Monday, July 23, 2018

Third party vengeance

You cannot forgive someone who hasn’t wronged you, and it should follow that likewise you cannot take vengeance on someone who hasn’t wronged you.

But certainly there are actions that look very much like vengeance but that aren’t perpetrated by the victim. The treatment that pedophiles are said to receive in prison is a particularly awful example, but there are also various forms of mob justice on the Internet.

This kind of third party “vengeance” seems worse than ordinary vengeance. Ordinary vengeance is a failure to fulfill the Christian duty of forgiveness, sometimes a violation of procedural justice and sometimes a violation of retributive justice by being disproportionate to the offense. Third party vengeance, however, adds to the wrong-making features of ordinary vengeance one more ingredient: that one lacks the standing for vengeance.

At the same time, third party vengeance looks more like justice than ordinary vengeance due to the unselfish disinterestedness. Moreover, because there is no place for a non-aggrieved party to forgive, third party vengeance is not opposed to forgiveness in the way that ordinary vengeance is. These features only make third party vengeance look better, but in fact make it be worse. The reason for the disinterestedness is that one does not even have any standing for vengeance while the reason for the lack of opposition to forgiveness is that the paradigmatic attitudes that forgiveness forgoes shouldn’t be there in the first place.

It seems to me that just as forgiveness is opposed to ordinary vengeance, there needs to be something opposed to third party vengeance. But this something will be different from forgiveness. While true forgiveness is probably only a duty in the context of Christianity and is otherwise a supererogatory renunciation of certain (hard to specify) attitudes, “third party forgiveness” is something that is demanded by the fact that one lacks the standing for these attitudes. This “third party forgiveness” is akin to one’s duty to “forgive” those who one realizes not to be guilty (whether through lack of culpability or through simply not having done the deed). Thus, failure of third party forgiveness is more serious—even though it may feel more righteous!—than failure of ordinary forgiveness.

A complicating factor, however, is that there is a grain of truth in mob justice: No man is an island. A harm to one member of society is a harm to each. Nonetheless, typical cases of mob justice involve insufficient standing given the degree of harm. Yes, a pedophile by gravely harming a stranger derivatively harms me. But while the grave harm to the child deserves grave penalties, the derivative harm to a stranger is much less, and calls for very little in the way of penalty. (Quick but perhaps not very good argument: We don’t want to say that criminals in Tokyo deserve much, much greater punishments than those in Lichtenstein to account for the Tokyo community having over 200 times more derivative third party victims.)


Alexander R Pruss said...

... On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be a similar problem with third party gratitude, does there?

Heath White said...

But wait.

It is extremely common, all over the world wherever there is no central state to enforce the law, for harmful acts to be avenged, often by third parties, i.e. family members of a murder victim. The people involved tend to think this is both "vengeance" AND "justice" and, since nobody else is going to execute justice, they have a good claim to be correct. Moreover the general consensus in such societies is that family members of murder victims DO have standing to take vengeance/execute justice.

How does all that fit into your theory?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Family members aren't third parties: they are aggrieved, being close to the victim.

It could also be that such communities are delegating retributive justice to the families.

Philip Rand said...

Christ began his ministry with this statement (Luke Chap 4):

17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,

18The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

19To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. 20And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him

Where Christ stopped reading is quite interesting… for the next sentence had he continued would have been:
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;

SMatthewStolte said...

Expressions of gratitude require standing. If I were to benefit my brother greatly, and you did not know my brother, it would feel weird and creepy if you were to express the same kind of gratitude that would be appropriate had I benefited your brother.

This isn’t the same kind of problem we have with vengeance, because we’re not tempted to do it very often. But I wonder if there might be cases where unhealthy cults of celebrity could be formed because people try to express gratitude when they lack standing.

Philip Rand said...


Think of gratitude like this:

A world famous pianist is to give a piano recital. The audience is comprised of people who have educated themselves with respect to piano technique and the pieces the pianist is to play.

Though the audience is not equal with the pianist in playing ability; they are equal in gratitude. The pianist is grateful for the audiences knowledge and the audience is grateful to the pianist for his skill and interpretation of the music performed.


SMatthewStolte said...

Thanks for the comment, Philip. I agree that it is appropriate for an audience to show gratitude by giving a standing ovation. This seems to be consistent with my claim that expressing gratitude requires standing (in the legal sense of that word), because members of the audience are directly benefited by the performance & so they obviously have standing to give thanks. (They have standing to stand.)

Your suggestion that we can measure some kind of equality between the amount of gratitude had by the audience and the skill-level of the pianist is an interesting suggestion. I’ll have to think about it.

Philip Rand said...

But remember.... the performer is directly benefited by their knowledgeable appreciation... so, he stands to bow.

SMatthewStolte said...

Sure, I remember that. Did I say something that made it seem like I had forgotten?

steve said...


To use your own example, a number of critics have been writing exposés of Cardinal McCarrick and the culture of corruption that covered for his misconduct. It's because official channels failed that they in a sense take justice into their own hands. They're not vigilantes in the violent sense, but they are determined to discredit his reputation, because they think, with good reason, that his reputation was long-overdue to be destroyed. How does that kind of third-party scrutiny fit into your theory?

Philip Rand said...


It's not some kind of equality it is equality … there are no losses... the relationship can be formalised...

Alexander R Pruss said...


Damage to reputation is indeed a form of harm. However, in intending to damage someone's reputation, one need not be intending to harm or punish them. One may simply believe that in this case it is in the public interest that the truth be known. There are tricky issues here. The Catholic moral thought talks of the sin of detraction. In detraction, one truthfully reveals the secret sins of another without sufficiently good moral reason. I heard it said that there is a sense in which detraction is worse than slander (where you damage someone's reputation by a lie). For if you repent of slandering someone, you can always do something to repair their reputation by saying "I am sorry, I lied." But in detraction, all you can say is: "I am sorry, but it's true."

Nonetheless, the tradition does hold that there can be good moral reasons to reveal someone's sins. If my post is right, then third parties shouldn't damage someone's reputation *as punishment*. But they may still have other reasons to reveal the secret sins.

By the way, after reading one of the exposes a couple of weeks ago, I had a dream where I saw Cardinal McCarrick, in a clerical shirt and collar, lying in a muddy ditch. I remember feeling in the dream that he needed to hear someone being respectful to him, notwithstanding the wrongs he had done, and so I addressed him respectfully. I felt very sorry for him in the dream (as we should for all sinners, including ourselves).