PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Justice and Revenge

Justice and Revenge

Thinking that justice would be a complex subject, I took the precaution of doing that most of unscientific tests and checked the number of hits it would get in Google. This, I thought, would give me some real facts about justice, not to say that I had a feeling that justice is also linked to the numbers game.

For justice I got 308,000,000 hits. I also did a control check, as one would in these things, and got: law 1,070,000,000; revenge 42,300,000 and forgive 16,100,000. As a result of these numbers I came to the early conclusion that it's best to keep things simple. This means, keeping as far away as possible from such questions as, what is the meaning of justice? Or what is justice? Instead I will look at how we use the concept and what’s behind justice.

Let me introduce another number. When we use the word justice, we might be thinking of 2 things. We can use the word to refer to a state of affairs (situation) in the world around us or to refer to a consequence to a given action. Revenge is also a ''consequence'' type of concept. We're more likely to encounter situation type of justice in politics, commerce and maybe even religion. What we're looking at here is a situation that involves a lot of people, maybe even on a global scale, which we think deserves some justice being exercised. Hence, we would think that justice is needed to fix a state of affairs, rather than to punish. World poverty or slave labour are good examples of situational justice.

We would find consequential justice, first and foremost, in a court of law and other situations where value judgements have to be made. In other words, we believe that the action (crime) justifies the consequence (punishment). Our main concern here is redress to something bad or wicked done to us, usually by an identifiable legal person; as you know, companies are also a legal person and not only people. Once again, revenge also involves a value judgement type of action.

We can now ask: what is the difference between situation type of justice and consequential type of justice? And also, Is there some common factor between these two types of justice?

Poverty is a good example where justice applies to a state of affairs. Of course, what we mean is that we think that poverty is an injustice and what we are saying is that justice requires that this state of affairs to be changed. This type of justice is more concerned with changing the way things are than apportioning punishment or blame. It is not a justice that seeks to punish or redress a wrong, but a justice that tries to change the life of those suffering from poverty. To poverty we can add other issues, such as employment and labour conditions, political and religious oppression, access to medical services or education and so on. If not endless, this list is very long indeed.

It is relatively easy to agree what is or what isn't a case of situation type of justice. Take the case of debt relief to third world countries. We're talking about big money here, as everyone knows, and some of this money would have certainly come from taxes. The idea of debt relief has recently even gathered some momentum, even if such a move is somewhat controversial. The argument for third world debt relief goes something like this. These countries need all the money they can get for social development, so instead of paying interest rates money to rich countries they can use it for their social investment needs.

But there is a catch here. A lot of that money was given to countries run by corrupt dictators or governments. And, of course, it was swiftly spirited away for safe keeping in other countries, usually for the benefit of a few individuals or simply frittered away. No interests were paid, no original sum was paid and the population stayed poor. However, as fate would have it, some countries did invest the money wisely and did pay their debts. But now these few countries have no debt to be relieved off under the present initiatives. They did not even get the free set of china plates and calculator from the bank for all their loyalty. So where is the justice here?

Of course, the details of this example might be quite complex and the situation in evolving, but for us it will do. What is important for us is that even if we exclude the pragmatism of modern politics, an unjust situation might even arise from noble causes. In other words, not all unjust situations are the result of evil or malevolent people. We try to do good, but bad things happen, hence the catch. For me, the situation looks more like a dilemma than a catch, but that’s just a matter of terminology.

We are, however, on safer ground when it comes to consequential justice. First of all, this follows the familiar linear flow of cause and effect whereas world issues, for example, are probably more likely to have a non-linear relationship. If someone steals our mobile phone, we know without hesitation what course justice should follow. If we divulge confidential information to our employer's competitors, our employer would have no doubt what justice ought to be. It does not mean that consequential justice is always an open and shut case. For example, we might disagree on the type of punishment, but this is not something we need concern ourselves now. What matters is the cause-effect flow of events.

It is therefore not surprising that due to the relative simplicity of a linear flow system, we have developed elaborate institutions to deal with consequential justice: we have august legal systems, imaginative religious organisations and also a complex moral system. The most we can say about the institutions set up to deal with situational type of justice, especially on a global scale, is that they are too cumbersome for anyone's good.

I will offer one reason why we seem to have a linear and non-linear flow relationships. By definition a non linear system, such as situational justice, involves a lot of information, with many variables some of which might not even be known. For example, rampant poverty in a given country might not all be due to corrupt dictators. Other things such as location, weather, customs and many more factors might be at play. Putting all these factors into a non-linear equation that tries to solve poverty might be very difficult, if not impossible. With consequential or linear systems we have more forensic evidence and information available to us about what took place and the problem then becomes more about values rather than facts. This does not mean it is easy, but the process is more straight forward.

It should not come as a surprise that information and values play an important role in justice, since justice really involves rational behaviour. The degree and complexity of information is something both forms of justice have in common. The question is whether it is this degree of information that distinguishes these two forms of justice or whether there is something more fundamentally different between the two? In other words, does justice come in different flavours or does it come from different sources? The old form-substance debate.

The way we answer this question depends on how we answer the question about commonality. Is there some common factor or factors to both forms of justice that is even more fundamental to the debate than information or values.

