Journal Entry – Wed Dec 09

I was so sleepy this morning I decided to take the day off. I am going to keep a list of all my OOO messages – I’m gonna have fun coming up with new ones every time I’m on vacation. I only remember the last four:

  1. Hunting wolverines in Alaska 
  2. Touring the galaxy in a replica of the Millenium Falcon
  3. Jellyfishing w/ Spongebob and Patrick
  4. Mourning the loss of my Caribbean cruise

I think my next OOO will be in Japanese 🙂 I also owe myself a written poem in Japanese.

I didn’t draw any roses today – I drew circles and “peaking” lines and curves like flags blowing in the wind. It’s supposed to be artists’ exercise, according to the book. Like how athletes need to stretch and singers need to do scales, artists need to practice lines, circles, squares, spheres, and cubes. (I’m so over circles right now!)

Lecture 20: Retribution and Revenge

The retributive urge reveals an essential moral fact about humans: We all have a sense of justice that drives us to stand up when we’re mistreated, and it even causes us to stand up for other people. 

Fairness does matter to most of us; however, the retributive urge also drives us to act immorally. It causes us to hurt and turn our backs on others, hold grudges, and act in ways that endanger ourselves and those we love. The retributive urge also drives us to break the rules, break the law, and take matters into our own hands when it would be more appropriate to leave things to the justice system. (You should watch Mystic River (2003))

Why do we have this urge? The answer we commonly get from evolutionary psychology is that the retributive urge is fitness-enhancing. Emotions like anger, resentment, and indignation are mechanisms that motivate us to act retributively, which is beneficial because it increases our chances of survival in the sense that it contributes to social coordination.

The idea here is that the retributive urge drives us to keep others in line in ways that enhance fitness. As a group, we’re more likely to thrive if we work together. The retributive urge, which is always on alert for unfair behaviour, is part of what drives us to cooperate with each other.

Punishment versus Revenge: Punishment is institutional or authoritative retaliation, whereas revenge is individual or unauthoritative retaliation. For instance, in basketball, a referee might punish a player for unsportsmanlike behaviour with a technical foul. The game rules allow for this, and the referee has the authority to discipline players in this way. However, if a player retaliates against another player, that player has engaged in the act of revenge. The player is reacting as an unauthorized individual. (Hockey all looks like revenge to me!)

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Some scholars believe that even if the retributive urge is necessary for retributive behaviour, it’s not enough for cognitively sophisticated creatures like us Humans because “we can question the rationality of our emotions.” If we think that acting on a particular urge is irrational or against our self-interest, or otherwise inappropriate, we have reason to resist that urge.

This doesn’t mean we’re always good at resisting these urges; it’s that we can and do resist them sometimes. The problem is that retributive behaviour remains “fitness-enhancing for its role in improving social coordination,” but “increased cognitive sophistication” makes it less likely that we’ll act out on our retributivist urges. This is a problem, rather than an advantage, so long as retributive behaviour is vital for social coordination.

Many societies have recognized this problem and have made steps toward resolving it. They have decided to introduce cultural standards that support retributive behaviour. The two relevant cultural environments are honour cultures and institutionalized cultures. 

In honour cultures, social cooperation is small-scale, focusing on interactions with “tight-knit groups” and family members, often excluding strangers. Resources are also relatively scarce in such cultures, and there’s little protection provided by the government or other formal institutions.

By contrast, in institutionalized cultures, social cooperation is large-scale, focusing on interactions with people beyond family and small groups, including anonymous interactions with strangers. Resources are not as scarce in cultures governed by institutions that provide protection and policies that encourage cooperation and discourage uncooperative or criminal behaviour.

Scholars point out that our retributivist urges function differently in these two types of societies. In honour cultures, the retributive urge drives individuals to handle their own problems and make displays that signal to others that any attempt to take advantage of them would have a high cost.

