Do we have to return evil for evil?

In her autobiography, Rosa Parks described Martin Luther King Jr.’s response to a physical racist attack. During one of his public speaking engagements, a white man raced onto the stage and started moving toward King in a belligerent manner. King showed no fear, turned to the man, dropped his hands to his sides and waited as the man reached him and began pummeling him. King did not defend himself. Others quickly subdued the man, but King asked them to be gentle with his attacker, as he had acted through a lack of understanding. King wished to speak to him and later did. Why would Martin Luther King Jr. do this when our “instincts” are geared toward self-defense? Should we expect this type of behavior more often from ourselves and others?

King was the inheritor of a legacy of passive resistance, and its accompanying non-violent ethical system, stemming from Thoreau, moving through Thoreau to Tolstoy, through Tolstoy to Gandhi and landing back in the USA again with King. He believed, with the Biblical Jesus, that we can overcome hostile instincts and predispositions and choose to act with love and compassion instead of reacting violently to an offense.  Regardless of the harm he received, he believed malice was not the only choice he had in his repertoire of responses. To King, we have choices besides what our impulses tell us to do, and the salvation of our society is contingent on each person making the right choices.

Jesus was, however, not the first person to challenge the lex talionis (law of retaliation) – the belief that if you are harmed it is OK to follow your gut and harm the person who harmed you. Socrates believed, according to Plato in the Crito, that we did not have the right to return evil for evil or, in other words, to seek retaliation for a wrong done to us. Socrates also recognized the difficulty of not returning harm to one who has harmed us; he knew he was in the minority and few people would even want to try to understand or control their emotions. Even before Socrates, Confucius pointed out that returning evil for evil merely created a vicious cycle. He encouraged a disciple to seek revenge but to dig two graves, since the disciple would need one for himself.

Humanitarians of the past and present have warned us against our desire for retaliation, but the admonitions are often ignored and feelings of retaliation are unquestioned and pursued with glee. Should we not take a closer look at this emotional need? What is retaliation? How is it triggered? Do we need it or do we need it to the degree to which we use it? Can we reach a state of being where we simply no longer return evil for evil? Will this lead to catastrophe or bliss?

The theory to support any type of punishment/retribution involves deterrence. Retribution as an act of deterrence is probably the most used and least questioned emotional response in our society. The deterrence value of punishment is the core of our criminal justice system. We believe deeply that if a person gets away with a crime unpunished, this will not just give license to others to commit the same crime, but it will encourage others to commit the same crime. If we punish people for crimes, the number of these crimes will be reduced. We must punish in order to stop others from doing the same terrible things. There are a couple problems with this, however: 1) we often punish people who are clearly not responsible for their harmful actions and 2) our massive deterrence system has not stopped crime; it has not even dented it.

Even severely mentally ill people, people who suffer from schizophrenia, are punished in our legal system as if they were “responsible” for their actions. Lawyers have brought brain scans into court rooms showing tumors and lesions that they asserted caused criminal behavior, and there was good scientific evidence to support this. Judges and juries, however, have not readily gone for this. If the crime was ugly or terrible enough, it does not matter how many tumors or lesions a person has or how severe the person’s mental illness might be. That person will be punished.

This is due to the basic fear we have that if we allow someone to get away with a crime, this will encourage others to commit the same crime. If a lawyer says his client killed someone because of a mental illness, we are afraid every criminal will use mental illness as an excuse to kill and get away with it. So we punish the mentally ill, just in case. Buried deep within us is an irrational fear that if we do not seek retaliation, if we do not punish wrong-doers, we are actually encouraging anti-social behavior. It does not matter whether this predisposition to strike back is learned or innate, it is irrational in nature and over-applied in practice.

Let’s revisit a story Foucault told: it did not matter to the 18th century French power-structure that Robert Damiens was severely mentally ill; he had tried to kill the king. Therefore, he had to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Damiens, who was barely mentally coherent when he attempted the murder and did not come close to succeeding, had to be publicly tortured to death as a lesson to anyone who might consider regicide in the future, even though only severely deranged folks oblivious to the force of punishment probably ever considered such foolhardy assassination attempts. 

