Justice & Revenge

Justice and Revenge

In my last post, I wrote about the way in which harms that are inflicted on us feel much more severe in our minds than the harms we inflict on others. It is easy for us to justify our bad behaviors and to rationalize them, but it is very hard for us to let go of even the most minor slights against us. This creates a Moralization Gap, in which our misperceptions shape our views of the good and bad in the world.
This has serious consequences for our legal justice system. Quite often, as a result of the moralization gap, we end up confusing justice and revenge. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “the rationale for criminal punishment is not just specific deterrence, general deterrence, and incapacitation. It also embraces just desserts, which is basically citizens’ impulse for revenge.” This is in line with ideas of, “an eye for an eye,” where our minds for some reason think that adding violence to the system is the right way to address and respond to existing violence within the system.
Our criminal justice system does not represent itself as a vehicle for revenge, but it often does reveal itself to be such a vehicle. We incarcerate a huge number of people in the United States, do very little to help the incarcerated when they leave prison and have served their time, won’t hire them into the workforce after they leave prison, and also have very high rates of recidivism. If our goal was truly deterrence and correction, then we would design and shape our criminal justice system in a different way. Instead, our system is clearly a revenge machine, allowing those who have been harmed to seek revenge and legally debilitate the lives of those who have wronged them.
I think we should try to avoid the pursuit of revenge in general, but Pinker does argue that allowing the criminal justice system to carry an element of revenge is useful. It can prevent malefactors from gaming the system if crime and punishment were utilized in a strictly utilitarian manner. Ultimately, however, I think the challenges of bias and disproportionate sentencing on minorities and the fact that our system does little to rehabilitate and deter actual crime is more important than the possibility of preventing the system from being gamed. Our criminal justice system is not fair, and that is a major problem. It should not be a vehicle for privileged revenge.

Becoming Greater

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius explains his philosophy of the world that would later come to be understood as an approach to stoicism.  He shows us the benefits of deep thought and reflection, and guides us through a process of self-awareness to help us control our actions and thoughts in the face of adversity, success, or and everyday occurrences.  One of his suggestions which resonated with me was a short sentence about justice and fairness, “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrong doer.”  In this simple sentence Aurelius shows us the importance of acting on our own with integrity, and of acting with a clear focus to avoid worsening ourselves through our reactions to being harmed.


The quote also reminds me of California Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s dissent against the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001 in which she quoted a member of the clergy who spoke at a 9/11 memorial service the morning of her vote. Representative Lee encouraged her fellow members of congress to be less volatile and more tempered in their response to the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001 and she ended her speech by saying, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Her quote ties in with Aurelius by focusing on standing tall in the face of adversity and not allowing ourselves to be continually harmed by a single instance of evil.  As I have written in the past, Aurelius built his stoic mindset through self-reflection and control, striving to “be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames he fury of the water around it.” By choosing how we will react to the negative we have the power to improve ourselves and our fortunes, or we have the ability to abandon our will and allow ourselves to devolve to the same evil which we seek to overcome.


If we wish to become better people then we must understand that revenge is not something that we best achieve through violence or the destruction of the other, but rather through deeper understanding, communication, and mutual respect for the other. We can surpass our base reaction and become better than that which tries to harm us by remembering what President Lincoln said, “Have I not destroyed an enemy when I make him a friend?”