Tuesday, May 01, 2012

What's the difference between justice and revenge?

I heard a challenge question once, asking: What's the difference between justice and revenge? (I think it was on an old TV show.) The answer given was, "One is right, and the other is wrong." The answer was good for a laugh, but it doesn't exactly answer the question. Here are some thoughts towards a fuller answer.

Justice aims to restore something: to balance scales, to restore order, to limit evil, to repay a loss. Justice is meant to put things right again.

Revenge aims to harm the other person, whether through injury, or financial ruin, or lost reputation, or some other means.

We would not want to insist that "justice" never does any harm to the criminal. A thief who is ordered to repay an amount stolen -- with extra compensation -- may find himself financially ruined; but that ruin was not the goal. Restoring the loss was the goal. Justice is satisfied when things are right again. It is easy to think of cases where justice is satisfied without harm being done to the criminal. But revenge is not satisfied until some sort of harm is done.

So for justice, restoration is the goal. Harm may be permissible if it is necessary to the goal and if the goal warrants it, but not otherwise. For revenge, the harm itself is the goal.

Which is why, as the old quip said, "One is right, and the other is wrong."

7 comments:

Martin LaBar said...

Well distinguished.

And then, of course, there is mercy.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

We would not want to insist that "justice" never does any harm to the criminal. A thief who is ordered to repay an amount stolen -- with extra compensation -- may find himself financially ruined; but that ruin was not the goal. Restoring the loss was the goal. Justice is satisfied when things are right again.

Perfect justice is "when things are right again" for the thief, too, not only his victim. Love doesn't consider things right again if he is financially ruined. Even if he deserved it. things would be right again if the financial ruin, having first brought him to repentance, then were rectified.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Once upon a time, there were two teenaged boys who used to sneak out of their homes in the middle of the night and share a secret six-pack of beer and then go in search of “adventure”.

One night they took two motorcycles from the garage of a family away on vacation. Their intent was just to take a joy-ride, but as they had been drinking, they soon wrecked both bikes.

They were caught rather easily, and all six parents met to agree upon a course of action.

The wronged family wasn’t interested in punishing the two boys, only in serving justice. So their father laid out the terms: the miscreant boys would come to him every Saturday and do yard work and other chores for him at minimum wage. They would not, however, receive any money; rather, the amounts would be credited, each week, against the cost of the replacement motorcycles.

The wronged boys each got a shiny, new motorcycle and a wonderful example; the wrongdoers learned a hard but valuable lesson (and got some good exercise); their parents were grateful their sons had not been prosecuted (as adults) and jailed.

How’s that for perfect justice?!

s-p said...

It seems the difficulty is, if the definition of justice is dependent on the ultimate realization of the "criminal" of the rightness of the consequence or the balance restored then justice is dependent on the mind of the broken and sometimes irreparable. Justice needs to be defined outside of the ultimate consequence and influence on the offender, much like true mercy.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi all - didn't mean to be such a stranger this week, just had a lot going on. I'll do one comment per person so that it's easier for anyone to find my response to you, if you're looking for one.

Martin: Thank you for the encouragement. And in the big picture, as opposed to the focus on what's the difference between justice and revenge: Yes, then there's mercy. And Thank God for that.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia

I really like that example with the teenagers working off the debt. I wish more situations in our "justice system" came out like that. I admire the parents for going that route. If we went through our normal government "justice system", the one set of people would have been permanently out the value of their destroyed property, and the teenagers would have never had to take responsibility -- not even for acknowledging what they'd done was wrong, much less for making it whole again.

I think the bad thing we're very prone to, in our culture's current mind-set, is somehow seeing the criminals as victims. If you let someone spin it for long enough, sooner or later (usually sooner) someone will suggest that the boys were the victims of poverty or a bad upbringing, as if that justifies stealing motorcycles. Maybe someone will even suggest that the rich people who had the motorcycles didn't really need them ... and certainly we shouldn't harm those poor boys by putting them to slave labor, surely enslaving someone is worse than theft ...

I think in our culture there's a need to stand up for the idea of wrong being truly wrong, and stop with all the excuses.

Even in your scenario, the criminals went through hardships to make things right again. Justice is willing to do that. And, as a side benefit, the criminals (ex-criminals, now?) became more just persons, by having a hand in fixing things.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi s-p

I definitely agree that the criminal does not get the final say in whether the consequences were good and right and fair. The most obvious thing is that some criminals have no intentions of playing fair with other people; that's why they're criminals. But even for the ones who do want to play fair, who still have a conscience -- nobody should be a judge in their own case; impossible to be unbiased there. Justice is most definitely justice whether or not the offender approves or agrees.

On mercy, though -- I'm not sure that "mercy" would quite work without the offender coming around. At least in the Christian sense, where the goal of mercy is redemption.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF