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Justice...or Revenge?

The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes.

James Baldwin, "Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem," Esquire, July 1960

While seeking revenge, dig two graves—one for yourself.

Doug Horton


The philosophy of revenge
From the LA Times, 5/11/01:

A Dish Best Served Cold

A killer's planned execution raises the specter of revenge, an all-too-human tendency rooted in millions of years of evolution.

By MARTIN MILLER, Times Staff Writer

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

—"The Merchant of Venice"
by William Shakespeare

* * *

When the families of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing view the execution of Timothy McVeigh on closed-circuit television on Wednesday, what exactly will they be witnessing? Justice or revenge? Or both?

Those who say justice point out that McVeigh, responsible for the greatest single act of terrorism on U.S. soil, was not lynched by a mob or killed Jack Ruby-style before his day in court. Rather, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to die—all in accordance with the laws of the land.

And if justice is to contain a balance between crime and punishment, the thus far remorseless killer of 168 people will meet a relatively merciful end. Unlike his victims, McVeigh can make his farewells, has only one family to mourn him, and has only one life to lose. Further, his death will promote the goals of a just society by preventing him from murdering again, potentially deterring other killers and protecting the sacredness of innocent human life.

Those who call it revenge counter that one need only look as far as the closed-circuit broadcast for the victims' families to divine the execution's true motive. Vengeance, not "closure," is what will have families watch McVeigh's death—or else looking upon his funeral or burial would suffice.

More important, McVeigh's killing will set back, not advance, the cause of justice, they say. It will perpetuate an immoral cycle of deadly violence where the final victim is not the Oklahoma City bomber, but humanity's already fragile sense of dignity.

The debate over capital punishment highlights the complex—and interwoven—relationship between justice and revenge. The ever-present tension between the two can extend far beyond the heinous to even the most mundane. An encounter with a lane-cutting motorist can speed a person to the place where both concepts begin—a wrong has been done, now what to do about it?

"The key issue is punishment," said the Rev. John P. Langan of the Kennedy School of Ethics at Georgetown University. "It's part of our notion of justice and it can be motivated by revenge. It's inevitable to expect a certain amount of overlap between justice and revenge."

But of the pair, revenge is largely absent from explicit mention in public discourse. There is rarely an overt cry for revenge. It's almost always framed as a call for justice, whether or not it truly is. And revenge has provoked little in the way of formal scholarship and research. On the few occasions when it does surface, it is usually as a silent partner to justice. This scarcity is especially odd considering revenge's prominent place in pop culture, history and perhaps in human evolution.

"The focus today is on positive psychology issues such as forgiveness, trust and gratitude," said Joseph Ferrari, a social psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago. "And revenge is a negative. Justice is more positive."

Almost by definition, every civilized society regards revenge as a moral evil. It is abhorred because individuals—acting primarily upon emotion—inflicting wanton damage destabilizes communities, which ultimately can lead to chaos. Consider the almost mythic feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, Beirut circa the 1980s, or England's War of the Roses, which lasted some 30 years.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," said Elliot Dorff, a rabbi and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "Revenge doesn't just affect two people; it affects everybody. It adds a tear to society. It brings you to a lowered state."

Indeed, revenge dramas—from Greek tragedies to American literature—illustrate the often disastrous moral consequences of pursuing revenge. Such works as "Hamlet" and "Moby Dick," for example, show the lead characters' vengeful obsessions costing them their lives.

But revenge was not always looked upon so negatively. In many ancient cultures, revenge was considered almost a sacred duty, according to social psychologists. If a clan member were murdered, it was incumbent upon a family member to avenge the death by killing the attacker. The latest victim's family would then seek their own vengeance, thus sparking a fierce cycle of violence that ended only when one side lacked the means or will to continue the fight.

In this world, which can be seen today among urban gangs or sectarian religious groups, failure to exact revenge could further endanger the clan because enemies, fearing no harm in return, could plunder its resources. The roots of this thinking probably reach back to the earliest days of human existence millions of years ago, according to evolutionary psychologists. The emerging field of study holds that human thinking and emotions, like the body itself, evolved to enhance survival and reproduction.

