Nussbaum: Retribution is a Useless Idea, It Can’t Change the Past or Help the Future

Retribution is a Useless Idea, It Can’t Change the Past or Help the Future

Philosopher, public intellectual and professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum is one of the pioneers of the ‘capabilities’ approach to human development. She’s also had a long-standing connection with India, working on issues of gender, law and governance. In her new book, Anger and Forgiveness, she explores the role of these emotions in criminal justice, social movements and daily life. The effects of anger are both personal and public, she tells TOI:

What is the nature of anger? Why is it ineffective in your view?

It is very natural to resent when one is wronged, and the demand for payback or retribution, which is in my view the most problematic aspect of anger, probably has an evolutionary basis. It is, in short, deeply human. But the demand for payback involves a kind of empty magical thinking, namely that the balance of the cosmos will be restored by inflicting pain on the aggressor; but that isn’t realistic. Punishment of some type may be useful for the future, by deterring wrongdoing and reforming offenders. But the retributive idea of blood for blood is useless and hollow: killing doesn’t bring back the dead, it just creates a chain of resentment that is bad for individuals and bad for society. In short, you can’t change the past, you can only shape the future, and payback as such does not help when you are doing that.

Anger is also seen as the emotion that jolts us towards social justice. What are your views on what some see as “necessary” anger?

This is a common view, and I’m prepared to grant that sometimes it is an instrumentally useful motivational jolt that can bring people into a protest movement. But the payback wish that is a profound conceptual part of ordinary anger is totally unnecessary in protesting against injustice, and a great liability in achieving a workable future. For this reason, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr held that people’s anger had to undergo “self-purification”, so that they would retain the protest against injustice and the courageous action to achieve justice, but get rid of the wish for payback. Instead, protest should be carried on in a spirit of hope, love of humanity, and determination to construct a better world. So it is totally wrong, as Gandhi often insisted, to think that a person without anger is spineless. “When I say we should not resent,” Gandhi said, “I do not say that we should acquiesce.” Dignified constructive protest is what we need, not resentful demand for payback. Nelson Mandela had a very similar view, based upon his study of Gandhi and also his long experience of personal self-examination in prison. In short, violence only begets more violence, hate more hate. To achieve justice you need hope in the future, and you need good policy ideas and a determination to work cooperatively with others.

Read more at The Times of India