12 April 2019

Justice or Revenge (2)

Justice or Revenge (2)

Once again this is a topic we have discussed in the past and we also discussed the topic of justice in many contexts in the past. I will, therefore, on this occasion focus on revenge.

Justice is a very common subject in philosophy, but not revenge. In language and in high street morality revenge is negative and frowned upon. The accepted view is that if we allow revenge to be the norm we’ll soon spiral into lawlessness and rule by violence.

Nevertheless, we can even put forward a forceful argument for revenge, but the problem with revenge is that how do we establish: what would be a justifiable amount of retribution and what would be a justifiable nature of retribution? If we’re hit in the face with a fist, are we allowed to use a right hand full swing of a baseball bat?

But once we exclude some of the historical baggage from revenge we end up with something more manageable for example the golden rule. The reason why revenge is very like the golden rule is that a moral justification is based on subjective criteria of the victim in the case of revenge. The golden rule is based on the justification of the actor and hoping they are not too outrageous.

A weakness of the golden rule, both in the positive and negative version, is that it does not distinguish between what we hypothetically want to be done to us and what we can actually do. Hence, if we know we can achieve something, then we are justified in wishing what we want to be the moral law, irrespective of what others can achieve for themselves. Revenge is very similar to this way of thinking, the rational victim would only seek revenge if they can get away with their actions: an irrational victim would act without thinking whether they will be hurt again or not.

The Kantian version (or even versions) of the Categorical Imperative includes an argument to avoid the subjective standard and appeals to rationality and universalizability of what we want to formulate as moral law. This is all well and good but there are two issues with this Kantian view and philosophy: 1) as moral agents we want principles that will help us solve real world problems now. Thus when we are in a position of hitting someone in the face for an injury caused we don’t want to become at that instant an architect and engineer of moral principles but rather an administrative agent of moral principles. 2) How can categorical imperatives manifest themselves into hypothetical imperatives and thus solve real world problems? We’ve already seen this conundrum in philosophy with Cartesian duality: how does the soul or mind cause the body to act? And that hasn’t evolved very well in the history of ideas.

In modern times we come across a more sophisticated argument for revenge that of a tit-for-tat strategy, although the term itself has a historical pedigree (see Wikipedia). Couched in the language of game theory and mathematical analysis basically a tit-for-tat strategy solves “what is justifiable retaliation” and the answer is replicate what has been done to one’s self. The strategy itself is a successful strategy for cooperation. Indeed cooperation is the best strategy we have to maintain a stable balance in competing interests. The issue with this strategy is that everyone is very happy when people reciprocate acts of kindness and good will, but the problem is acts of evil and harm.

The real issue, I would argue, with acts of evil and harm is that we want the evil to stop now and not for us to muster enough energy to retaliate. Revenge is not only about emotional satisfaction but a rational sense of neutralising the threat. At the instant when we have to decide whether to fight or flight we don’t want to analyse the niceties of the induction problem that what happened in the past might not necessarily repeat itself in the future.

We see this idea of acting to stop harm carried out with the nuclear attacks on Japan during the Second World War. The only advantage of these bombings was that it took only two bombers to achieve a similar horrific level of human and material destruction in each of the two cities of what took hundreds of bombers to inflict on Tokyo.

But revenge is an old problem after all we all remember the teachings of the bible to avoid an eye for an eye strategy, which is basically the negative side of a tit-for-tat strategy.

Thus our topic comes down to deciding whether a theory of justice is in effect a polite form of language of a revenge strategy or whether we have a choice between justice and revenge. If the choice is between justice and revenge then how do we come to decide whether to adopt the justice way or the revenge way? And this is something game theory and decision theory can help us with our thinking. But the weakness with revenge is that even though we can devise formal strategies to help us out it cannot account for the unmeasurable factor of emotions: how do we measure the intensity and force of emotions? Or to put it in a different way, how much emotional force does it take to ever justify revenge?

Best Lawrence

Essays for Justice or Revenge 2019

- Justice or Revenge? By Ruel F. Pepa
- Justice or Revenge (2) by Lawrence JC Baron

Previous essays on Justice

- Is Justice Revenge? By Ruel F. Pepa
- Is Justice Revenge? By Lawrence JCBaron
- Justice and Revenge By Lawrence JCBaron
- Social Justice Warriors By Lawrence JCBaron

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