Although specific research on revenge is limited, the available evidence suggests humans are genetically predisposed to it. Without rules or codes, early humans, who lived in hunter-gatherer societies, could have greatly benefited from avenging attacks, believe evolutionary psychologists. Revenge—the return of the original harm, plus an added punishment—no doubt discouraged an attacker from repeating the offense. Also, if successful, it built a formidable reputation for the avenger, making it unlikely anyone new would attack him, research suggests.

"Effective deterrence is the ultimate function behind the human passion for measured retributive justice. It is the reason why that passion evolved," wrote evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson in the book "Homicide." "But our passion for evening the score has thus become an entity in its own right, an evolved aspect of the human mind. Our desire for justice fundamentally entails a desire for revenge."

But revenge, then as today, can be costly to the avenger. Plotting revenge distracted early humans from other critical life-sustaining tasks such as finding food and shelter, say evolutionary psychologists. And the act obviously could backfire, resulting in the injury or death of the would-be avenger. (After all, McVeigh will now die after "getting even" for the deaths of more than 80 people killed by federal law enforcement agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and in Waco, Texas.)

Echoes of Evolution on Today's Highways

The potent legacy of this revenge behavior is clearly still with us today even in understated ways. Think of road rage, usually an incident sparked by one thoughtless driver. The wronged party then seeks to deliver payback, often by driving more dangerously than the original driver.

The further irony is that all the early evolutionary benefits of revenge aren't even present on crowded freeways. It doesn't deter the offending driver from future attacks since he or she will never be seen again, and it doesn't enhance a reputation for the same reason.

"Revenge is a behavior poorly designed for modern life," said Aaron Sell, a graduate student in evolutionary psychology at UC Santa Barbara. "People who speed on freeways and risk their lives just so a total stranger can see their finger are really dumb. But it shows how powerful the behavior is."

Revenge clings to the human psyche in the same way that a taste for high-fat foods still does, explain evolutionary scientists. Millions of years ago, these foods increased the chances of survival. But with the high level of exercise required within hunter-gatherer societies, obesity and cholesterol problems were not a consideration as they are in today's sedentary culture.

Evolutionary scientists hasten to add that just because humans are genetically predisposed to a certain behavior doesn't mean one is solely at the mercy of their genes. In the case of revenge, a host of psychological, cultural and social factors will influence whether a person acts on an initial impulse for revenge.

"For example, monks aren't known for their feelings of revenge," said Sell, who studies revenge at UCSB's Center for Evolutionary Psychology through current events, controlled experiments and reviewing past research. "It's perfectly possible to not engage in vengeful behavior."

On Screen, Vigilante Justice Wins Approval

Humanity's long and intimate relationship with revenge may explain, in part, why it is simultaneously despised as well as applauded in books, television shows and movies. In countless dramas "Dirty Harry"-like characters take the law into their own hands and administer their own "justice." Meanwhile, audiences—far removed from the consequences of vengeance—wildly cheer these revenge-minded heroes.

"The villains are almost always one-dimensional evil, bad people," said Frankie Bailey, a University of Albany professor who has studied crime and justice portrayals on television and the movies. "What happens to them, they deserve it. It's an eye for an eye.

"It's always easy to root for the protagonist because the villain shows no signs of humanity," added the professor of criminal justice. "In the movie 'Dead Man Walking,' we see Sean Penn's character [on Death Row for his part in the murder of a young couple] has done bad things, but we also have seen his suffering and it raises some real questions about whether his execution is fair and just."

On an episode this season of cable television's most popular show, "The Sopranos," Dr. Jennifer Melfi is raped. Her attacker is arrested, but is released. Melfi, a psychiatrist, treats local mob boss Tony Soprano and fantasizes about him avenging her. She talks openly about having the rapist "squashed like a bug" with but a word to Soprano. Yet just as she's going to mention it, she backs off and stays quiet.

