Delaney Meyers: The Autonomy and Control in, and of, Revenge

“What is it that issues from god’s justice or god’s mercy and does that which issues from god’s mercy abrogate that which issues from god’s justice?” (Nasr, 2) I find this to be a very compelling question. To me this speaks to the innate dissonance between forgiveness and “justice” (i.e. in a form of punishment). If someone is punished and then forgiven, have we really forgiven them as a person or have we merely been placated by the feeling that they got what was deserved? Does atoning for one’s sins equate to being forgiven by someone or does the apology need to be met with a certain ascertain of forgiveness? Is one even possible without the other? In other words, how does forgiveness work post-retribution; what are the next steps? I don’t think taking comfort in retribution or “justice” is forgiveness, at least it is not part of it’s definition. However I do think that every individual has a very unique path towards forgiveness as it involves so many aspects of the human psyche. This concept of taking comfort in someone’s punishment may be, for some, a step along the path to forgiveness. I definitely think of forgiveness as a journey, and also as something potentially bio-degradable over time. I think one can gain a sense of forgiveness that seems complete, but then anger and the distaste can creep back in. This is, however, mainly from personal experience and could just be a lack of understanding/experience/maturity etc.

The phrase “forgiveness implies free will” is also very important as a function of forgiveness, but does not necessarily address it’s nature (Nasr 3). Forgiveness is a word that seems to have many definitions and many different sources of truth or comparisons to other truths. For example, Nasr at one point says “god the forgiver, the compassionate”, equating the two. To me this means that one has to have a certain amount of love and understanding for the person they are forgiving in order to forgive them. We must be compassionate in order to forgive. But forgiveness is still yet another part of Divine mercy according to Nasr. To me this invokes the image of concentric circles. I would say Griswold also places heavy emphasis on the idea that those who do wrong are not a different breed than “us”, an idea commonly held by people who believe themselves to be in the right (Griswold 2).

As Govier points out, revenge is done in the name of making one feel better about something that has been done to them. I would extend this logic into saying that we usually want revenge against something that has been done to us that is out of our control, and therefore by “getting revenge” we are getting control over the situation, making us feel “better” or “good” (Govier 2). In the same way “forgiveness implies free will”, revenge too implies free will in that, as Govier says, harm must be brought about through the revenge-seekers own agency or it does not bring about the same satisfaction. Griswold discusses the addictive cycle of revenge. All people want to live autonomous lives where we are in control of what we want, how we get it, and how we chose to interact and be in relationship with others. Autonomy is related to wanting control over your life, and I of course think this is good. However I think when we feel we want revenge against someone who has done us wrong, part of what we want is to regain control of the situation. However, as Griswold illustrates, at this point we are not the one’s in control of our actions but rather revenge itself becomes the agent—“transforming a peaceful character into a connoisseur of violence” (Griswold 2).

In terms of the argument that revenge appeals to a common morality and is not inherently bad, I think this thinking is slightly flawed. One example Govier cites provides a comparison to the criminal justice and penal system. However this is complicated because it brings public safety and society into the picture, and in my opinion the morality of revenge should be evaluated on an individual basis because that is where people are least tethered to certain societal norms and that is how forgiveness functions (even in institutionalized forgiveness or political apology, the goal is to make it personal). The deterrence argument is also not one that has stood up to study over time, at least not in all cases. For example, the death penalty has not been show to actually decrease the rate of capital offenses committed, but at the same time is the epitome of institutionalized revenge: you kill, we kill you.

At one point Govier writes, “The victim acts to assert herself and transcends her victimhood” (Govier 7). In a way, this is true. However I’m not sure the relationship between victimhood and transcendence of victimhood is so binary. For instance her current success does not erase the pain once caused, and it is at the end of a long and arduous effort to disturb her husband. While a part of me appreciates the retaliation in this case, I do think it is generally not morally productive on top of painting a a picture of a “powerful woman” as someone who is petty, vindictive, and destructive.

At this point I’m feeling very interested in the relationship between capacity and forgiveness. How do Islam and Christianity discuss this in terms of apology and “repenting” but also in terms of punishment? I’m also interested in the question of how both biblical and quranic concepts of justice and punishment can be reconciled with the respective concepts of religion. How do these grey areas compare? I’m also very fascinated by the way god names himself. I think the way a religion’s god’s refers to themselves/are described by others is very indicative of the religious character associated with things like forgiveness.