The Philosopher's Cornered
by Dan Wolaver
When I was eight I ordered a spy camera from a comic book
advertiser. My five-year-old brother was home when the camera
arrived, and he used up all the film taking pictures. I was in a
rage when I found out! I opened the camera and exposed all the
film to light to destroy his pictures. All the time he
was crying, "No, please! I'm sorry. Please don't ruin
the pictures." But I was merciless. At the time it
seemed satisfying to take revenge, but later I felt awful. He was
just a little guy and wasn't thinking. It would have made him so
happy to have seen his pictures developed, and I didn't really gain
anything by destroying them.
When I was in college I was driving on a freeway and saw a guy driving slowly in the left lane. Then another guy came racing up behind him—only a couple feet from his bumper—and flashed his lights and blew his horn. But the first guy refused to move out of the left lane; he just continued slowly. Finally the second guy raced around and got in front of him, then slowed way down—as much as to say, "See how you like it, buddy." The first guy, now behind, pulled around in front, and then he slowed down. They continued this kind of dance until I lost sight of them in the rear-view mirror. They both were delaying their trip and endangering their own lives.
What causes us to "get even," "settle the score," or to "teach somebody a lesson," even when it's at the expense of our own happiness and well being? It seems such a part of the human nature that we don't even question it. We say that it's normal. We give it the fine title of "justice." But it usually just brings misery to everyone involved. Hannah More said, “If I wished to punish my enemy, I should make him hate somebody.”
My guess is that human nature evolved to maximize survival. You tend to leave someone alone if he's known to go crazy and destroy you when he's wronged. Even if you succeed in killing him, his clan will seek revenge. The motto of Scotland is "Nemo Me Impune Lacessit"—None shall injure me with impunity. This can lead to an endless cycle. So revenge improves the chances of survival even as it destroys everyone's happiness.
The dictionary defines justice as "the administering of deserved punishment or reward."
But we tend to concentrate on administering the punishment part, leaving virtue to be its own reward. The justice system metes out imprisonment (or, in the United States, the death penalty) avowedly to deter crime, to remove danger from the public, and to correct the malefactor. (Prisons are now called "correctional institutions.") No mention of revenge.
But with the death penalty the "correction" part is gone, and the "removing danger" part is more cheaply done with life imprisonment. Only the "deterrent" argument remains, but the level of deterrence over that of imprisonment is questionable. So the revenge aspect is left rather naked in the death penalty. In the sentencing phase of the murderer's trial, family members of the victim support the death penalty by testifying to their misery. It's illegal to kill someone out of revenge, but it's OK to have the state do it for you.
When a Navajo commits a crime, the Navajo community recognizes that he has lost his sense of harmony, balance, and beauty—his Hozho, and they help him restore it. They don't understand the white man's system of justice with its revenge.
Humanity must decide whether to be satisfied with revenge as a normal part of our animal nature, or to aspire to "the better angels of our nature."*
And that's my philosophy.
*end of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address.