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February 2, 2020 / Congau

Vengeful Justice

Would you let a murderer go free and a thief run away? Would you drop the charges and release them from prison? Do you care what happens to them?

You probably do care. Even people who normally don’t care much about the misfortune that befalls their neighbors, get upset when they learn about fortunate criminals escaping their punishment.

They call it justice, and it principally means that whoever deserves what is bad should get what is bad. Those deserving what is good, frequently fail to obtain it, but that’s a lesser concern for our champions of justice.

What if the murderer goes free, why does that so much disturb your sense of justice? Well, there may be a risk that he goes on to kill other people, but to prevent that from happening is not a matter of justice being fulfilled. Wild animals are shot to prevent them from attacking livestock without anyone thinking that the wolf or the lion deserve punishment. You would want to see the murderer behind bars even if you were absolutely certain that he would never kill again. Justice demands it, you say.

Justice is presumably something rational. There appears to be a logical weighing of values and a right conclusion to be reached. But how can it be? There exists no equilibrium in the universe that gets reestablished every time a criminal is punished in proportion to his crime. Rather, there’s an emotional urge to obtain an illusion of balance. Our feelings imitate logic by demanding symmetry to cases where it doesn’t belong. Punishment is not the negation of crime; they are not opposites and cannot cancel each other.

The demand for punishment is related to the instinctive wish for revenge whenever we feel anger. We are like children hitting back at the rock that hurt our foot. It is just as irrational to want something bad to happen to others when there’s no advantage to be gained from it.

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