Monday, October 6, 2008

On revenge and retribution, plus: a request to MgS

It appears that in a recent post I did not make myself clear on the meaning of revenge and of retribution. My contention was that they have the same etymological roots. ‘Revenge’, as we know, means ‘getting someone back’, while ‘retribution’ means ‘pay-back’, just as ‘contribute’ means ‘pay with’, ‘distribute’ means ‘pay among’, and so one. But just as, say, ‘terrific’ and ‘terrible’ have the same roots but opposite meanings, so it is that revenge and retribution are not synonymous. Revenge involves exacting personal pay-back, while retribution is rightly the State’s impartial imposition of a due relation between crime and punishment. A private individual might try to exact retribution, but this would be unjust, since no-one should be a judge in his own case and no-one should usurp the State's authority.

As an illustration of this distinction, consider the following example. Assume two individuals, William and Edward, with the same level of wealth, identical utility functions and a constant marginal utility of income, so that each individual values a gain or loss of $x the same as the other does. Now suppose that William steals $x from Edward. (Suppose further that he does so in such a way as not to cause any harm beyond that stemming from the loss of the $x i.e. there is no question of additional ‘pain and suffering.’)

Now the ‘restorative justice’ crowd would demand only that the $x be restored to Edward and that William be reformed. Revenge would seem to require that an additional $x be transferred to Edward (or at least that Edward be the one to exact the money from William). But retribution requires only that $x in addition to the original $x be exacted from William; to whom it goes is a matter of indifference (though arguably it should go into deterrence and rehabilitation funding. I have never denied that deterrence and rehabilitation are worthy ends, only that they are subordinate to justice.) The ‘restorative justice’ crowd could approve of additional money being exacted from William in addition to the original $x only if it could serve as some kind of behavioural disincentive.

Now retribution is a complex variable for the courts to determine. That is where it is good to know that God is just. If the retribution meted out by a judge is excessive, then the offender may offer up the excess in satisfaction for other sins. If too lenient, then the remaining temporal punishment will be exacted in purgatory. But there are at least two cases where retribution is quite straightforward. One is the simple financial example just cited. The other is the case of culpable, pre-meditated murder. Execution is the only adequate punishment. Think of it this way: a punishment can either be excessive, adequate or too lenient. Now no-one would say that depriving someone of his life for depriving another of his life is too lenient. As regards the possibility of it being excessive, to paraphrase Kant, no murderer has ever gone to the gallows protesting that ‘this punishment is excessive!’ People would laugh in his face. So capital punishment is an adequate punishment for murder.

Now the necessity of punishment presupposes that one accepts that justice is a metaphysical concept that is illustrated perfectly by the image of the ‘scales of justice’. But if one rejects this and therefore rejects retributive justice, then one ought to conclude that if punishment for bad deeds is unnecessary, then reward for good deeds is unnecessary, too. Reward is the ‘good deeds’ side of justice, while penalty is the ‘bad deeds’ side. Strict legal justice demands punishment as an end in itself and reward as an end in itself. Take the concept of a just wage. Presumably the ‘restorative justice’ crowd has no problem with workers being denied a just wage (a ‘just wage’ being the value of their marginal product, as the economists say). After all, there are solid utilitarian reasons for withholding a just wage, chief among those being the downward pressure on unemployment. But an employer who tried to rationalise an unjust wage would be dismissed as a thief. The implication for the anti-retribution crowd hardly needs spelling out. They are either consistent, and are therefore no better than thieves, or they are inconsistent, treating good deeds and bad deeds with a different calculus, and are therefore guilty of a double standard. The more I think about it, the more I understand how incoherent and unjust the ‘restorative justice’ ideology is.

So I ask you MgS (and any other anti-retribution folk): what, to you, is justice? A thumbnail sketch will do; I have avoided the jargon of commutative justice, vindicatory justice, and so on, myself. What does it mean to treat justly a good deed or a bad deed? And who are the major figures in this school of thought?

Reginaldvs Cantvar


Cardinal Pole said...

MgS, I noticed too late that you posted another comment at the other post, so if you you don't mind, I'll reproduce it here and then respond in the next comment:

I think you meant to say that I "appear to be asserting that retribution is a synonym for revenge",

No - I meant what I wrote. Your approach to the concept of justice itself equates revenge, retribution and justice as fundamentally synonymous - especially your advocacy WRT the death penalty.

But the State is both a juridical and a moral person i.e. it can judge (or if you prefer, attempt to judge) the morality of its actions.

I disagree entirely here. The state is juridical, but bound by written law and written guideline. It has no conscience in a human sense of the term. At best humans have crafted boundaries in writing that are based upon their own conscience in an attempt to bound the otherwise amoral entity of the state.

As to the possibility of a miscarriage of justice, in America, no innocents appear to have been executed since 1900. Not one. See Mr. Sharp's comments in an earlier post of mine.

Given the known problems with the US judicial system WRT the application of the Death Penalty, I would argue any such claim is suspect.

In Canada, we have seen several very high profile cases which at one time would have carried the death penalty which have - 20+ years after conviction - been shown to be dramatic miscarriages of justice.

