Friday, May 11, 2007
The Folly of Vengeance
Too many of our public policies seem to be based on vengeance rather than reason. Some examples:
- Our economy needs workers who are willing to take on jobs that involve low pay and manual labor, such as harvesting crops, cleaning hotel rooms and making beds, and various types of day labor. However, instead of adjusting our immigration quotas to accommodate the number of laborers needed, we force these willing immigrants to enter the country illegally. We now (at least some of us) express anger at these workers who have broken the law and advocate a policy of vengeance, such as denying them even emergency medical care, education for their children, and the like.
- We have a broken drug policy. Persons who are caught with small amounts of “controlled substances” are sentenced to long terms in prison, whether or not they are addicts. This is a policy of vindictiveness, not reason.
- Our whole criminal justice system seems to be based as much on vengeance as on rehabilitation or protecting the public. Our tender concern for the victims or the relatives of victims of violent crime validates the desire for revenge rather than a reasoned policy of encouraging the criminals to change their ways and repay society in useful ways for their misdeeds.
Religious leaders and teachers tell us that God does not approve of humans taking revenge on each other. Some quotes that come to mind are “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” and “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” We are taught that giving up vengeance is a religious obligation. The implication is that if there were no God, it would be all right to take vengeance whenever we please. Perhaps humans were prone to vindictiveness during the millions of years before they discovered God, or before God revealed Himself to them.
I don’t think so. I think that, as human society developed and evolved, thoughtful people noticed that vengeance tends to be self-destructive. Vengeance leads to blood feuds between families. Vengeance is often a waste of precious resources. Society functions better if people practice forgiveness rather than vengeance. This is a lesson learned from thousands of years of experience in living together in groups larger than a single nuclear family. I think it was only much later in human experience that such lessons in practical morality, such as foreswearing vengeance and following the golden rule, were given a religious sanction. Religion, or the belief in a protective God, came from such sources as ancestor worship and from attempts to explain inexplicable and unpredictable events, such as earthquakes, eclipses, and floods. The dead ancestor was the protector of the tribe or family. Different gods produced different events of importance to people engaged in either hunting and gathering or agriculture.
Today science has brought explanations for many of the events that were once attributed to angry gods who needed to be placated. We no longer believe in a god of rain, a god that produces earthquakes, a god that causes famine, and the like. We understand how these things come to pass and we no longer need a belief in the supernatural to explain them. We are becoming more and more secular. But we need to retain our moral values. The golden rule is just as applicable in an atheistic society as in a theistic one. Abjuring vengeance is just as important without a personal God as with one.
I’m getting to a point; really, I am. My point is that people who make public policy should carefully examine these policies to make sure they are based on cool-headed logical reasoning and not on hot-headed desires for vengeance. We should not sentence convicted criminals to very long sentences just because some members of the voting public think they should be punished and punished and made to suffer for what they’ve done, etc. Vengeance in this case requires the construction of additional prisons and the hiring of more prison guards. Many of these criminals could be just as effectively be punished by putting them on probation. On probation they would be encouraged to learn how to live in our society without committing additional crimes.
Another point is that our drug policy is wrongly based on taking vengeance against the users. We hate and despise drug addicts. We believe they are monsters who rob widows and orphans. We believe they are hopelessly depraved and deserve the worst possible punishment. We thirst for vengeance against those who use drugs in spite of our well-meaning laws to forbid such use.
We must learn to give up the desire for vengeance.