In institutionalized cultures, offenders are still punished, but the punisher’s role is a third party – a formal institution like the justice system. Individual acts of revenge are considered crimes. In institutionalized cultures, revenge is often viewed as immoral, even if we admire it. In honour cultures, by contrast, revenge is admired and required. (You should watch any Death Wish, The Punisher (Netflix series was the best) and Revenge (2017)).

The tragedian Aeschylus explores the difference between these two views of revenge and the transition from an honour culture to an institutionalized culture in Oresteia; a trilogy made up of the interlinked plays AgamemnonThe Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides

I’ll try to summarize it for you … we move from an honour culture where the offended takes responsibility for avenging wrongs to an institutionalized culture where a formal legal system handles such things. So, private revenge is replaced with the power of retributive justice. 

Aeschylus suggests that the transition from an honour culture to an institutionalized culture is a matter of progress and delicate complexity because even in an institutionalized culture, honour matters, and the thirst for vengeance remains. (Can revenge ever be considered just in an institutionalized culture?)

The philosopher Brian Rosebury argues that revenge can be just even when it’s not moral. Rosebury’s idea is that revenge, although indefensible morally, “is capable, under certain conditions, of a well-founded respect which is based on its standing outside morality, as a choice by the revenger not to act morally but to follow other motives.”

Rosebury thinks that revenge is morally indefensible because we can’t justify it by appealing to altruism or social safety. This is because acts of revenge harm others and undermine moral order in institutionalized cultures, but we might still call a vengeful act just according to Rosebury.

Some might worry that the only genuinely respect-worthy actions are morally justified actions. To ease such concerns, Rosebury suggests:

Imagine that a diplomat from another country has killed Albert’s daughter. Because of nuances surrounding diplomatic immunity and tensions between the diplomat’s country and Albert’s, the killer returns home without facing any consequences.

Albert wishes he could forgive the man, and he agrees that revenge is fruitless, but he can’t shake the overwhelming feeling that he has to avenge his daughter. If he doesn’t, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. Albert tracks the guy down and kills him.

Rosebury wants us to consider the following:

  1. Is what Albert did morally right or wrong?
  2. Do you respect what he has done?

If we think the action is wrong but respect it nonetheless, Rosebury believes we’ll see that our moral judgment doesn’t track our assessment of respect.

Albert did something we can sympathize with, and we can recognize that his act of vengeance is, in a sense, just. It follows from basic principles of reciprocity: The diplomat did something to Albert and his family. Lacking any institutional recourse, Albert did the same to the diplomat.

Another type of situation requires us to reconsider the norms associated with institutionalized cultures and honour cultures. Scholars point out that we can have mixed cultures and within-group variation.

To demonstrate this, scholars look at Laura Blumenfeld, book Revenge. Blumenfeld was from a middle-class Jewish family living on Long Island. She graduated from Harvard, but after her father was shot on a trip to Israel, she took a decade-long revenge quest.

However, her father wasn’t killed, he didn’t suffer any long-term injuries, and the person who shot him was already in prison. Institutional justice had done its job. Blumenfeld’s quest for revenge baffled everyone she knew, including her father, who felt that justice was served. Blumenfeld felt dishonoured and believed that institutional justice inadequately compensated for that dishonour.

The desire for vengeance drives us to do terrible things, but the retributive urge also plays a crucial role in creating and maintaining social cooperation. The tension between retributive justice (which is something moral) and just revenge (which is beyond morality) is fascinating and troubling. It is fair to wonder whether the transition from honour to institutions is, or can ever be, completely satisfying.

(Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature)

Now, you know that I’m a fan of revenge movies (I Spit on Your Grave (1978 or 2010) and true crime and many times victims and their families don’t feel that just was served for taking the life of their loved one. For some life in prison is not enough or if they received a death sentence, there are years of appeals, and it is questionable if the individual will die. I don’t profess to know anything about the feeling of victims of violence but many of them say forgiveness helps them to move on with their lives, even when the loss of their loved one never go away.

A guy walks into a bar naked. (hmmm that’s all I have! still working on my joke telling) – I read that telling jokes is like telling stories, they have the same elements, but that doesn’t make them any easier to write.

Feature Photo Credit: Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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