I have, in various places (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, and here), defended capital punishment on grounds of retributive justice. And I’ve noted (following the late Ralph McInerny) that what many people who object to capital punishment really seem to find off-putting is the idea of punishment itself (capital or otherwise), smacking as it does of retribution. A reader asks what the difference is between retributive justice and revenge. It seems, he says, that there is no difference. But if there isn’t, then it is understandable why many people object to capital punishment, and even to punishment itself.
I think the reader is correct to suggest that the perception of a link between retributive justice and revenge is the source of much opposition to capital punishment, and of suspicion of the notion of punishment itself. The thinking seems to go something like this:
1. Revenge is bad.
2. But retribution is a kind of revenge.
3. So retribution is bad.
4. But punishment involves retribution.
5. So punishment is bad.
The trouble with this argument, some defenders of punishment might think, is with premise (2). But while I would certainly want to qualify premise (2), the main problem in my view is actually with premise (1). “Revenge” (and related terms like “vengeance” and “vindictiveness”) have come to have almost entirely negative connotations. But that is an artifact of modern sensibilities, and does not reflect traditional Christian morality. For there is a sense in which revenge is not bad, at least not intrinsically. Indeed, there is a sense in traditional Christian morality in which revenge is a virtue. What is bad are certain things that are often, but only contingently, associated with revenge. Hence those who reject punishment on the grounds just summarized are not wrong to see a link between retribution and revenge. Rather, they are wrong to assume that revenge is inherently bad.
Let me explain. Or rather, let me allow Thomas Aquinas to explain:
[V]engeance is not essentially evil and unlawful….
Vengeance consists in the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned. Accordingly, in the matter of vengeance, we must consider the mind of the avenger. For if his intention is directed chiefly to the evil of the person on whom he takes vengeance and rests there, then his vengeance is altogether unlawful: because to take pleasure in another's evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good."
If, however, the avenger's intention be directed chiefly to some good, to be obtained by means of the punishment of the person who has sinned (for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored), then vengeance may be lawful, provided other due circumstances be observed. (Summa Theologiae II-II.108.1)
You might say, then, that vengeance just is retribution, and is lawful so long as it is carried out in the right spirit and in the right manner. Indeed, as other moralists in the Thomistic tradition make clear, it is more than merely lawful. For example, Prümmer’s Handbook of Moral Theology, once a standard reference work in the subject, classifies “revenge” as among the “virtues related to justice.” Similarly, Volume II of McHugh and Callan’s Moral Theology: A Complete Course devote a section to “the virtue of vengeance” (sec. 2381).
Of course, that does not mean that such authors would approve of the sorts of thing we usually think of these days as paradigm instances “revenge” or “vengeance” -- Michael Corleone shooting Sollozzo and McCluskey in The Godfather, say. On the contrary, they would condemn these as acts of murder. For one thing, only lawful authorities, and not private individuals, can legitimately inflict a penalty of death on someone who has merited it. Of course, there are forms of revenge or vengeance that don’t involve the taking of life, and which might in principle be carried out by private individuals. But even here, there is, as Prümmer notes, a danger that “excessive love of self or even hatred of the neighbor” may motivate an otherwise lawful act of vengeance, and that what presents itself as the virtue of revenge might in fact be its corresponding vice of excess, “cruelty or savagery.” As McHugh and Callan add, such vicious excess can manifest itself in either “the quality or the quantity of the punishment.”
But if there is a vice of excess corresponding to revenge or vengeance, there is also a vice of deficiency, namely what Prümmer calls “excessive laxity in punishment” and which McHugh and Callan say “rewards crime, or allows it to go unpunished, or imposes penalties which are agreeable to offenders, or not a deterrent, or not at all equal to the offense” (sec. 2383).
