The retributive drive exists within every human being, an accepted - yet grotesque - desire. When a man commits murder, we identify vengeance as our right; whether through murdering him back or through even worse - locking him away to rot and die in prison - we get our bloodied satisfaction. Us civilized people may speak about revenge with a different name. Instead of showing our malice out right, we mask it in a system and explain that system with ulterior - yet inferior - motives; the murderer has become locked away for his own good, as it seems, not for the good of the hurt. If only that were true.
Suppose a man struck by envy ruins his friend’s life beyond repair. His loved ones have disowned him, and the man for some time lays destitute in the streets - one of the drunkards living in an alleyway. Because of a revelation, whether religious or secular, he takes responsibility for his existence one day. After cleaning himself up, he walks to the doorway of his old friend’s house. There he stands, begging for forgiveness. If you were this old friend, would you welcome the man back? Although I can assure you he has changed irrevocably, could you really forget how he ruined your marriage or forced you into financial ruin?
Given a certain level of certainty concerning the man’s true conversion, no logical reason exists for you to refuse forgiveness. You cannot distance yourself under the guise that he would hurt you again. Truly, this man at your doorway is a different person. One must see him as a new being with new character, only by coincidence retaining the memories of the old version.
It is possible to reason a sort of retribution through utilitarianism; as this thought experiment shows, a concept of justice proves useful insofar as it prevents the plausibility of future pain. However, seeking justice for the sake of some insubstantial satisfaction causes unnecessary suffering.
The American spirit revolves around justice - one should expect as much from a country born from retribution. After the american people elected Thomas Jefferson to replace John Adams in the presidency, the first ever peaceful transition of political ideologies occurred. This event quickly became known as the “Bloodless Revolution”, highlighting - I believe - a key aspect of how Americans think. Even today, political parties campaign by pointing at their opponent’s inadequacies and, if that opponent currently resides in the presidency, fostering discontent for the socioeconomic condition; instead of selling themselves, parties sell a revolution. Each four years the two sides thus stand head to head, crying-out for justice against alleged horrors. The rest of the citizens follow close behind in this behavior, seeking to improve their lives not through building on talents but through revolutionizing their down-falls.
Justice also plays a critical role in the dominant religion of America. At many parts of the Old Testament, God exacts moral judgement on sinful societies and even - at the point of Noah’s flood - the whole world. These events did not come purely from wrath. God made it very clear that the wreckage of his destruction gave the opportunity for good to prosper - a new beginning, as the rainbow promised. The New Testament also helped to lessen the vengeful image of God by preaching the iconic turn-the-cheek philosophy. Even after the coming of Christ, nonetheless, Christianity remained a religion bent on justice; in the end, eternal fire still awaits evil-doers.
Despite all this hype, scientific progress has begun to challenge our concept of justice. Neurologists once theorized that neurosis came from a negligence of character. We now know that these diseases have biological origins and do not involve conscious volition. In his book “Incognito”, David Eagleman predicts that this anatomical explanation will expand until we can understand any mental disease - be it motor or moral - in the context of the brain’s wet circuity. As a result, the concept of Free Will will antiquate.
Imagine it. One day, instead of waiting to see how they react to a challenge, parents measure their children’s versatility with a super-powered scanner, analyzing the brain on the smallest scales. While this may seem far-fetched, consider how much brain structure - something innate at birth - decides your fate. More than 90 percent of people in prison, for example, have a specific grouping of genes: the Y chromosomes. Does it really seem fair to hold these people responsible for phenomena their gender decided? Should we call a pedophile culpable when the urges he feel lay beyond his choice?
To simplify everything, we need to discard the myth of justice. When we do this, the consequences of a verdict will be the only deciding factor as someone stands before the court. Isolation will exist to keep rapists off the street and to discourage bad deeds, not to punish. And instead of hardening people for their return into gang-life, prisons will assist people to turn a new leaf. Neuroscientists have already begun behavior based research into helping people control their urges; most criminals know that they should not act on their compulsions, but they cannot resist. Simple exercises could rewire the brain, creating the “new friend” previously referenced - one without reason to lock away.
I would not call myself a pacifist. Although the religions of the east seem wise to me in their reluctance to harm, they sometimes go too far. Buddhist monks have performed self-immolation, for instance, burning themselves alive as a form of protest. One need not submit to that level of harm in order to avoid giving it back. If someone hits you, do not turn the other cheek. Defend yourself. Value yourself as much as the other person. Consider the long term consequences. Some actions may seem retributive, but for reasons more vague than immediate pleasure or pain - reasons like setting a precedent or preserving autonomy - they are needed. Clearly, this issue does not divide into black and white.
The only definite problem?: when you harm as a form of retribution, when instead of fighting to preserve humanity you struggle to avenge it.