Justice for All

Reading this commentary, Romans 12:17, 12:19 and 12:21 come to mind.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. (12:17)

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (12:19)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:21)

(New International Version)

I’m not a Christian. The closest I had to a Christian education was three years in Anglo-Chinese Junior School. To my non-Christian eyes, this verse reads as a call to lay down thoughts of vengeance and do what is morally right. (As this blog is about humans and human behaviour, I won’t comment on a divine being taking vengeance.) Thane Rosenbaum argues that revenge is moral because it is natural, and that “the actual difference between vengeance and justice is not as great as people think”. I must disagree.

Rosenbaum says, “Recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have claimed that human beings are hard-wired for vengeance.” He goes on to say, ‘Legal systems should punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes and recognise a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged. ”

This claim sounds reasonable, but it is not. It is impossible for the legal system to fully satisfy these needs, because there is no objective standard to meet. The ‘needs’ Rosenbaum speaks of are emotional in nature, and emotions vary from person to person. I feel no need to avenge myself on the people who have tried to rob, con, kill, or otherwise harm me or mine. But I have known people who sought ways to seek vengeance on others who have done little more than exchange harsh words with them. Plus, quite clearly, the cases Rosenbaum brings up show people who declared a desire for vengeance. So different people have different reactions to something, and the courts cannot accommodate them all.

The ‘need’ Rosenbaum speaks of is not a need. It is really a desire. A ‘need’ is something a person cannot live without for a healthy life. Vengeance does not fall into that category. The root of vengeance is anger, and its cousins hatred and aggression.  A person seeks vengeance because he is angry and feels aggressive. Taking vengeance is to take action on the world outside of a person – but anger is an emotion within a person. An aggrieved person doesn’t need vengeance so much as need to discharge anger. Vengeance and discharging anger are, in my opinion and experience, too easily conflated.

Vengeance is taking injurious action against someone. Anger is a sense of being wronged. The former comes from the latter. Taking vengeance does not remove anger. Removing anger removes the desire for vengeance. Taking vengeance to deal with anger is like dipping a half-full glass of water into a filled sink to empty the glass. You don’t always succeed, and you’ll get wet. There are consequences to vengeance, chiefly legal prosecution, and starting a cycle of revenge pitting you, and your friends and family, against everybody you have acted against. It’s much easier to simply empty the glass. This removes the cause of vengeance. It addresses the very human need of attaining emotional tranquility, and removes the desire to take vengeance.

Even if taking vengeance were an appropriate course of action, the criminal justice system is not the means to do it. The criminal courts have four priorities. First, they need to isolate dangerous people from society. Second, they need to ensure the innocent are not harmed through the judicial process. Third, they need to neutralise criminals as short- and long-term threats to society. Lastly, they need to deter potential criminals from committing crimes. This, in fact, is all the courts can do.

The social contract between the people and the courts requires the courts to mete out justice for all. Justice, not vengeance. Justice is essentially moral rightness, and punishment of breaches of morality. For the justice system to apply equally to all, this demands objective standards. Vengeance is a desire to take action to address a perceived wrong, so it need only meet individual subjective standards. Justice and vengeance, unlike what Rosenbaum says, is essentially incompatible at this level of analysis. The courts are not empowered to take vengeance on behalf of the aggrieved. Nor should they.

To be clear, while the courts hands down punishment for criminal activity, I do not define this as vengeance. This is retributive justice. Its goal is to neutralise the criminal as a threat to society – and perhaps transform him into a productive member of society when he has served his time. The key difference between vengeance and retribution is that the former pays evil unto evil – the latter destroys evil and overcomes it with good. Instead of punishing someone to make someone else feel better, the idea behind legal retribution is to reform someone through punishment and rehabilitation.

Rosenbaum says that the legal system must “pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate.” The trouble with a ‘gut test’ is that it is subjective. Everybody is different, and therefore so is everybody’s gut test. ‘Just and proportionate’ only applies if there are objective standards – this is what people think of as the laws for criminal justice. Revenge is neither just nor proportionate, because revenge is based on subjective standards of satisfaction. Should the courts mete out different punishments for the same crime, the courts would breach their social contract much more grievously than its perceived failure to avenge.

Earlier, I said that the courts have four priorities, amongst which is deterrence. Inconsistent punishments will have little to no deterrent effect. Criminals will not have any standard to weigh against when planning crimes, and might feel more tempted to engage in more aggressive crimes if they believe they can pay the price if they are caught. A criminal who believes his victim might not press charges, or would be lenient, would be more likely to be more vicious than a criminal who thinks the law will come down harshly on him. This alone could be the difference between robbing someone at knifepoint, and ambushing a victim, beating him senseless, and then relieving him of his possessions. In both cases, the perpetrator gets what he wants – money. But a predator would be more likely to pick the second option, as it eliminates resistance and allows him to carry out his plans without interference from the victim. One of the reasons such crimes tend to be rare(r) is because the penalty – and therefore police attention – for the latter is much higher than the former. Without objective standards, there is no deterrence. Without deterrence, there may be more and more violent crime.

There is also a further implication of court-administrated revenge: objective standards of proof, prosecution, and defence would be compromised. The courts would focus on assuaging the victims’ anger, not justice. This opens the door to abuse of the justice system. A woman, angered by an ex-boyfriend, may cry molest or rape to get back at him. With a legal system primed to address the victim’s claims instead of determining the facts, a man could be punished for little more than having a bad break-up. And similar incidents have occurred.

In addition, compromised standards would lead to slipshod police work. One of the roles of the court is to ensure that the police and the prosecution do their jobs properly, by measuring their performance against those standards. With a legal system primed for revenge, the legal system would be under pressure to find someone guilty and punish that person as heavily as possible, instead of determining what happened. The result is poor work by the police and the prosecution. In Singapore, Ismil Kandar was wrongfully convicted of murder after sloppy police work. If a legal system seeks revenge instead of justice, more innocent people could be hauled up for crimes they didn’t commit, and more guilty ones could walk free.

It seems odd that Norway, a country in which just 2% of the population go to church weekly, has a criminal system with the Biblical goal of overcoming evil with good. As reported in the media, Norway has a rather ‘humane’ prison system, which aims to rehabilitate instead of just punish. Mass murderer Anders Breivik could sentenced to 21 years in jail, with additional indefinite 5-year sentences if ‘preventive detention’ were necessary – which is a far more lenient sentence than what an equivalent murderer in Singapore or America or most anywhere else could expect. The system certainly does not meet standards for revenge.

Does the system mete out justice for all? This is something the world is grappling with. But there is something to consider. A mass murderer is fundamentally an aberration. He attracts a lot of attention because of the scale of his crime, but he is not representative of the criminal population. The truest measure of a justice system lies in the nation’s crime demographics. As the Economist points out, the United States has one of the world’s worst prison systems and among the world’s highest crime rates (5 per 100000), while Norway has one of the world’s most humane prison systems and among the world’s lowest crime rates (0.6 per 100000). The United States focuses on punishing criminal behaviour, while Norway looks at rehabilitating criminals.

It’s time to reconsider notions of justice and vengeance. The purpose of having a justice system is to protect society, prevent and overcome evil, and reform criminals. It looks like the world can learn something from Norway.