Benjamin Bestgen: Revenge
“If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out” and if he breaks another’s bone, his shall be broken. So states Hammurabi’s Code, an ancient exemplar of the precept of lex talionis. Why is revenge so compelling? Benjamin Bestgen explains all. See his last jurisprudential primer here.
Imagine you suffered a grievous wrong, the kind of wrong that scars you for life, a damage you can never undo: think about being framed for murder or a sexual offence, being cheated out of your business, life savings or education, being tortured or losing a loved one due to some terrible event like a drug addiction or fire. You may or may not know who is responsible. Maybe you only have vague suspicions that whatever happened wasn’t bad luck but caused by somebody’s callous negligence, crime or intent.
Suddenly an elderly, stern-looking man appears: dark glasses, black suit and tie, holding a slim attaché. He introduces himself as Agent Graves and tells you the story of what happened to you and who is really responsible. He hands you the briefcase, explaining that it contains irrefutable evidence that what he’s telling you is true, a gun and 100 rounds of ammunition. Both gun and bullets are untraceable: if any law enforcement agency discovers either in your possession or at the scene of an incident, all investigations cease immediately. You are free to do whatever you want with the briefcase and its contents. If you decide to use the gun, you’ll be legally untouchable.
Scenarios like this are part of Brian Azzarello’s and Eduardo Risso’s epic graphic novel 100 Bullets. They ask what you should do if you had the chance to exact retribution without legal consequences for a terrible wrong that was done to you. But is it revenge or justice Agent Graves offers you?
Revenge can look like a form of retributive justice: Jack hurts Jill or somebody important to her so she will inflict comparable harm on Jack to get back at him and rebalance the scale. The punishment shall fit the crime and knowing that Jill exercises revenge may deter Jack. If we replace Jack with “offender” and Jill with “the coercive power of the state”, we see typical arguments for retributive justice: deterrence and proportionate punishment.
Indeed, retribution is a key argument of proponents of the death penalty and some current legal systems still afford it an important role. For example, in Islamic jurisprudence, qisas is the legal doctrine providing for punishment equal to the crime in cases of murder or intentionally caused physical injury. If John assaults Chris with a cricket-bat and paralyses him, qisas permits that John should also be paralysed to condemn him to the same life and suffering he inflicted on Chris. Chris could opt instead to accept a compensation payment (diya) from John or to forgive him but it’s his choice what should be done. Qisas forms part of the law in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Iran.
Some argue that revenge is to justice what lust is to love. While they overlap, they are not the same. Philosopher Robert Nozick claimed that revenge is typically personal and involves an emotional tone (Jill wants Jack to suffer), while retributive justice doesn’t need to be personal and if any emotion is involved – it is satisfaction to see justice done. Justice is also more concerned with proportionality while revenge need not be: justice for a proven public insult to my honour may be payment and an apology following a defamation lawsuit. Revenge for said insult may involve a duel at dawn and digging graves.
Lastly, it’s often noted that in allowing revenge, feuds and vendettas, we would slip into anarchy and lawlessness by letting individuals decide how to get satisfaction for their real or imagined grievances instead of turning to the orderly realm of law for redress.
Vengeance is divine
The Bible counsels “[…] never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). Judaism and Islam likewise advise that revenge is a divine right. Humans should cultivate a more forgiving attitude. But it’s worthwhile pondering whether God wants to protect humanity from its darker impulses by preserving vengeance for himself or whether putting things right through revenge is just too great a pleasure to leave it to lesser creatures such as us?
Revenge and the law
Legal academic William Ian Miller asserts that many arguments against revenge, such as Nozick’s, are strawmen, legalistic, bureaucratic and to a degree missing the point of how justice and revenge interact. Admittedly, revenge in modern times is considered primitive or vulgar, street-justice dispensed by gangs of adolescents on each other for turf and “tough guy” reputation.
But analysing the history of Icelandic law, Miller notes that honour-based cultures like old Iceland, which permitted individual assertion through revenge, found lawlessness, arbitrary or excessive reactions to real or perceived offences just as problematic as we do today. Escalating feuds like the Hatfields vs McCoys or Montagues vs Capulets were undesirable. Icelandic law was fully aware of the social, material and political costs of vengeance being unregulated and so embedded it into its law as an honourable, law-abiding person’s right to seek just retribution.
First there had to be a real, proven grievance which caused the prospective avenger harm, shame and injury and was legally actionable. Any act of revenge had to be legally justified as executing the law and passing what we may call the “right thing to do” test. The targets of vengeance and the proportionality of measures had to be justifiable also or the avenger risked being declared an outlaw himself.
Miller muses that our fascination with revenge stories like Dirty Harry are that these heroes (or anti-heroes, if you wish) assist justice, not replace or undermine it. Harry helps justice to provide closure instead of probation and parole. He provides equitable remedies and assistance where the law fell short of achieving just results. He is constrained by justice, but not bureaucracy. If Harry’s cause wasn’t just, his motivating emotions not understandable and his methods not proportionate to the crime he seeks to remedy, we wouldn’t be rooting for him. He would just become a violent bully and outlaw we had no sympathy for. But when justified vengeance is achieved and society functions again the way it should have all along if the law had worked properly, we feel content and complete.
Maybe what Agent Graves offers you is neither justice nor revenge: he gives you the truth, a degree of freedom from the bureaucratic parts of justice and leaves it up to you how you may obtain closure.
Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.