Retribution or punishment, as a form of deterrence, is, thus, like a “fixed action pattern” in humanity and not a form of rational decision making. The male red-bellied stickleback fish will attack anything red during mating season whether it makes sense to attack it or not (sometimes they attack red-colored stones). Any time there is an act of harm, we have to attack someone (whether he was responsible or not), because nature evolved this fixed action pattern into us for a basic survival value, regardless of how wasteful and ineffective it might be in truly eliminating harmful behavior on a large, urban social scale (maybe it works better in smaller social units). We do not show high ethical values when we pursue retribution or punishment. We act like a truculent fish in mating season. Also, we fail to realize that any action which can be punished is action which could have been prevented.

In the Crito, Socrates states that he has always been one of those folks whose actions must be guided by reason. He argues that intentional harm is obviously wrong. He then points out that retribution and punishment are intentional harm. Therefore, retribution is wrong. The mass of humanity is willing to give in unthinkingly to emotions and predispositions, but Socrates will not. He will strive for freedom, inner awareness and right behavior regardless of the difficulties and consequences.

There would seem to be a slight flaw in his argument. The premise that punishment is intentional harm fails to distinguish between circumstances causing an initial offense or crime and the circumstances causing the act of retribution. For example, if an older brother poisons his father to inherit the family fortune and a younger brother seeks to have him punished, you cannot possibly compare the older brother’s motives with the younger brother’s motives. The younger brother could argue that his motives are pro-social in that a form of deterrence may occur. This initial act of harm is clearly anti-social. But what is significant in the Socratic argument is that it reveals the underlying emotional or motivational  state behind retribution. Not retaliating would be a choice based on reasoning, retaliating means following an inborn or learned predisposition.

What about the argument that not returning evil for evil would lead to chaos? Or, on a smaller scale, it would lead to the total destruction of a person’s reputation and his branding as a coward. If you allow someone to insult you and you take no action to defend yourself, you open yourself up to more abuse as people will consider you to be weak. Well, we can look at the very real Chinese historical character of Han Xin. At one point in his youth he was challenged by an ignorant bully to either kill the bully or to disgrace himself by crawling through the bully’s legs. The idea of killing the guy seemed absurd to Han Xin, so he calmly and deliberately crawled through the bully’s legs. Yet, instead of being destroyed through this action, the right people saw it as an act of strength and Han Xin rose through the military ranks. He is widely known in China as one of the few Chinese generals who never lost a battle.

A young Zhou Enlai, who later became the first Premier of the new nation of China (second in power to Mao), had been told this story by his adoptive mother and it helped mold Zhou’s character. Zhou learned how to bend instead of breaking and rolled with the sometimes humiliating punches inherent in the tumultuous years of Mao’s rule. His ability to bend without breaking was essential to the future progress of China, as he created the blueprint for China’s economic development. His courage to endure and not fight back ultimately helped in the betterment of life for tens of millions in China.

As a humorous aside, we can even see references to the importance of non-retaliation in the popular culture. Do you remember the episode of Happy Days when Fonzie promises a priest that he will not fight for at least 24 hours? Or did you ever see the film starring Gregory Peck and Chuck Heston called The Big Country? Peck plays a character from the East who refuses to carry a gun and does not make great efforts to defend his “honor” in the old West. Yet, when the macho character played by Chuck Heston decides to push things too far, Peck’s character engages in a prolonged fist fight with the Heston character and beats him. It was not cowardice guiding Peck’s character’s behavior, and he proves this by showing he is quite adept at fighting, but chooses not to.    

What seems especially pernicious is the glee with which people follow their body’s urging to pursue retribution. The area of the brain called the caudate nucleus gets triggered and releases chemical rewards which also keep the memory of the offense fresh so that a vicious emotional cycle is created. I do not think we need to know the brain chemistry involved, but we need to know that there are times when we feel irrationally mobilized against another human being because we perceived he has wronged us, and good becomes evil and evil becomes good. We feel we have every right to harm this person. This is entirely emotional and irrational in origin, and it might have been what Socrates meant when he said retaliation is intentional harm.

We do not have a forgiving attitude as a cultural value, but we who want to see goodness, mercy and kindness overtake malice need to promote this as a cultural value. You can say that a lack of deterrence will mean social chaos, but, again, that which can be punished can be prevented. We can create a less violent and more humane society. We can, for example, look to Asian cities with low police presence on the streets for confirmation. We have to promote the value of looking at the choices we have in lieu of punishment or retaliation. We cannot rely on our caudate nucleus and dopamine surges to improve ourselves and society (things will become worse), but on our higher order thinking skills and our compassion.

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