A Defense Of Vengeance

Multiple People Injured After Explosions Near Finish Line at Boston Marathon

In an NPR interview, Fordham University law professor Thane Rosenbaum elaborated on the thesis of his new book, Payback: The Case for Revenge:

Most people think that eye for an eye suggests bloodthirstiness. What it really means is exactness. What it essentially means – and we get this from the Old Testament and, of course, in Hammurabi’s Code – that when a moral injury is created, a debt is created, and then payback is required, but it has to be specific. It has to be proportionate. And all an eye for an eye means is a way to prevent disproportionate revenge. Disproportionate revenge are blood feuds, recycling of vengeance, the Hatfields versus the McCoys.

Through the natural history of our species, we were able to manage revenge through tribes and individuals because people knew what enough – what was enough to be satisfied. And that means that when one loses an eye, they’re entitled to receive no more than an eye, but also no less than an eye. And in our system, unfortunately, with plea bargains, we’re very often shortchanged, and we’re constantly paying back less than an eye.

In another interview, Rosenbaum argues that to under-punish “is a kind of moral violation that we should find intolerable”:

I write about the woman in Iran who was blinded by a classmate, with acid thrown in her face. Originally the sentence was that a doctor would put acid in the eyes of the person who did that—truly an eye for an eye. This woman has been blinded and disfigured for the rest of her life, and why should the other person not experience the same thing? In the end, both the court and she decided not to go through with that remedy. Some people were relieved. But I think it at least sends a message that she was entitled to that.

(Photo: A man is loaded into an ambulance after he was injured by one of two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon near Copley Square on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two people are confirmed dead and at least 23 injured after two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. By Jim Rogash/Getty Images)