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May 01, 2014

I'm Good With That

As I'm sure you've noticed, Elise is back from her whiplash double secret vacation. What you might not know though is that she is also back to blogging. And while I enjoy reading pretty much everthing she writes about, this post about semantics, word phraseology and other nuances of the English language is pretty much guaranteed to catch the Dark One's attention - especially when she starts with a rule like this:

"Rule 1: The action taken in revenge must be proportionate to the original harm. So if someone steals your car, you don’t burn down their house. Unless, of course, having your car stolen means you couldn’t get your dying child to the hospital on time and the child’s death leads to your spouse’s suicide and your spouse’s suicide leads to your other child becoming a drug addict. In that case, load up on kerosene and matches and go to it."

I mean, how can a blog post go wrong when this is your starting point?
Anyway, drop by and visit Elise, let her know we've discovered her hiding spot and check to see if she's left any crumbs from last night's food fest behind.

Posted by DL Sly at May 1, 2014 12:56 PM

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I have an alternative theory of revenge, which is that revenge should be so massively disproportionate that no one witnessing it would ever think of troubling you again. This theory comes from working with the tribes in Iraq, but I think it's well grounded in the history of war generally.

The problem with proportionate responses is that people don't agree about the value of the things being damaged, so that what seemed proportionate to you ends up seeming like a new (and disproportionate) affront to the faction you hit. So let's say an enemy tribe killed your uncle, who was an important figure (but not the chief figure) of your tribe. You pick someone who seems to you to be roughly as important, and kill him. But to the tribe you hit, the man you killed wasn't the equal of the man they killed -- the man you killed was a revered and beloved figure, whereas the man they killed was just some guy. So, now they feel obligated to hit you back.

The work of tribal reconciliation we did so much of in Iraq required you to bring in a figure respected by both tribes, but dispassionate, so he could evaluate the damage independently and work out a blood-debt payment that would settle matters. Before people were willing to come to the table on that, though, the pain had to get bad enough -- which meant that the revenge cycle had to play out several times.

My sense is that if, instead, you hit hard enough the first time, you don't have to keep hitting (or keep taking blows). In addition, you set an example that prevents future violence, because other tribes watching you understand that resorting to violence will be very expensive, and is not to be done in a trifling way.

Substitute kingdoms/countries/nations for tribes, and I think the history will back this conclusion mutatis mutandis.

Posted by: Grim at May 1, 2014 03:06 PM

I would argue, Grim, that you are talking about deterrence rather than pure revenge. Revenge can of course pair up with something else: the end of The Godfather paired revenge with establishing dominant power in a field of endeavor and I'm pretty sure we can drag the Trojan war in here somehow.

However, revenge in and of itself is a different animal and, perhaps, applies only to individuals. I would also argue that revenge as I understand it cannot be handled via a blood-debt payment.

Posted by: Elise at May 1, 2014 04:57 PM

which is that revenge should be so massively disproportionate that no one witnessing it would ever think of troubling you again.

This is one of the reasons we outsource this function to courts.

If you steal from me, *I* don't take revenge on you, the State does that. If you have a problem with the scale of that punishment the retribution for that doesn't fall on *my* head, but the State's. The cycle of revenge is broken by the introduction of a "neutral" party (it doesn't hurt that this neutral party can almost certainly bring vastly more firepower to bear than you can). This is also why criminal cases are always "The State vs. The Accused" and not "The Victim vs. The Accused" as is common in civil suits. But even then, there is the neutral party, whether judge or jury, which acts (somewhat) as arbitrator.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 1, 2014 05:35 PM

This is one of the reasons we outsource this function to courts.


The world is full of people who take offense or assume things were done deliberately to them, and that their anger or fear or whatever justifies whatever they do in return. Those people are not always correct in their assumptions because they only know half the story.

There's no proportionality to such a stance. But more importantly, there is no justice in it. Though certainly "punch back twice as hard" is very popular these days.