Her failure to seek a swift and deadly revenge upset more than a few viewers accustomed to the time-honored dramatic conventions that dictate retribution outside the law. "Many colleagues privately muttered to me that they wish Melfi would let the rape slip to Tony and have him do in her ironically named rapist, Jesus," said Philip A. Ringstrom, a Los Angeles psychotherapist who writes a weekly column for online magazine Slate about the show.

"Revenge is always the first impulse, which television's broadcast of the execution of McVeigh panders to," he continued. "As gratifying as revenge initially feels, and it surely does, it is ultimately insatiable, and self-perpetuating."

While revenge dramas may not spur citizens to vigilantism, they may influence them in the jury box, Bailey believes. She cited John Grisham's novel "A Time to Kill," in which a father murders the men who attacked his daughter.

"Juries respond to narratives," she said. "And people have been desensitized to a certain kind of [vigilante] violence. So, if a jury were presented with a case where a parent kills a child molester, they might be able to identify with the protagonist who takes violence into their own hands."

The Difficulty of Remaining Objective

In real life, revenge and justice aren't fiction or abstractions. To someone like Carolyn Richards, they are as authentic as a gun pressed to your temple. Four years ago, the 50-year-old and a friend were robbed at gunpoint in a parking lot north of Houston. After stealing about $100, the masked man then ordered both women into Richards' van.

Inside the van, the assailant held the gun to Richards' head. "My mind was going at 500 miles per hour, but I remember thinking, 'Just stay alive, just stay alive,' " said Richards, now a college student studying psychology.

After about 15 minutes, the 17-year-old robber told the women to get out of the van. They did, but as he was driving away he sped toward the women, swerving at the last moment to miss them. "Talk about being victimized again," recalled Richards, who is interning for a crime victim advocacy group called Texans for Equal Justice.

Police later arrested the assailant and he pleaded guilty to armed robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He'll serve a minimum of six years in prison.

Was that justice?

"I can't answer that question," she said. "I'm too closely involved."

But, she added, "Timothy McVeigh is going to get his justice."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Comment:  I've said many times that the American culture is all about winning, being No. 1. What happens when an American doesn't win? He seeks vengeance...retribution...payback. He calls it "justice" to make it sound more noble-minded.

How many John Wayne and other Westerns are about a cowboy seeking vengeance because another cowboy or an Indian did him wrong? Most of them? While other cultures accept the idea of losing—in literature it's called tragedy—Americans reject the idea categorically. If you're not a victor—a man, a good guy, a hero—you're a victim—a woman, a weakling, a loser.

The contrary notion that revenge is genetically hard-wired rather than culturally programmed excuses us from doing anything about it. Therefore, I'm glad someone disputed the point. From the LA Times, 5/25/01:

Where Does Revenge Really Come From?

The claim that humans are "genetically predisposed" to revenge ("A Dish Best Served Cold," May 11) is based on a faulty understanding of cultural evolution that is, unfortunately, all too common. What distinguished early humans from their proto-human ancestors was the capacity for culture—the rules and codes that govern social life in all human societies. No human societies existed without it.

Evolutionary psychologists imagine a time before culture when humans were governed solely by their instincts and passions, and posit that any cultural trait we witness today—revenge, say—must have been adaptive in that imaginary before-time. This neither explains why such traits persist nor why they would have been adaptive in the first place.

We cannot absolve ourselves of our current unwillingness to grapple with the most troubling cultural issues of our time by pretending that they evolved in the dim mists of our past. Attempting to do so both misconstrues the nature of evolution, the dynamics of culture, and our current political and moral predicament.

Long Beach
Associate professor of anthropology, UC Irvine

The psychology of revenge
From the NY Times:

July 24, 2006

Op-Ed Contributor

He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn't


LONG before seat belts or common sense were particularly widespread, my family made annual trips to New York in our 1963 Valiant station wagon. Mom and Dad took the front seat, my infant sister sat in my mother's lap and my brother and I had what we called "the wayback" all to ourselves.

