Sunday, August 15, 2010

Justice part two

Thought Experiment #1

Imagine a society with several powerful families, or clans perhaps. Each clan is constantly striving for control. Because of this, clans often kill members of the other families. And every single time a member is killed, a revenge killing occurs, without fail. It become a series of vendettas, which are always satisfied.

According to the idea of retributive punishment, would this not qualify as a just society? Each time a killing occurs, it is answered in equal proportion. Few young people remain alive within the clans, as the killings are fairly constant, but a sense of order or an "evening out" of actions is maintained.

Is this a just society?

Thought Experiment #2

Imagine that a man has killed another man. Although this is totally impossible, now imagine that we know without question that he is totally reformed. We know that he understands what he has done is wrong and that he is truly sorry for it. Moreover, we also know beyond question that he will never commit murder again. And beyond that, we also know that no one will ever know if we let this man go. In other words, it will not sacrifice the deterrent effect of the law on any potential criminals if the man is released, because no one knows what happened.

What purpose does it serve to put this man in prison or to kill him? Does it rob society of another productive member? Does it simply make two wrongs instead of a right?

Can we make a case for retributive punishment in the above thought experiments without referencing the goals of a more utilitarian theory of punishment - namely rehabilitation, deterrence or security?


  1. Thought Experiment #3. Imagine a person who has no idea that he is a going to be a murderer, but we know he is going to be a murderer. In the present time he is harmless, but in a few years he will begin his killing spree in full force. He has done nothing wrong YET. Should we punish him in the present, while he is currently guiltless?

    There is, of course, a movie about this. Some futuristic movie with Tom Cruise.

  2. What the clan-societies of thought experiment #1 need is a shared detached authority. One that can either carry out the revenge killings on behalf of the victim’s family or to accept the responsibility for the revenge killing as a matter of course. As long as the detached authority is authoritative enough, the chain of revenge killings can satisfactorily come to a stop.

    A shared government could act as the removed authority. So long as both clans accept the rule of the land, any revenge killings carried out by the government could serve to satisfy the revenge instinct while fulfilling the eye for an eye requirement of their culture.

    A shared mythical figure could also act as the authority here. The figure would not necessarily have to perform the killings itself (kind of hard for everyone else, since everyone else’s mythical figures do not exist!), however the revenge killings must be deeds required by the shared mythical figure.

    As long as the revenge killing is done in the name of a shared government or mythical figure, then the clan of the victim is absolved of its revenge duty and the perpetrating clan has a much more abstract target to exact revenge upon. If the target is abstract enough, or authoritative enough, revenge becomes impossible and everybody moves on.

  3. John,

    That is always an interesting potential problem. What if someone's brain scan/genetic code says they are highly likely to be a psychopath, yet we see that they are a completely normal person in their actual life? Interesting problems.


    I agree with your prescription for solving the revenge killings, but in this thought experiment the question is whether this society is a just society as is. Even with a removed, dispassionate authority exacting revenge, imagine that the killings continue. In other words, deterrence, security and rehabilitation are not provided for in this experiment. Does a purely "this for that" sense of retribution create justice? Is justice an evening out of events minus deterrence, rehabilitation or security?

  4. Thinking about Skyhook's comment a bit more in regard to the psychological satisfaction of the victims... I think this is a real consideration when considering punishment, but, once again, is this possible emotional satisfaction really capable of satisfying justice? Can two wrongs make a right?

    I think our desire for revenge is something that has evolved for one main reason - deterrence. In ancient societies you didn't mess with someone cause they would mess with you back. In hunter/gatherer society everyone knew each other so the deterrent effect of possible revenge was very relevant.

    As we have evolved further, however, I think we might look at Thought Experiment #2 and ask ourselves if revenge really accomplishes anything which contributes to the idea of justice.

  5. I know I kind of went against the thought experiment current with my reply; I was mainly just sharing some thoughts for the fun of it.

    As to two wrongs making a right, what I was kind of proposing is that the authority is such that it cannot be wrong, or at least can’t be wrong in the eyes of those who share the belief in this authority. Kind of a cheat move to take the thought experiment on a tangent.

    I don’t have an answer to your thought experiments. Honestly, the concept of a just society is a bit beyond me at the moment. I’ll give some thought to it and maybe get back to you. But I do like your “sweet-tooth” hypothesis of instincts that were more useful in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness.

  6. Perhaps it is slightly a tangent, but I definitely agree with the idea that we need a shared, common authority to have order in a society. True democracy without any sort of mutually agreed upon principles would not work.

    It's kind of a monarchy of concepts. God, the Constitution, ideas of freedom, shared heritage, founding fathers - perhaps these are some concepts that people use to seek a common authority?