01/08/2013 08:15 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 06:12 BST

Vengeance in the Guise of 'Justice' Must Be Resisted


Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.


Note: the following piece contains spoilers for the third series of the BBC crime drama Luther.

Vengeance is the darkest of human emotions. It is the belief that any injury that a person deals to you must be returned in kind. At its worst, it leads to feuds and atrocities; reprisals on top of reprisals. The Troubles in Northern Ireland could have ended so much sooner had it not been on for the desperation of either side to let no slight go unpunished. Yet for all this, it is surprisingly common for it to be glorified in the most unlikely of places. Most shockingly of all, several theologians, notably among them St Thomas Aquinas, have suggested that the eternal torment of sinners would be a delight to those in heaven. For all such glorification, it is still futile. Even if the villain is slain, in appalling fashion, it does nothing to resurrect his victims. In the best told stories, the hero realises that achieving their goal brings them no emotional comfort.

The latest series of Luther handles this with aplomb. Crazed vigilante Tom Marwood seeks out those he believes are deserving of extrajudicial execution. The brutal efficiency with which he slays those whom violate his moral code and his arrogant conviction in his own righteousness causes one's sympathies to be diverted to the unlikeliest recipients. The most harrowing scene that I have ever seen on television is the attempted (and fortunately aborted) execution of a paedophile. This is a man who has committed horrific crimes against children, and yet his suffering seems too real and too awful to allow. You cannot help but feel disgusted at the mob that bays for his blood. On reflection, it is not difficult to understand why. Just as the paedophile seeks to indulge their urges without care for harming others, the mob seeks to do the same for their bloodlust. Worse, they consider themselves moral for it.

Despite child molesters being universally reviled and rightly so, there is amazingly no such revulsion for those who let their personal moral crusades get in the way of practicalities. When you consider how universal the desire for revenge is, and its glorification in our culture and the amount of blood shed in its name, it is a sentiment worse than that of paedophilia. There is a tacit admission that revenge is a dark sentiment, and that is its opposition to what we consider to be justice. As Marwood in Luther becomes even more deranged and his hero complex becomes more evidence, it is impossible not to detest him. He has set himself as a moral arbiter, and is handing out punishment to satisfy his own sick needs under the pretence of filling a need for justice that the government (in his view) has abandoned. He would be far more likable if he admitted that all he was doing was hurting people who he thinks deserves it.

On reflection, by the end of the episode, I had fallen into this trap. By the time that Marwood had got to the point a pregnant woman as a bargaining chip and is threatening an innocent woman to hurt Luther, I found myself begging for him to suffer for it and I cannot have been the only one. Yet this is what the last 2 hours' worth of episodes had told me not to do. Let me reiterate the point. I had just watched an entire story arc which fundamentally revolves around the fact that retribution is not a moral sentiment, yet because people who I perceived as "the good guys" were threatened, I wished for it anyway.

Fundamentally, there is no such thing as "justice". At its heart, this means deliberately inflicting harm on those whom we think deserve it; in the same manner as the convicted presumably did, except with some odious pretended moral backing behind our sanction. There are, however, no morals to the sentiment of vengeance. What I have outlined above demonstrates it is fundamentally emotional and irrational. Even though I know it is wrong to wish harm on another human being, a significant part of me is still glad that Marwood received the punishment that he did.

This has huge consequences for how we treat the prison system. Previously, we have considered it wrong to hurt people unless justice requires it, and it is the worst sin to cause harm because it would be socially useful. If we accept that there is no such thing as a harm which is morally justified in itself, rather than for some other cause, then this paradoxically leads to a prison system which is more humane. Currently, there is public support for prisons to be brutal. As only those who deserve it are punished, then there is no moral imperative on us to not make prison deeply unpleasant. Rather than seeing convicts as broken individuals who can be fixed and reintroduced back into society with the correct programme of rehabilitation, we are encouraged to castigate them as subhuman and unable to ever readjust, and this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a small wonder that criminal recidivism is so high. Norway, which bases its "justice" system on what is useful to society than justice in the sense of hurting people who we believe to deserve it, has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the world. When we abandon the idea that hurting people is somehow morally right, it is better for everybody.

One immediate implication is that giving victims a greater say in the punishment of criminals is a terrible idea. Making criminals face their victims as part of the custodial process, or perhaps in lesser cases perform community service to their benefit, does bring home to the criminal the social cost of their actions and has merit to it; allowing said victims to exercise a fleetingly satisfying but ultimately socially useless form of retribution does not. Our current society as a whole, detached from the particular harm that the criminal causes, is still susceptible enough to the siren song of vengeance to forget what is socially useful. "Victims' justice" will only send us even further down the wrong path, both ethically and socially.