Moral Harm Distinguished From Vengeance

In my previous post, I admitted that I had lived over 80 years with deficient moral thinking. More precisely: moral thinking deficient for thinking as a Christian. Some might say that my moral thinking was just fine for progressive moral thought.

I suppressed the component of moral thinking which I now call “moral harm.” Moral harm is harm which ought to be because of a violation of a moral law. Concomitant with suppression of the notion of moral harm, I suppressed use of a notion of retributive punishment. I understood retributive punishment as infliction of harm which ought to be simply for violation of a moral law. When I had justified punishment, I always analyzed proper punishment as corrective action. In punishing, I believed that we should look to make the future better; not try to correct the past. I had a teleological notion of punishment. As a result of my failure to accept a notion of retributive punishment, I could not think consistently about a fundamental doctrine of Christian belief: Jesus suffered and died for our sins.

In this post, I trace my implicit dismissal of the notion of moral harm to an explicit dismissal of the notion of vengeance. This provides an occasion to distinguish moral harm from vengeance.

I was blessed to have been educated in a home and in schools where revenge or “getting even” were categorically condemned. The “Sermon on the Mount” amongst other passages guided our moral teaching. Even now, I sometimes think that the only special moral teaching of Jesus was categorical condemnation of revenge. Of course, this is not to say that we did not take revenge or look out for opportunities to “get even.” If I had been in a culture which accepted dueling, my personality would have led me into numerous duels. Probably, getting revenge or rationalizing our revenge were our most common sins. The rationalizing misled me to keep suppressing the notion of moral harm. For people would often say I am just giving them what they deserve” when clearly they were delighting in inflicting harm on someone who wronged them. Implicitly, I kept thinking that any notion of infliction of harm for a wrong would be revenge.

But how can we distinguish moral harm from vengeance? Moral harm is harm which ought to be for violation of a moral law. Vengeance is harm, or attempted harm, to balance harm done to me, or a group with which I identify. I use “balance” to emphasize that vengeance, like moral harm, is not teleological. They do not aim at producing good. They aim at restoring the status quo ante the violation or injury. Reaction to an injury to protection oneself or deter future injuries is not vengeance.

But despite that similarity, the differences are tremendous – they are in different categories. Confusing moral harm with vengeance is a category mistake. Moral harm is in the category of moral norms. They are ad hoc commands that harm ought to be for this violation. Vengeance is in the category of events taken, or planned, in the natural world.

Could a person in fact unite vengeance and moral harm in a single action by inflicting harm on some one who violated a moral law to harm him? No. If his intention is to satisfy his desire to “get even” he has not fulfilled the prescription that harm ought to be done for violation of the law.

In general, I think that it is best not to have victims inflict retributive punishment because it is then so easy to confuse vengeance with obeying the moral laws about moral harm. The result being a confusion about the legitimacy of the notion of moral harm.