Posted by: Cass at May 1, 2014 06:39 PM

I'd rather live in the US than in Iraq or Afghanistan any day.

Posted by: Cass at May 1, 2014 06:41 PM

Deterrence is better than vengeance, Elise. For one thing, it's less effort.

As for the courts and question of whether justice lies in the law, I suppose my opinion is well known.

Posted by: Grim at May 1, 2014 09:14 PM

Of course justice doesn't necessarily lie in the law. The point of putting this in the courts isn't to ensure or even increase justice.

The point of the courts is to place that injustice on someone *other* than the conflicting parties.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 2, 2014 09:08 AM

If your standard of justice is that only perfection or absolute guarantees count, learn to live with disappointment.

Perfection is a chimera, and there are no guarantees.

A system in which one wrong is redressed by committing an even greater wrong is less likely to deliver anything even remotely approaching "justice" than one in which disputes are arbitrated by third parties with no dog in the fight being refereed.

Posted by: Cass at May 2, 2014 10:04 AM

Deterrence is better than vengeance, Elise. For one thing, it's less effort.

I'll agree it's less effort. Given my understanding of vengeance, though, it doesn't make sense to compare deterrence and vengeance and decide one is better than the other. Vengeance is driven by emotion; deterrence is driven by cost/benefit calculations. They do not have the same goal.

As for revenge and justice, I've always seen quoted this from Sir Francis Bacon:

Revenge is a kind of wild justice

What was always left off was the rest of his sentence - I didn't realize that until I looked up the quote for this comment - and the whole rest of his essay from which the quote is taken. The whole sentence reads:

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.

That said, I do still like revenge books, movies, etc.;I understand the impulse for revenge; and I can imagine circumstances in which I might follow that impulse.

Posted by: Elise at May 2, 2014 10:09 AM

"At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst."

- Aristotle

Posted by: Cassandra at May 2, 2014 10:17 AM

Indeed Aristotle is on your side here, or almost is. In the Rhetoric, he advises a legal system so intricate that almost nothing is left it the discretion of judge or jury.

Nevertheless, my sympathy lies with the lesson taught by a pirate to Aristotle's most famous student, Alexander the Great. Having captured the pirate, Alexander demanded to know how he dared to molest shipping. The reply: "How dare you molest the whole world?"

Posted by: Grim at May 2, 2014 10:26 AM

I worked with a lawyer who took Grim's view: he said his opponent should know what had happened to him, and why, and should fear its happening again. Clearly for him it was about deterrence, not justice, but he also thought it was completely just. He was a very clear-thinking, warm-hearted, ethical man. His instincts would have deterred him from implementing his policy in the case of too great a power mismatch; he was dealing with other representatives of powerful clients in commercial disputes, and he figured they knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

Posted by: Texan99 at May 2, 2014 10:28 AM

Here is the issue. Grim is speaking with regard to "revenge" and "deterrence" (Elise's primary point), Yu and Cass are speaking with regard to "law" and "justice". These are two different concepts. Law and justice should be concerned with mediating, balancing harm, and punishment. Revenge and deterrence is about retribution and preventing the original offense from reoccurring.

In the great Venn diagram of the universe, there is indeed some overlap in these areas, but they are not subsets of the other. When I see talk of "proportionate response", I will absolutely accept the concept if we are speaking of law, or diplomacy, or any endeavor where the outcome must allow for tranquility. But when violence is being discussed, then the concept of "proportionality" should go right out the window. For example, if you are in a fight, your primary concern should not be "is this punch to the jaw a proportional response to being kicked in the stomach?", the real concern is survival. So too with nations. What is the "proportional response" to an IED? What is the "proportional response" to an armor battalion? Fight to survive/win, and try to avoid as much collateral damage as you possibly can.

Posted by: MikeD at May 2, 2014 11:30 AM

We should explore this further. I'll try to find time to put together a post on the relationship of law, justice, revenge and so forth.

Posted by: Grim at May 2, 2014 05:50 PM