Can payback, punitive action fueled by the desire to hurt an offending aggressor, ever be justified? In Anger and Forgiveness
, Martha Nussbaum emphatically answers “no”, arguing that payback and the anger on which it is based, even following severe loss, distracts one from pursuing the betterment and loving nature one should be striving to cultivate instead. Timothy Jackson admires Nussbaum’s appreciation for such a beautiful spiritual ideal but criticizes her for denying credit to the potential feeler of anger for overcoming the temptation to engage in payback, the initial presence of which is critical for a graceful and triumphant self-transformation. Diana Cates, qualifying Jackson, maintains that we should not assume in payback scenarios that it is suffering that is aimed at, even if the experienced pain of an offender is foreseeable. Granting the worthwhile high road Nussbaum and her respondents seek to travel, one may still ask: is there also a positive case to be made for desiring payback in the extreme case of responding to an egregious
offense, i.e., an offense that is violent, paralyzing, and life-altering? Payback will not bring a lost loved one back from the dead, but can it bring oneself back from the dead? This essay explores the merits of this possibility, honing in on the therapeutic aspect of the desire—and occasionally the acting out of the desire—for a victim to pay her aggressor back in kind. Drawing on the work of the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, the Judaic thinker and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, and the Christian ethicist and feminist Giles Milhaven, I argue that while no moral principle ever ought to be adopted out of retributive action—such action is by definition bereft of virtue
—we should nevertheless not dismiss too quickly the notion of there being any moral value
in desiring payback, for desiring payback might be an egregiously offended victim’s only alternative to the paralysis induced by malice. On this exceptional basis, payback strictly limited to its therapeutic scope may become, for the sake of preserving self-worth, not only tolerable, but a victim’s most preferable alternative.
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