Vis your repeated question as to my "definition of justice" - I've answered it before - you just don't seem willing to recognize it.

October 3, 2008 5:36 AM


Cardinal Pole said...

Now, my response:

By saying that "I think you meant to say that I "appear to be asserting that retribution is a synonym for revenge"", I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Now you have confirmed that you were, in fact, wrong. I did not say that justice and revenge are synonyms.

You say that "The state is juridical, but bound by written law and written guideline. It has no conscience in a human sense of the term. At best humans have crafted boundaries in writing that are based upon their own conscience in an attempt to bound the otherwise amoral entity of the state."

Please define 'conscience in a human sense of the term'. Conscience involves a judgement of reason whereby one attempts to judge the morality of an action in a given set of circumstances. Morality involves recognising a law and trying to abide by it. In this sense the State has a conscience. Perhaps the problem is that you posit a creative capacity for conscience? After all, if the laws of physics are the only laws then morality can only ever be a human creation. The fact that the State acts through the medium of human persons does not change things either.

Have you studied political science? I am asking because in the study of world politics, the two main paradigms are realism and liberalism. Realists regard the State as a unitary and rational actor. Liberals regard it not as an organism, so to speak, but merely an agglomeration of cells. If you have studied these schools of thought, which do you belong to? (Clearly you don't belong to the traditional Catholic paradigm.)

If you don't want to repeat your definition, then could you point out where you gave it originally? I must have missed it.

MgS said...

Let me be brief:

My worldview does not include using murder to respond to murder.


I don't give a damn about the supposed justice of some cloud being, nor do I accept the "well the offender will get the benefit of the doubt in the afterlife" as redeeming of the overreaction in this world.

That is one of the very few absolutes in my world - murder - state sanctioned or otherwise is wrong.

Beyond that, justice is largely a part of the broader social contract that is the society in which one lives.

Anonymous said...

Hey MGS,

I thought Wanking was a place in China, until I started reading your comments.

If there's no God, all thought, including about the morality of capital punishment, is but an excercise in pointlessness, since in that case, there is no meaningful distinction between being and nothingness, and nothing can be intelligently predicated of anything else.

I hope you haven't disgraced the legal profession, by being admitted as a barrister or solicitor. There are more than enough ****wit legal positivists polluting the intellectual atmosphere with mental flatulence...

+ Thomas Wolsey

Archieps. Eborac.

Cardinal Pole said...


Let me begin by saying that it is telling that you have neither given a brief definition of justice nor have you pointed me towards any previous occasions on which you have done so. Saying that "justice is largely a part of the broader social contract that is the society in which one lives" is a pathetic evasion.

Here is what I think justice is, in as few words as possible: justice is each person getting what he or she is owed. What do you think it is?

Now, you say that

"My worldview does not include using murder to respond to murder."

Why is capital punishment co-terminous with murder? Do you believe that the willed taking someone's life is intrinsically evil? Are you, then, a radical pacifist as well as a death penalty abolitionist?

You say:

"I don't give a damn about the supposed justice of some cloud being"

Grow up. Kant did not invoke any 'cloud beings' (perhaps you are thinking of Zeus?) or an afterlife but he knew perfectly well that the death penalty was an imperative of strict legal justice. Can you find a single anti-execution author who could even begin to approach Kant's stature in the Enlightenment pantheon?

You have said that you have no problem with using metaphysical concepts for a conceptual framework (but of course as a materialist you reject them as having anything other than notional existence). The concept of being owed something is a metaphysical concept; there is no empirical, material connection between either murder and the need for the murderer to face the death penalty or an hour's labour and the need for the worker to get an hour's just wage. So can you tell me: are you either consistent, and have no problem with workers being paid less than a just wage, or inconsistent, and you use different, arbitrary standards for the treatment of good deeds and of bad deeds? How is execution for murder an "overreaction"?

I will finish by having a closer look at your statement that

"justice is largely a part of the broader social contract that is the society in which one lives."

"A part of" is very vague. If you mean that justice depends on a given social contract, then this is pure relativism. By this standard, one can speak meaningfully of Nazi justice, Soviet justice, Maoist justice and so on. The very notion that one can evaluate a given society according to its justice is obliterated. Surely you don't believe this?

Cardinal Pole said...

Ah, now I see why you think that execution is an overreaction, MgS. It is not primarily that execution is excessive punishment, but because any punishment is, for you, excessive in itself. But if punishment is strictly unnecessary, then if you are to be consistent you must agree that, say, a just wage is in itself unnecessary, since rewards, like penalties, are, first and foremost, ends in themselves. Why should reward be an end in itself if penalty is not an end in itself? It is only by appeal to secondary ends that you could possibly accept a just wage (assuming, again, that you want to be consistent).

Anonymous said...


On reflection, the language in relation to MGS in my above post is over the top.

If it, but not the content otherwise, offends him, I apologise.

+ York

Cardinal Pole said...

Perhaps your mode of expression was a little coarse, York, but it is abundantly clear that MgS is indeed a juridical positivist. Justice to her is whatever she wants it to be. We cannot back down from our defence of true justice.