Tuesday, April 09, 2013

"As you know, we once were told 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' "

Had NPR run this on April 1, I'd have sworn it was a joke.

But the distinction between justice and vengeance is false. A call for justice is always a cry for revenge. By placing their faith in the law, those who justifiably wish to see wrongdoers punished are not disavowing vengeance. If anything, they are seeking to be avenged by the law. No matter what they say, victims aren't choosing justice over vengeance; they are merely capitulating to a cultural taboo, knowing that the protocol in polite society is to repudiate revenge. But make no mistake: When it comes to the visceral experience of being a victim, revenge and justice are one and the same.

And everyone should feel similarly. After all, there is no justice unless victims feel avenged, when they believe that a wrong has been righted and honor restored. And revenge is never just if it is disproportionately delivered—if the retaliation exceeds what is justly deserved, measure for measure. Indeed, vengeance is not irrational (the common knock on revenge)—it's healthy and entirely human. Insisting that justice will suffice when revenge is what victims really want is both intellectually dishonest and factually untrue. Besides, in modern societies where vigilantism is disallowed, we all on some level reasonably believe that it is only by leveraging the law—and having the legal system serve as our proxy—that vengeance can be actually achieved.
An argument based on howlers like this:

For much of human history, the resolution of disputes was a private matter. States were not yet in the business of maintaining legal systems or, for that matter, punishing wrongdoers for crimes committed against another. Law and order was enforced at the most local of levels. Governments became involved—essentially taking a monopoly on vengeance—only during the Enlightenment, when the social contract obligated citizens to surrender to, and faithfully accept, the rule of law.
Or appeals to authority like this:

The philosopher Robert C. Solomon has pointed out that "vengeance is the original meaning of justice. The word 'justice' in the Old Testament and in Homer virtually always refers to revenge.
 I know the popular opinion of the Hebrew Scriptures is that they are soaked in blood, but honestly, the justice demanded by the prophets is really just a call for vengeance?  How ignorant can you be?

And the parts of human history that contradict this sweeping thesis?  On NPR today, Rosenbaum brushed them aside:

CONAN: Here's an email from Anne in Palo Alto: Njal's Saga - I hope I'm not mispronouncing that too badly - from medieval Icelandic traces the change from blood feuds to a centralized, we would call it a government system of adjudicating wrongs after people realized that each time a person was killed, that prompted a revenge killing, which prompted another revenge killing, ad infinitum.

ROSENBAUM: I just - I know we say this. I know you cited two writers on this subject. We would not be a species if every single nation on Earth for millennia had done nothing other than continued a tit-for-tat until they wiped each other out.

CONAN: Nobody said until they wiped each other out. The various clans and tribes may have revenge killings that make their death totals from violence a great deal higher than our death total from violence is now. But that doesn't mean they wipe each other out.

ROSENBAUM: What means is they can't live their lives. They can't go outside. Everybody is held prisoner because my cousin committed a crime and therefore, I'm the next one in line. I mean, even, you know, there have been stories, of course, of tribes that have been engaged in blood feuds and honor killings that have no end. But it's a nasty business, and that's why most nations, most tribes, manage to be able to settle their scores privately and do so with finality.

CONAN: Most nations these days don't have the death penalty.

ROSENBAUM: That's true. But most people around the world live in nations that do have the death penalty. Of course, that's the United States, China and India, and most people around the world support the death penalty.

Need I point out that when one reference to one work of literature can puncture your argument, you don't have a very strong argument?  And what is this appeal to the majority except an ad populum argument?  This guy is a law professor?  I hope he never represents me on an appeal.

Wiki tells me Njal's Saga describes events taking place in 960 to 1020.  Beowulf, written down finally about the same time, describes events centuries earlier than that, and already one can detect in the poet's telling a wish for a society that didn't live on reprisals.  Rosenbaum argues that vengeance achieved a natural balance in tribal societies.  I suppose greed would, too, if we simply allowed it to run unchecked.

Besides, I'm quite certain the roots of criminal law, of the king prosecuting crimes against his subjects as a crime against the crown (the basis for the State in America bringing criminal charges against individuals) dates back to the Medieval period, which ended about 2 centuries before the Enlightenment began.  I'm sure the Enlightenment added more order to this process, but ancient concepts of justice as vengeance weren't swept away with the 17th century, and any argument that contends social order went to hell with the establishment of reason the Enlightenment represents is both ignorant of the history of 17th century Europe, and of the history of human reason.

How can you be a professor of law and reach such mindless and ignorant conclusions as:  "A call for justice is always a cry for revenge"?  The statement is absolutely indefensible.  It wouldn't pass muster in a freshman philosophy course touching on the concept of jurisprudence.

These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.....

1 comment:

  1. I'll look into this farther later but if he's the one I'm familiar with, Robert C. Solomon was a specialist in 19th century German philosophers and in 20th century French existentialists. I'd be surprised if he also wrote on the Hebrew prophets for a reviewed journal. He was a figure in "Skepticism"/atheism, so I'd need to see his citations before I'd take a word of what he said on the topic of religious scripture at face value.