Published in Justice Reflections: 2005, Issue 10
We live in a world where too many people “purposefully contribute to the harm of another human being, either by action or inaction” (my working definition of violence). In such a world, an unavoidable moral question arises, how do we respondto violence, or more generally, how do we respond to evil?
Despite widespread occurrences of inter-human violence, the case may be made that most human beings tend to want to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings. If this were not true, the human race could never have survived to evolve to the point it has. In human experience people need some overriding reason to go against the tendency to avoidlethal violence. To act violently, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value overrides the tendency not to be violent.
Almost all violence emerges with some kind of rationale that justifies its use. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked in the criminal justice system for many years, argues, based on his extensive work with extremely violent offenders, that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence usually nonetheless have some justification in the mind of the perpetrator.[i]
Other more obviously rational or self-conscious uses of violence (for example, warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) generally follow a self-conscious logic. At the core of this “logic” rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (that is, repayment of violence with violence, pain with pain).
The legitimacy of retribution is widely accepted in the United States. Where does this belief in retribution come from? One key source is Christian theology, the belief that retribution is God’s will, or that the need for retribution stems from the nature of the universe. That the nature of the universe requires retribution is a part of what most WesternChristiansbelieve, leading to strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to violence). Continue reading