If our justice system were to change from a vehicle for legal revenge into a system that focused on deterring criminals and helping them reintegrate into society in a meaningful way, to ultimately prevent recidivism, what would the system look like? In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stevena Pinker argues that the system might look like the reconciliation process that took place in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Steadfast truth telling and accepting incomplete justice are key parts of that system that are missing from our current system. Pinker writes, “though truth-telling sheds no blood, it requires a painful emotional sacrifice on the part of the confessors in the form of shame, guilt, and a unilateral disarmament of their chief moral weapon, the claim to innocence.” Incomplete justice means that every score doesn’t need to be settled. We don’t need to take an eye for an eye, it is ok if the punishment is not as violent and severe as the original crime, the justice can be incomplete but still be compelling, still be just, and still lead to a better future.
Truth telling helps overcome the moralization gap, where we dismiss our own harms done unto the world while focusing only on how we feel that we have been harmed. Truth telling requires that we acknowledge that we have harmed others and think about the world through their perspective. This may not seem like a substantial punishment, but still, the person does suffer a cost. “The punishment takes the form of hits to their reputation, prestige, and privileges rather than blood for blood,” describes Pinker.
This system actually allows for healing and acceptance. Justice based on revenge cuts people down and hinders advancement, healing, and acceptance. What is more important in the long run, rather than perfectly equal punishment in relation to crime, is that we become more cooperative, less violent, and less likely to commit crimes in the future. Revenge is a powerful motivating force, but it doesn’t serve the world as well as reconciliation.