Now what we have here is, obviously, in part a matter of semantics. Words like “vengeance,” “revenge,” and “vindictiveness” have to some extent merely come to be used in a way that connotes what is really just a corruption of vengeance or revenge rightly understood. Hence in the entry on “Vengeance” in Roberti and Palazzini’s Dictionary of Moral Theology of 1962, we are told on the one hand that:
In a general sense, the infliction of physical punishment upon someone as retribution for injury caused to another is called vengeance. If done for good and just motives, e.g. love of justice, or preservation of the juridico-social order, or the correction of an evildoer, by a competent authority, according to laws, vindication, of itself, is a good act.
On the other hand, we are told:
However, if punishment for an evil deed is inflicted out of an ill-feeling toward the one who has offended, ill-treated, or caused suffering to another, or simply to satisfy one’s ill feeling toward his enemy, or for the pleasure of payment in kind, vengeance is an evil act, opposed to that precept of charity which prescribes that Christians love their neighbor even if an enemy. The latter form of vindication is properly called vengeance.
Vengeance is a sin, and opposed to the precept of the Divine Master to love everyone, even enemies, and to pardon sincerely any offense or injury. One of the main characteristics of vengeance is punishment of an offender beyond proper limits, with disregard of the laws which prohibit acts of vindictive justice by private individuals.
So for the Dictionary, in the “general” sense of the term -- that is to say, when used to refer to the sort of thing Aquinas, Prümmer, and McHugh and Callan have in mind -- an act of vengeance is “of itself, a good act.” But what is “properly” called “vengeance” is the abuse of what Aquinas, Prümmer, and McHugh and Callan have in mind -- namely, retribution that is carried out in a spirit of hatred, or is excessively harsh, or is carried out by those without authority to punish. Here the Dictionary seems to give a nod to contemporary usage while agreeing in substance with the earlier authors.
Still, the issue is not merely verbal. For it seems that what are in fact perfectly innocent and indeed honorable motives on the part of those who defend capital punishment are often wrongly assimilated to the dishonorable motives condemned by the authors I’ve quoted. Hence those who sincerely believe that some offenders simply deserve to die given the enormity of their crimes, that justicewould not be served unless they were executed, that they would in effect be “getting away with” their crimes were they not executed, etc. are sometimes characterized as “vindictive,” “vengeful,” or the like. If these words are meant in the sense in which Aquinas et al. would use them, then the claim is true but is not a criticism, or at least not a criticism that doesn’t simply beg the question; for vindictiveness or vengefulness in that sense is just a desire that retributive justice be carried out, and that is, all things being equal, a good thing, or so defenders of capital punishment would claim. But if what is meant instead is that those who think murderers deserve the death penalty, that justice requires it, etc. are necessarily motivated by a spirit of hatred, then the charge is false; while if those who make the charge are claiming that the punishment is excessive, then they are (once again) simply begging the question.
No doubt those who advocate severe punishment for horrendous crimes very often really do (quite understandably, if wrongly) hate the offender. Outrage at injustice can easily degenerate into hatred of the unjust, just as amorousness can degenerate into animal lust. But it would be fallacious to assimilate amorousness to animal lust, and it is no less fallacious to assimilate the desire for just punishment to hatred of the offender. They are distinct, however commonly conjoined.
It is also worth emphasizing that the mercy and forgiveness that many would pit against retribution in fact presuppose retribution. It is only if someone deserves punishment that you can show mercy to him by not inflicting it. And forgiveness is quite empty if the one you forgive does not merit the ire you would otherwise direct toward him.
Needless to say, a critic might reject the moral and metaphysical presuppositions of the view of justice to which I’ve been giving expression. Defending those presuppositions is a separate task. The present point is just that merely to characterize that view as “vengeful” or the like is to offer precisely nothing by way of rational criticism of it.
But all this revenge stuff can get pretty heavy, so let’s end on a lighter note. For a look at the fun side of vengeance, I give you the fetching Cobie Smulders chewing the scenery in a now famous clip from the gag reel of The Avengers.