Rebirth of Reason


Why Justice is Good
by Joseph Rowlands

If someone hurts you, it's natural to wish that they would suffer in return. Unfortunately, many people are dismissive of this inclination. They call it revenge, treat as an animalistic tendency that humans should overcome and be ashamed of, and sometimes even refer to it as blood lust, as if it were a demand for violence for the sake of violence. This treats the desire for justice as if it were inherently flawed, and upholds an ideal of pacifism, forgiveness, and sacrifice. It treats the victim as the culprit for wishing harm on the aggressor.


This whole approach is part of a larger moral ideal. It treats emotions—particularly the so-called negative emotions like fear, anger, hatred, and jealousy—as leftovers from our more barbaric past that we need to strive to overcome. Instead of seeing these motions are valid responses to value judgments, it treats them as destructive and inferior.


This ideal treats emotions as primary, instead of as effects of something else. The positive emotions, like love, admiration, and happiness, are treated as always positive because they make you feel good and tend to reduce conflicts with others. The negative emotions are seen as a cause of friction and bad because they make you feel bad. Both of these views ignore the causes of emotions. They treat the emotions as if they are causeless, and try to evaluate them devoid of any context.


That's not the right way to view emotions. Emotions are responses to value judgments. If your life is threatened, fear is a valid response. If someone is threatening you or your values, anger is a valid response. If someone has values that you wish you had, it is appropriate to feel some jealousy. It can drive you to improve your own life. The negative emotions aren't negative themselves. They are the result of negative evaluations of your life or factors in your life. Those are the problems, not the emotions. The emotions are just a reaction to them, and can act as a motivator to improve your life.

Similarly, the so-called positive emotions are not good in and of themselves. It is find to feel admiration and love for someone that greatly benefits your life. But to feel these towards someone that hurts you or your loved ones is destructive. Parents can recognize that a child can feel love that is inappropriate and destructive. Only the worst parents would blind themselves to the realities and treat love as if it were automatically a good thing.


Other positive emotions have the same kind of issues. When they are inappropriate, they are destructive. If you feel joy at the prospect of hurting people, there's something very wrong with that emotion!


It would be great if life were full of values and great people and so you only needed to feel love, happiness, and other positive emotions. But in the face of a threat to your values, the negative emotions are appropriate and life-enhancing. To treat emotions as causeless events is to ignore their true foundations and justifications.


So when people treat a desire for justice as just another "negative emotion", it is more of the same. Instead of seeing the causes, and the rational value judgment that might support the emotional reaction, the emotion is treated as a primary. If you want someone else to suffer, you should be ashamed. You must be a bad person.


Of course to get there, they have to ignored the foundation of the emotion. They have to ignore the unjust harm the other person committed. You have to ignore the damage to the victim's life and values. All of that is swept aside and ignored, and the emotional response is treated as if it came out of nowhere and is simply indicative of a deep, dark desire to hurt people.


If we ignore this flawed view, what can we make of these feelings? Are they destructive and irrational? Are the emotions justified?


When someone attacks your life and values, it is appropriate to recognize the damage done. Your life is worse because of another person. And more than that, he shouldn't have done it. You didn't deserve to have your life and values attacked. His attack on you was unprovoked. And it is appropriate to think that if he attacked you once, that he may attack you again.


It's also appropriate to recognize that life is impossible in a society where that is allowed. If people can just attack each other without provocation, there is no way to survive. You would be in constant war and constant fear. So you can recognize that his attack on you is not just about the harm he did to you in this one case, but that there is a larger concern. He is threatening the ability for people to live peacefully amongst each other.


There is another appropriate concern. If he is allowed to get away with this act, if he suffers no consequences for it, it will not only permit it to continue but encourage it for him and for others. So you can see that it would be destructive for the attacker to get away with it. Without consequences, why would he ever stop?


Not only does he need to suffer some negative consequences, but it is important that others support the punishment and stand by you. They don't have to like you or be close to you. The point isn't so you'll get sympathy. The point is that unless others stand by you, it will be reasonable to conclude that nobody cares whether you are attacked, or that justice is done. If you are living in a world full of people who don't care about justice, the world is far more dangerous than living in a world where people care and are willing to stand by a victim.


So there are lots of emotions that are appropriate. Anger is appropriate, as the attacker has harmed you and is a continued threat to you. A desire that the attacker suffers is appropriate because if he is allowed to get away with it, he may continue. It is appropriate to want him to regret harming you. If he doesn't regret it, he may not stop. And it is appropriate to want others to stand by you, so you know that you live in a world where justice is valued.


The most controversial feeling that people have is the desire to inflict the punishment on the attacker personally. If someone hurts you, you want to hurt them. Is this appropriate? Or is it just a lust for violence given excuse?


It makes perfect sense from the point of view of wanting the other person to regret harming you. If he suffers for his crime against you, and recognizes that the punishment was because of his attack on you, he may regret it. But punishment in a criminal justice system is treated as impersonal and systematic. A criminal is punished for the good of society, and he may regret getting caught or may regret committing a crime in general more than he regrets harming you personally.


So there is a rational reason to want to be the one that inflicts the harm. If you do the harming, he'll be much more likely to regret hurting you in particular. Instead of being punished for committing a crime against society, he'll see that he is being punished for committing a crime against you in particular.


There is another reason for wanting to enact the punishment personally. Some people expect that they will feel better if they do the punishing. And this makes some sense too. The harm done to you was an attack on your life, and you were helpless to stop it. If you get to mete out the justice personally, you'll have a concrete action that redeems your feeling of control. Allowing someone else to do it only adds to the helplessness.


Of course, not everyone will want to do the punishing personally. And for those that do, they may find that it doesn't help as much as they thought. Or worse, hurting another person might make them feel worse. So there may be reasons why a person shouldn't do the punishing.


But what's important here is whether or not these emotions are rationally supported or whether they are some kind of horrible, irrational desires that you should be ashamed of. It seems that each of the common feelings associated with justice, or revenge, are appropriate to have. Perhaps the degree of the emotions may still be inappropriate, but there's nothing at all wrong with a desire to hurt someone who has hurt you or your loved ones.

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