In the wayback, we'd lounge around doing puzzles, reading comics and counting license plates. Eventually we'd fight. When our fight had finally escalated to the point of tears, our mother would turn around to chastise us, and my brother and I would start to plead our cases. "But he hit me first," one of us would say, to which the other would inevitably add, "But he hit me harder."

It turns out that my brother and I were not alone in believing that these two claims can get a puncher off the hook. In virtually every human society, "He hit me first" provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like "retaliation" and "retribution" and "revenge" — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That's why participants in every one of the globe's intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people's actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner's statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner's statements.

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people's actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people's reasons and other people's punches.

Examples aren't hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it's hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side's identical claim as disingenuous spin. But research suggests that these claims reflect genuinely different perceptions of the same bloody conversation.

If the first principle of legitimate punching is that punches must be even-numbered, the second principle is that an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it. Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel's right to respond, but rather, its "disproportionate use of force." It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.

Research shows that people have as much trouble applying the second principle as the first. In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer's fingers.

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer's finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer's finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer's finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other's fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other's touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew. Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is the author of "Stumbling on Happiness."

Men like revenge more
As I suggested by using the male pronoun, revenge is mostly a guy thing. The following article from the NY Times addresses the point:

January 19, 2006

When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don't)


ROME, Jan. 18 -- In "Don Juan" Lord Byron wrote, "Sweet is revenge -- especially to women." But a study released Wednesday, bolstered by magnetic resonance imaging, suggests that men may be the more natural avengers.

In the study, when male subjects witnessed people they perceived as bad guys being zapped by a mild electrical shock, their M.R.I. scans lit up in primitive brain areas associated with reward. Their brains' empathy centers remained dull.

Women watching the punishment, in contrast, showed no response in centers associated with pleasure. Even though they also said they did not like the bad guys, their empathy centers still quietly glowed.

The study seems to show for the first time in physical terms what many people probably assume they already know: that women are generally more empathetic than men, and that men take great pleasure in seeing revenge exacted.

Men "expressed more desire for revenge and seemed to feel satisfaction when unfair people were given what they perceived as deserved physical punishment," said Dr. Tania Singer, the lead researcher, of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience at University College London.

But far from condemning the male impulse for retribution, Dr. Singer said it had an important social function: "This type of behavior has probably been crucial in the evolution of society as the majority of people in a group are motivated to punish those who cheat on the rest."

The study is part of a growing body of research that is attempting to better understand behavior and emotions by observing simultaneous physiological changes in the brain, a feat now attainable through imaging.

"Imaging is still in its early days but we are transitioning from a descriptive to a more mechanistic type of study," said Dr. Klaas Enno Stephan, a co-author of the paper.

Dr. Singer's team was simply trying to see if the study subjects' degree of empathy correlated with how much they liked or disliked the person being punished. They had not set out to look into sex differences.

To cultivate personal likes and dislikes in their 32 volunteers, they asked them to play an elaborate money strategy game, where both members of a pair would profit if both behaved cooperatively. The ranks of volunteers were infiltrated by actors told to play selfishly.

Volunteers came quickly to "very much like" the partners who were cooperative, while disliking those who hoarded rewards, Dr. Stephan said.

Effectively conditioned to like and dislike their game-playing partners, the 32 subjects were placed in scanners and asked to watch the various partners receive electrical shocks.

On scans, both men and women seemed to feel the pain of partners they liked. But the real surprise came during scans when the subjects viewed the partners they disliked being shocked. "When women saw the shock, they still had an empathetic response, even though it was reduced," Dr. Stephan said. "The men had none at all."

Furthermore, researchers found that the brain's pleasure centers lit up in males when just punishment was meted out.

The researchers cautioned that it was not clear if men and women are born with divergent responses to revenge or if their social experiences generate the responses.

Dr. Singer said larger studies were needed to see if differing responses would be seen in cases involving revenge that did not involve pain. Still, she added, "This investigation would seem to indicate there is a predominant role for men in maintaining justice and issuing punishment."

Related links
Violence, Greek drama, and American trash
What Tim McVeigh tells us
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

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