Last week on the mall, students held signs with the question, “What is the difference between revenge and justice?” This is a question I wanted to answer.
Revenge is an emotional response to a perceived harm. It is personal, and it’s executed by or on behalf of the person harmed.
Justice, on the other hand, is a social concept. Just punishment is executed on behalf of and for the good of society. It is impersonal, and not meant as retribution or to be a warning to others who contemplate similar crimes.
Just punishment is directed solely at the person being punished, and it respects its recipient’s humanity. For this reason, it cannot be more severe than the offense committed. However, it must be sufficiently severe so as to teach its recipient the severity of his or her crime. How much harm the offender causes, the offender should receive. Any more would be an injustice to the offender; any less, an injustice to society.
Just punishment cannot be withheld out of sympathy for the offender, and must be no less severe than the crime committed. If punishment fails to fall within these constraints, it cannot be called justice. It can only be called punishment.
Revenge has no such constraints. Revenge does not have to be proportionate to the harm it responds to or respect its recipient’s humanity. In almost any form, it can still be accurately referred to as revenge.
So, to answer the students’ question: this is the difference.
graduate student, accounting