Modern Philosophers Against Revenge

No argument drawn from biological necessity would impress philosophers who, since the Enlightenment, have often written as if man were either naturally good or was only weakly endowed with a bundle of propensities known by philosophers as human nature or, by Christians, as "the old Adam."  If men were really, as Locke and Rousseau pretended to believe, primarily rational (even benevolent) beings, human individuals could be expected to seek their own self-interests in a rational manner. 

]From what we know of our own society--and of other societies that have left witnesses or records--many men and women are driven by irrational desires to seek what is often their own destruction.  That is the theme of Juvenal's tenth satire, adapted by Samuel Johnson as "The Vanity of Human Wishes:"

Let observation with extensive view, 
Survey mankind, from China to Peru; 
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife, 
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life; 
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate, 
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate, 
Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride, 
To tread the dreary paths without a guide, 
As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude, 
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good. 
How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice, 
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice, 
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d, 
When vengeance listens to the fool’s request.

In the pursuit of their own interests, even rational men might be led to engage in anti-social and destructive acts.  When crimes are committed, the object of law and penology, in a rationally organized society, is to discourage such unproductive behavior by punishing the malefactors.  The primary goal of enlightened penology is, therefore, educational.

Such, in substance, was the argument that Cesare Beccaria put forward in his celebrated essay "On Crime and Punishments."  Beccaria never challenged the right and duty of governments to punish and deter crime, and his theory did have a wholesome effect in discouraging torture and cruel and unusual punishments.  Nonetheless, it is only a theory and one that does not take very much human reality into consideration.  Like his enlightened predecessors, Beccaria took little notice of powerful human passions such as gratitude, love of beauty—or revenge.

Beccaria was neither an original nor a particularlysignificant thinker, and his reputation rests on his repackaging of Enlightenment platitudes to serve as propaganda against traditional methods of punishment.  One of these platitudes is the theory of social progress according to which human civilization is marked by mankind's efforts to liberate itself from the tyranny of irrational superstition and traditions.  That this progressive theory of history is as much a piece of historical myth-making as the stories in Hesiod and Genesis, did not occur to young intellectuals in the throes of Enlightenment enthusiasms, but then one man’s religion is always another man’s superstition.  Postmodern men and women condemn the chauvinism of super-patriots, while they completely ignore the chauvinism of progress that encourages each generation to despise its predecessors.  To repeat a proverbial expression from the Dark Age, we are all giants standing on the shoulders of dwarfs.

Beccaria inevitably accepted the Enlightenment myth of the state of nature and the social contract according to which men are supposed to have invented law and punishment in order to eliminate the inconveniences arising from the savage state.  In early stages of human civilization, punishments were an extension of the private revenge taken by one's kinfolks, but, in the course of human progress, government has taken over more and more of these responsibilities.  The process, fraught with ironies, depends on the inability to realize that “government”—as Libertarians like to say—is just another word to describe groups of men who band together to seek their own interest.  If human individuals, subject to greed, envy, lust, and ambition, are tempted to violate the rights of their neighbor, why should we expect a group of individuals to do anything different?  For his work analyzing the self-interested operation of “public choice,” James Buchanan received the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Jeremy Bentham, among the most acute of Liberal reformers, tried to reconcile the pursuit of individual interest with the common good.  He also spent a great deal of time trying to reform England’s system of crime and punishment.  Bentham began with the theoretical assumption that the only justification for punishment was the prevention of future crimes.  The first consequence of his theory is that if we knew absolutely that the criminal would not repeat his crime, the forces of law and order would not be justified in punishing him.  The second consequence is that rehabilitation of the criminal is made more important than the exaction of vengeance for his crime.

If Bentham’s speculation were correct, we should be nearing the desired point at which computers could apply the relevant laws to specific cases and impose appropriate penalties.  Before reaching that state of rationalized bliss, however, we have been talked into accepting a criminal justice system in which the needs of felons take precedence over the protection of the citizens or the most obvious requirements of justice.  On the strength of pure speculation, then, we have abandoned a well-nigh universal understanding that justice is rooted in revenge, and, in abandoning tradition, religion, and common sense, we no longer punish rapists and murderers in proportion to the severity of their crimes.  Instead our system routinely mitigates punishments according to considerations of social deprivation or mental illness.  

Modern notions of justice are not merely impractical: They are, in fact, contradicted by what we know of human nature.  The harsher punishments of earlier times are condemned as “vengeance” in the belief that sticks and stones will break no bones but words will always hurt me.  Despite the millions of pages printed to condemn capital punishment as revenge and revenge in any form as unworthy of human dignity, the desire for revenge has never gone away.  It remains constant, and those who feel cheated of justice will begin to listen to the ancient siren song of vengeance. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina