Posted by: Jordan | December 29, 2008


Two related questions that have recently been preoccupying me are these: What exactly is “retribution”, and why do so many of us seem to have the need for it?  I’m not talking about situations that make your blood boil after someone commits some egregious and voluntary wrong against you –- knocks you in the teeth, steals your wallet or girlfriend, or murders an innocent person.  I think that initial reaction of wanting to, figuratively or literally, ‘hit back’ can be attributed easily enough to instinct.  What I am more interested in is that enduring feeling that someone ought to pay for the wrong they have done to you.

As far as I can tell, and unless cattle have been quietly plotting their revenge, humans are the only animals that feel this need for retribution.  Moreover, the need seems to be more of a thanatotic urge, than a general conscious rationalization of who deserves what.  We passionately feel driven to exact retribution when some kind of wrong has been committed against us, or against another equally undeserving person.  Forgiving and forgetting doesn’t seem to come naturally, or easily.

I think that this drive for retribution exists on both an individual, as well as societal level.  Currently, the sticking point between the less conciliatory factions of Israel and Palestine is certainly not found in the details of a two-state solution.  Rather, the politics of working out an equitable solution are bogged down in the pervasive feeling that someone ought to pay for the innocent lives already lost at military checkpoints, or through suicide bombings.  Afghan citizens are regularly recruited to take up arms for the Taliban when they feel retribution is owed against the allied forces that bombed their family, or destroyed their livelihood.  Politicians questioning whether military operations in Bosnia were ethnic cleansing, or merely deserved retribution, stoke Serbian nationalism still today.  Examples of this sort in international relations are endless. 

It is not enough that an equitable solution be arranged, or that past wrongs are acknowledged and corrected – someone must be punished for the transgression.  However, it is not punishment, per se, that I am interested in.  Punitive measures are regularly used in law as a deterrent to prevent people from committing wrongs in the first place, or to discourage repeat offenders.  Whether or not this is effective, and whether it explains why punitive measures are included in legal systems is immaterial to the current discussion.  It doesn’t get to the real question of why an individual or society feels the need to exact retribution when they feel they have been wronged.

While we tend to think of the desire for retribution as a more ‘base’ impulse, Nietzsche looked at it without the least bit of condescension. 

“Throughout most of human history, punishment has not been meted out because the miscreant was held responsible or his act, therefore it was not assumed that the guilty party alone should be punished: — but rather, as parents still punish their children, it was out of anger over some wrong that had been suffered, directed at the perpetrator, — but this anger was held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent which can be paid in compensation, if only through the pain of the person who injures.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality)

For Nietzsche, the fact that humans are the kind of animal that can make promises to one another, and remember those promises, is of key importance.  What makes us different from, say, chimpanzees, is that humans make implicit promises between one another all the time not to knock each other in the teeth, steal each other’s spouses or wallets, or murder innocent people.  When these promises are broken, then, according to Nietzsche, compensation is demanded in the form of pain inflicted on the offending party, i.e., we demand retribution.  In other words, when someone wrongs us, our need for retribution is a sort of settling of accounts, where the creditor is repaid through pain inflicted on the debtor.  Moreover, this settling of accounts is a perfectly natural, and desirable facet of humanity – it follows from our nature as animals that are able to give promises.  Moral tenets that tell us to “turn the other cheek” when we are wronged, are, according to Nietzsche, an invention of weak humans who are unable to exact appropriate retribution from stronger humans who have wronged them.  The desire to exact retribution is thus developed as a moral failing — “wrath” is, after all, a deadly sin.

So, should we accept the desire for retribution as natural and acceptable?  Is it what in fact makes us human? 

While I think Nietzsche’s sort of answer is intriguing, I tend to think the answer to these questions is still “no” — moreover, I think that when people tacitly buy into this sort of rationalized endorsement of retribution, they contribute to one of the most significant problems of this world.  Retribution is a serious obstacle that prevents many equitable resolutions from ever being realized.  Now, I don’t mean this to be a “why can’t we all just get along” kind of idea.  I think that violence has its place.  However, it is a fine line between violence in the name of justice and retributive violence.  The former can be constructive, but it requires a very structured and well-articulated idea of precisely what the violence is meant to achieve. 

This isn’t to say that I entirely disagree with Nietzsche on whether the desire for retribution is in fact “natural” – that’s a different discussion altogether.  I think it’s pretty evident that the desire for retribution is quite strong, and rejecting it may very well require a break from what comes “naturally” to us.  However, without a prior rejection of the idea of retribution, working out just solutions to interpersonal or societal conflicts becomes entirely academic.  There is little point in working out  just resolutions at all, when each side still believes there is retribution owed.  Deciding how Jerusalem ought to be shared is actually not the difficult part, but rather it is burying the commitment to retribution that is.



  1. super blog you have here, thanks for sharing it!

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