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A Review Of Peter French's The Virtues Of Vengeance


Friday, Sept. 07, 2001

Peter A. French, The Virtues of Vengeance (Univ. Press of Kansas: 2001)

Justice Potter Stewart once described capital punishment as "an expression of society's moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct." In Justice Stewart's view, capital punishment "may be unappealing to many, but it is essential in an ordered society that asks its citizens to rely on legal processes rather than self-help to vindicate their wrongs."

While death penalty advocates push for more executions in the view that "justice delayed is justice denied," some death penalty opponents challenge Justice Stewart's premise that the state should supplant vigilantes as an avenging angel. They view vengeance, of either the due process or vigilante variety, as a "primitive" instinct unworthy of civilized society.

Not so Peter French. French, a professor of Ethics at Arizona State University, does not challenge society's need for the death penalty. Rather, having acknowledged this need, he goes even further — suggesting, in his quirky scholarly study, The Virtues of Vengeance, that even a perfectly implemented death penalty is not enough. Drawing inspiration from sources ranging from Kant to Western genre movies, French argues that the best revenge is one's own.

Morality and Revenge

French's defense of vengeance begins with the assumption that morality requires moral people to respond to the moral quality of another person's acts "in a morally appropriate way." Sometimes, French explains, this may mean "patting him or her on the back." But "[o]ther times it means killing him or her."

Rather than embrace Justice Stewart's view of capital punishment as a proper outlet for vengeance, however, French contends that by relying on the state to avenge our harms, we weaken our moral instincts. According to French, "[w]hat we have done . . . is to strip morality of its most effective and involving element: individual action provoked by the recognition of evil, the resentment drive to set things right."

French blames this state of affairs on "good people, anesthetized by moral insensitivity, moral cowardice, and/or economic considerations, not taking responsive actions and bearing their wrongful losses stoically, brimming over with Christian forgiveness." Judging by the seemingly endless escalation of violence in places where notions of blood revenge are familiar, like the Balkans and Middle East, French's concern with an overabundance of "Christian forgiveness" seems misplaced, to say the least. What is odd is that he does not focus on the overabundance of violence instead.

As a theoretical matter, French may be correct. But it is clear even French doubts that in practice lex talionis offers a trustworthy safeguard, since as with beauty, what is proportional is in the eye of the beholder.

Vengeance at the Movies

French sets forth a principled (though incomplete) account of the conditions in which he believes individuals would be justified in pursuing Clint Eastwood-like, personal vindication for harms caused by others. French, the author of Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns, offers his philosophical defense of vengeance with the Western movie genre in mind.

But French, I think, has it backwards when he argues that, as in the movies, we should tolerate or even encourage "virtuous avengers." Revenge plots in Western movies are emotionally satisfying because they humanize abstract, bureaucratic processes that are indispensable to our real-life system of justice. Movie plots simplify complex concepts such as due process, so that the fundamental moral message is accessible to their audience. They are morality tales, not practical alternatives.

Thus, while French's attempt to reclaim the "virtues" of private vengeance is provocative, in the end the book falls short of a plausible defense of self-help vengeance. Indeed, even French concedes that "concerns about equal protection, due process, and proportionality" require the state to stay in the vengeance business, rather than privatizing it entirely.

Virtuous Vengeance and the Limits of Revenge

In the end, a defense of private vengeance is not what makes French's book valuable reading for persons concerned with the contemporary justice system. Rather, French's scholarly study is most informative in describing the principles underlying "virtuous vengeance."

For instance, French convincingly argues that popular notions of justice require that punishment be preceded by a clear message of society's moral condemnation. In the movies, the avenging hero always tells the wrongdoer why he deserves to die before pulling the trigger. When the wrongdoer does not hear the message, or cannot understand it, the act of "vengeance" is "'nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering,' and hence an unconstitutional punishment" — as Justice White, writing for the Supreme Court, reasoned in Enmund v. Florida. (The effect is interestingly reversed in the recent movie Memento, in which the hero at times does not understand why he wants to kill, but remains set on doing so.)

French's insight that revenge, to be just, must be explained to its target clarifies issues raised in two cases before the Supreme Court involving capital punishment for the mentally retarded or minors. As French shows, the execution of defendants who cannot understand the full moral significance of their culpability and punishment is not morally defensible. Vengeance is an act of communication, and for it to be effective, the recipient must comprehend the dialogue — understanding the message sent, rather than experiencing the violence as mindless brutality.

Russell Dean Covey is an attorney at the Washington, D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly LLP. The views expressed are his own.

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