In a way, information tells us how we should act but it does not tell us why we should act. Some would answer the question why by pointing out at the legal, moral and religious institutions mentioned above. A soft cynic would say that these institutions are very good at instructing us in the art of justice. So that's how we get the idea of justice in the first placed. A hard cynic would say that these institutions simply brainwash us. Surely, the law tells us not to cheat our employer, god tells us to help the poor and morality tells us to help the infirm and that’s how we get the idea of justice. Now, I'm quite partial to a bit of cynicism myself, but even this does not fully explain why we have the notion of justice in the first place and equally important why we need a notion of justice at all. In any event, these institutions are more concerned with the results rather than the philosophy behind justice. Furthermore, the fact that we don't all think and act in unison on these matters suggests that, at best, these institutions are not very good at manipulating our brain.

Doing a Cartesian type of reductionism here, what we find in common with all forms of justice is of course, human beings. Any injustice is due to the behaviour of someone. Any justice we seek, we expect it to come from someone, maybe someone with power or in power. We usually do not ascribe the notion of justice to such things as viruses, geographical location or unstable weather. We usually think of governments as being responsible for the mismanagement of the environment, or greedy imperialists or corporations or maybe even god for that matter. It is also human beings that are supposed to be the beneficiary of any justice. In other words, justice is all about people and therefore people are a common factor in all types of justice.

Of course, there is a difference between all human beings having some form of innate notion of justice and coming to the same conclusion as to what or not what to do about it. I would argue that this innateness of justice comes from the common experience of pain. We might not laugh at the same jokes, but we all feel pain when poked with some sharp instrument. In other words, because pain is something we all experience, this explains why we all have this notion of justice as if we had some innate knowledge about justice.

Indeed, justice has restorative features in the same way that pain is a catalyst to restore our health and well being. What do I mean by this? Justice, is the catalyst that restores the status quo before the injustice took place, or brings about a state of normality where non existed before. The reason why we abhor poverty is because of the pain it causes. We can empathise or even identify with this pain and these can in turn lead us to do what is right. By the same token, the reason why I want the thieves who stole my phone caught is because I want some redress for the stress and inconvenience I experienced and not just to get my mobile back. I can take out an insurance to restore a stolen mobile phone, but I cannot take out an insurance to restore my agitated mind.

Not only does pain give rise to justice, but also pain introduces a form of urgency to act. In fact there is a principle in law which says that justice delayed, is justice denied. However, given this impulsive need to do something immediately about justice, could it be that we might end up doing the wrong thing or at the very least apply inefficient solutions? Could it also be that one of those wrong things we can do is to take revenge instead of letting justice take its course?

It is not, perhaps, that we want to keep corrupt dictators of poor countries in power, but that we give them money in the hope that some of this money might go to address the poverty in their country. The other options are too complex to give them a fair chance to succeed. But in the context of justice, are short term solutions necessarily inadequate solutions? Although the answer must surely be 'not necessarily', a lot depends on the nature of the solution and whose ''pain,'' so to speak, we are trying to address. So, when we give huge sums of money to poor countries, are we addressing the poverty in those countries or the disgust of the protesters and TV viewers in affluent countries? The dilemma is whether to give lots of money in the short term or to find the best solution which might take a few generations to bring about. Do we feed the starving kid which we see on TV today or do we try to get rid of corrupt authorities so that we can build sustainable cities for the future? The principle also works for local crime. Do we send petty thieves to prison because it's good for them or because it quenches our fury at having our property stolen? We all know that petty thieves might benefit more from adequate opportunities in life, but as with corrupt dictators, it might be too complex to try.

For me the association between pain and justice goes even further than just feeling uncomfortable. There is no doubt that our ability to think, rationalise and employ knowledge are our best tools to survive and to make it up the ladder of evolution. Furthermore, at the basis of this survival of the fittest there is the mechanism of pain. It is the best early warning system and the best alarm system ever devised so far by nature. Hence, by innately linking pain to justice we are helping ourselves to get rid of conditions or people that are a detriment to our survival and development. This is why, I think, that justice is directly linked to the principle of the numbers game. The more justice we have around us the more stable is our environment and the more energy we can dedicate to the task of surviving.

I have said very little so far about revenge. However, I did say that revenge belongs to the consequence type of justice. This type of justice either restores our worldly status quo or our mental tranquillity. Restoration is also the main feature we find in revenge. On the other hand, justice has a legitimacy which revenge does not have.

What is the nature of revenge and how does it differ from justice? I am inclined to think that revenge is first and foremost a sort of back up system just in case the front line system (justice) fails. On a more practical level, we are probably more inclined to resort to revenge when an act does not exactly qualify as a case for justice. How many times has a girlfriend destroyed her ex-boyfriend's prized CD's upon being told that he wanted to break up the relationship? What is the girlfriend supposed to do with what is clearly a case of injustice? This, if you like, is where the back up theory becomes useful. There is no institutional justice she can appeal to in order to restore her peace of mind, but all is not lost because there is always revenge.

However, as we all know, revenge can easily lead to more serious and complicated situations. What if the girlfriend spray painted the windscreen of her ex-boyfriend's car black and punctured all four wheels? This is surely a clear case of criminal damage and not only a case of revenge. In other words, there might always be a thin grey line between justice and revenge, even if we do not know where one stops and the other begins.

What we do know for sure, however, is that an injustice type of pain is a very persistent type of pain and nature must have developed revenge as a powerful back up system, just in case. The interesting question is whether revenge is the most perfect back up system ever developed in the history of the universe.

Take care


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