Many of us comfort ourselves with the notion that life evens out in the long run. The evil go to hell, the good go to heaven. Or, if you are not religiously inclined, “What goes around comes around.” Meaning that eventually justice is done, something bad will happen to those who have done something bad, even if it looks like they are better off in the short run.
Then there are those who believe, usually in conformity to a “religion of prosperity,” that if you are injured by another you probably deserved it, since God would not authorize something that wasn’t in your best interest. Or, perhaps that the Almighty is giving you some sort of test or opportunity to learn and grow that will ultimately be of benefit to you.
Finally, there is a rather large group who don’t believe in any ultimate fairness in this life or the next — a darker view, for sure. They say that bad things do happen, sometimes randomly, and sometimes due to people who are malicious, unscrupulous, self-interested, and so forth. For those with that view, evil deeds will usually go unpunished and there isn’t much you can do about it. They ask the first two groups to defend the view that the world is ultimately just when they read the morning newspaper’s screaming headlines about chemical warfare, ethnic cleansing, and the like. They quote the great attorney Clarence Darrow’s comment that, “There is no justice — in or out of court.”
My own view is different from these. I am not counting on heaven to put things right, although I’d be very happy to be surprised on this point. Nor do I believe in the kind of God who would authorize injury to us on earth. If he exists, and if he is all-good and all-powerful, he can cleverly produce the results he wants without mayhem and heartbreak to we fragile souls.
On the other hand, I do agree with those who believe that many people escape external punishments: prison time, loss of money, that sort of thing. But, in my experience as a therapist and observer of life, I have seen very few people who behave badly on a regular basis and are happier for it. Let me elaborate.
Some of the most destructive people I’ve known are quite unhappy. Their self-interested actions discourage others from being close to them, so they have recurring relationship issues. Those who gossip too much (we all do it some) cause others to mistrust them. Then there are the promise-breakers, who also cause friendships to end. All these imperfect humans are usually clueless to what they do that injures others — perhaps even surprised that they obtain the reputation of being dangerous. If they are powerful or wealthy or beautiful, some people will stick around them hoping for a payoff. But that is not love or the kind of companionship that most of us want.
Would you really want to be the Mafia boss who must live in fear of arrest, imprisonment, or murder by someone close to him; who must have a body-guard or two around his palatial estate? Would you trade places with a person without a conscience because he has figured out how to lie, cheat, and steal his way to prominence? Do you imagine him capable of any real intimacy? Is money or property that important to you that you’d emulate his life if you could? Or perhaps you’d love the life of a gossip who works hard to believe that everyone loves her, but knows, deep down, that her relationships are shallow? Yet she is blind to the destructiveness that causes others to shy away from anything that is more than casual.
I don’t think you’d choose any of those ways of living. Nor do I imagine that it sounds appealing to become someone so self-interested that you trade the joys of friendship and sometimes even the good feeling that comes from self-sacrifice for the temporary personal satisfaction of selfishness.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned guilt. There is a lot less guilt out there than most people think. Most of us are pretty well able to rationalize the injuries we cause to others. It often goes like this: “He did X to me, so that means I can do Y to him.” Well, no, actually, unless you want to lose your own honor and decency, which usually comes in the process of trying to right the scales of justice or get revenge.
Here is an extreme example of losing your soul in an effort to extract revenge for a horrible betrayal. The speaker is Martha Nussbaum, Professor at the University of Chicago, in conversation with Bill Moyers:*
I wake up at night thinking about Euripides’ (play) Hecuba, a story that says so much about what it is to be a human being in the middle of a world of unreliable things and people. Hecuba is a great queen who has lost her husband, most of her children, and her political power in the Trojan War. She’s been made a slave, but she remains absolutely morally firm, and she even says she believes that good character is stable in adversity and can’t be shaken.
But then her one deepest hope is pulled away from her. She had left her youngest child with her best friend (Polymestor), who was supposed to watch over him and his money and then bring him back when the war was over. When Hecuba gets to the shore of Thrace, she sees a naked body washed up on the beach… She looks at it more closely, and then sees it’s the body of her child, and that the friend has murdered the child for his money and just flung the body heedlessly into the waves. All of a sudden the roots of her moral life are undone. She looks around and says, “Everything that I see is untrustworthy.” If this deepest and best friendship proves untrustworthy, then it seems to her that nothing can be trusted, and she has to turn to a life of solitary revenge. We see her end the play by putting out the eyes of her former best friend (and murdering his two young sons), and it is predicted that she will turn into a dog. The story of metamorphosis from the human to something less than human has really taken place before our very eyes…
One part of the message here, clearly, is what can happen to you if you become like the thing you hate, as Hecuba does when she murders Polymestor’s innocent children and puts out his eyes.
I’m guessing, though, that an outcome without punishment for the murder of Hecuba’s son might not be satisfying for some of you. Surely something should happen to Polymestor. And, just as surely, we need to have some sympathy for Hecuba, even if killing the kids does go over the line. She did, after all, first go to the local authorities to seek justice and was spurned. Perhaps you imagine the sweetness and closure that would come from revenge. Or perhaps it is simply that it is not right that Polymestor get away with this.
Two possible remedies. The first one comes from my wife, who wishes that the bad guys could have just one minute of self-awareness. She thinks that to see themselves as they really are for just 60 seconds would be a fit punishment in most instances. As I see it, though, the insight that would come in that short time might be worth the pain it cost and actually increase their chances of leading a more satisfying life. Still, my wife has no superpowers that I know of (I may get in trouble for saying that) and so her ability to create the justice she’d like isn’t going to happen.
Ah, but I have a remedy, too! It’s pretty simple. The punishment for most of the folks who specialize in the garden variety hurts of everyday life — the lying, the cheating, the broken promises, and the betrayals that don’t have a criminal penalty — doesn’t require either a super hero or any equipment. It is simply to let these malefactors continue to live the messed up and unsatisfying lives they seem intent on living.
*The interview excerpt of Martha Nussbaum comes from Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, published in 1989 by Doubleday, pages 447 and 448.
The top image by ElmA is called Justice and Law. The photo of Martha Nussbaum is the work of Robin Holland. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.