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.