Justice and Revenge, Rosenbaum Trolling

I heard Thane Rosenbaum on NPR yesterday, and was instantly struck by how juvenile this law professor’s understanding of justice and human nature is. (Greenfield wrote last week about Rosenbaum’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece.)

Rosenbaum’s stated premise is that justice equals revenge: “A call for justice is always a cry for revenge.” This is transparently false. There are many different notions of justice, and often when an injured person calls for justice he seeks restoration rather than retribution.

Rosenbaum asks, “Now, in cases where we have the worst of the worst, where there’s no question of someone’s guilt—heinous murders—why is it that we’re so ambivalent about actually providing just desert?” One answer, obvious to anyone who has ever shook hands with the criminal justice system, with ethics, or with Philosophy 101, is that the result of our actions is not necessarily an accurate measure of what we deserve.

In the CHE piece Rosenbaum writes, “America is no less civilized or law-abiding because bin Laden was assassinated.” This is at best arguable. I get the impression from listening to and reading Rosenbaum that he is trying to make his personal impulses the norm. But society serves to moderate, rather than amplify, personal impulses.

On further reflection, I can’t believe that a law professor is really so much of a simpleton. It’s not that Rosenbaum has a juvenile understanding of justice and human nature. I think it’s that he’s trolling us.

There is an interesting discussion to be had of the proper role of retribution in the American criminal justice system: retribution is a natural impulse; why should it yield to our moral intuition that punishment should be proportional to responsibility? Why should society strive to be “better” than its members, where being “better” means not satisfying members’ undeniable retributive impulse?

Unfortunately for that discussion, Rosenbaum overstates his case to the point of triviality to get attention (you’re welcome) and to sell books.

3 responses to “Justice and Revenge, Rosenbaum Trolling”

  1. Well, darn it, you made me go and have a listen. I just can’t figure out this guy’s angle. It sounded like he’s running for either the town council of Hell or Tempe Arizona. Forgive me if I got it wrong, but he seems to think that a plea bargain is not ethical as the victim’s right to revenge is short circuited? I seem to recollect that there was a provision for “Sanctuary Cities” in the Old Testament, where one could escape the lust for revenge by the victim’s family by fleeing to one of them and seek sanctuary on the horns of the altar. Seems like a “no-contest” plea there.

    But I just don’t get the angle he was trying to present, when our prisons are stuffed to the groaning point, redemption in short supply and our court system flooded with sinners. It sounded like he was making the case to make it even worse, as somehow being Ok? Again, the case for short selling pure Revenge is rooted in the Torah part of the Bible, which serves as the basis for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Law. Somehow he missed that.

    Someone correct me on this, if I’m getting it wrong. There was a lot to digest. Ric

  2. I would find these vengeance-for-victims advocates more credible if they would follow the logic through to the obvious conclusion that the only appropriate punishment for victimless crimes is none at all.

  3. The whole concept of “trolling” takes on new meanings these days. I often wonder if people really believe the stupid crap they spout these days.

    Having said that, belief is not rational and resists things like evidentiary arguments. People believe what they want regardless of the facts or the rationality of the belief.

    I just end up shaking my head and thinking to myself, “Wow! Really?”

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