddit’s overwhelming attitude towards revenge justice, for example. Comments on this recent article drive home my point; from the article:

In a literal application of the sharia law of an eye for an eye, an Iranian man convicted of blinding another man in an acid attack has been blinded in one eye, marking the first time Iran has carried out such a punishment.

The convicted acid attacker, who has not been identified, was rendered unconscious in Rajai-Shahr prison in the city of Karaj on Tuesday as medics gouged out his left eye, according to the state-owned Hamshahri newspaper.

What this attacker did was horrendous and deserves a severe punishment, but he did not deserve to lose his own eye. The entire reason we find his actions so horrible is that they were barbaric. Doing the same thing to him was only less barbaric in method, not intent.

Of course, this is Iran. The overwhelming majority of redditors are from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. (with a sizable portion from many other western nations). Surely the majority will condemn this sort of stone age thinking, right? Think again:

I don’t have a problem with this punishment. What this guy did to these women is unforgivable. An example must be made to all. To be blinded in such a humane way in a medical setting isn’t something the victim was afforded, flesh melting off her face.

and

That’s a tough one.

Part of me feels like everybody deserves a basic level of ‘human rights’ protections no matter what.

But another part of me feels that there are some acts that are so barbaric and animalistic that a person who willfully commits them could only be considered sub-human, and doesn’t deserve the same human rights enjoyed by everyone else.

and

This guy threw acid into 12 women’s faces because he didn’t like the way they dressed. This guy obviously didn’t care about their human rights, he ruined their lives.

I think this punishment isn’t NEARLY harsh enough.

And perhaps worst of all, here is one of the most popular comments:

I know I will be down voted; but I can’t feel sorry for the attacker in anyway shape or form, nor do I fault Iran. They threw acid on a person’s face, and this is the consequence as depicted by the law of Iran. I am sorry but truthfully just stuffing somebody in jail doesn’t deter a lot of people.

Jail to some damaged people is nothing more than a time out. Furthermore I have said this before, stuffing jails with the worse possible offenders of society doesn’t create an environment of punishment or rehabilitation, it becomes a monster creation factory. Just check out the number of violent gangs in prisons. They carry out murders the same way, they rape the same way, they continue to sell contraband the same way.

Yes I am all about being ethical, but there is nothing ethical about putting a person in a cell, feeding them and keeping them alive while the person they have destroyed must suffer through life. The acid attacker deemed their actions and the consequences were worth the price.

Whenever a person starts a sentence with “Yes I am all about being ethical, but…”, you can be sure it’s off the rails.

What we have here are instances of people allowing emotion to trump ethics. Comments which say some people don’t deserve human rights or comments which advocate for the lifelong suffering of others are philosophically incoherent. Indeed, let’s go further – the mindset is disgusting. Once we begin to differentiate human rights based upon human actions, we no longer have any concept of human rights in the first place. This really shouldn’t be that hard. Whatever one wishes to say is the source of human rights, whether it be a god or providence or consciousness or nature, they are necessarily premised upon the notion that they apply to all. The moment we say they apply to some but not others, we’ve made a distinction based on something which is inherently not inherent. That is, our basic human nature is inherent. It exists by definition; we are humans, therefore it is our nature to act as such. The same can be said of any other animal. That inherent base doesn’t change because someone did something awful. To think it did would be like thinking a father who disowns his deadbeat son really no longer has a son. “You’re a drug addict and a moocher! You’re no son of mine! Therefore we are no longer genetically related!” Please.

I had originally titled this post “Vigilante justice is no justice at all”, but the quoted story didn’t technically fit the definition of “vigilante justice” since it was carried out by a government. However, it certainly fits the spirit of the definition. And reddit definitely loves its vigilante justice. That’s because, on some level, the justice is often equal to the ‘crime’ (which often times is just an example of someone being a jerk). It doesn’t matter that both actions were wrong. For reddit (and, really, half the Internet), two wrongs do make a right.

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.