The notion that someone deserves what they have coming to them is a key factor in the justification of retribution.
The main difference between retribution and revenge is that retribution is often referred to in the more legal context that looks to punish a person in way that is “proportional to the crime” they committed. Retribution is also called retributive justice, and it plays a large role in the criminal system of most countries.
Revenge (or vengeance) is a word that tends to be used outside of legal systems as well. In fact, any act that looks to inflict harm on another due to some perceived injustice is vengeful or an act of revenge.
And people just seem to just love revenge. The empowering feelings that vengeance plays is both intuitive as well as something that is often enforced by society. Just look at movies in which the bad guy “gets what he or she deserves in the end”. Oh boy do people just love seeing that bad guy punished. Those endings often give people far more satisfaction than simply the bad guy being caught and imprisoned. And if the bad guys are caught and imprisoned in the movies, people want to see that their prison sentence is harsh, certainly not some country club that happens to have bars on the windows.
We are brought up in environments where people are blamed, shamed, and embarrassed. Even within families people seek types of revenge. A nasty divorce where a person is hurt leads to battles over children, and attempts to make the lives of their ex as terrible as possible, usually at the expense of the child or others.
This is the world we live in. People want to feel that others get their “just desert”. So of course this bleeds into the legal system we have. And though retributive justice in the legal sense is supposed to not be personal and not be about seeking pleasure at the expense of others, it very often is. And even when it is not, it’s based on the faulty notion that the person who commits a crime is actually deserving of some punishment in relation to that crime.
Retributive justice looks to atone for a past action, and is therefore, backward-looking. It looks at the action a person took and says that such a person now “deserves” a certain punishment in order to offset their action. It blames in the strong sense. This differs from a more consequentialist type of justice that simply looks to do what it must for the sake of future utility. Consequentialism is only concerned over future consequences, and therefore, unlike retributivism, it’s forward-looking.
The free will debate has a lot to say over whether retributive justice is, in fact, “justified”. Without the free will abilities defined here, the very notion that someone “deserves” punishment for something they have done needs to be abandoned. The very idea that a persons need to atone through being in some way harmed, simply because that punishment is deemed to “fit the crime”, becomes this backward barbaric concept.
The only way to justify the notion that someone “deserves punishment” is to believe that they could have, of their own accord, done otherwise. It’s to believe that, prior to their action, the other option not to commit the crime was a real (ontic rather than epistemic) possibility that they truly “could have decided to opt for”, and that such a decision would have been “up to them”. If someone, in actuality, could have decided not to commit the crime – but did so anyway even though the option not to was just as viable (and just as up to them), that free will idea lends credence to the notion that they are blameworthy and responsible in the strong sense:
If they are truly to blame in this sense, that implies they actually do deserve a so-called “punishment that fits the crime”. Deserve justifies retributive justice, or an act of vengeance that “evens things out” or “makes things fair” or “offsets the harm they caused”. How many times have you heard the colloquial expression that he or she “deserved that” or “deserves what they have coming to them”. People truly believe this, and the belief that people could have, of their own accord, done otherwise feeds into these ideas.
The belief in free will helps to enforce ideas of blameworthiness and “just desert”, and in turn feed a justification for retribution.
Without free will, retributive justice cannot be rationally justified. What is in its place is a wholly forward-looking utilitarian approach to the criminal system. Retributivism gets replaced with rehabilitation when possible. The purpose of incarceration is not to retributively punish but as a preventative measure over future harm, analogous to a quarantine model. And if punished at all, it can never be because the person actually “deserves to be punished”, but rather only as something we knows will deter future criminal action. This will also make us extra cautious about over-extending punishment to anything above the capacity to sufficiently deter (if we decide that deterrence is required at all). Under a “no free will” world-view, we will remember that people do not truly deserve the punishment.
Some people fear that a lack of free will means we have to let all criminals go, but this isn’t the case. Keep in mind that victims also do not deserve the harm brought on by dangerous people. We wouldn’t let a rabid biting dog roam the streets, even though it isn’t to blame for its rabies or deserving of being punished. Read here for more info about the quarantine analogy:
The removal of retributive justice due to a lack of free will does not imply the removal of a criminal system, only a change in our mentality and many of the retributive laws that depend on free will.
Keep in mind that this mentality doesn’t only apply to the criminal system, but rather the way we perceive others in general. We need to move away from the harmful psychology that builds to a retributive or vengeful mindset, and into a more forward thinking mindset. We need to look at the variables that caused the actions we find problematic, and look to adjust those variable so the actions do not keep reoccurring – all without blame in any strong sense of the word.
This places us more in the role of investigators and adjusters of harmful mechanisms rather than in the role of haters, blamers, shamers, finger pointers, and people who want to impose harm on to others due to what they had done in the past – not for the sake of utility – but because they “deserve it”!
Understanding that we lack free will leads to a more progressive and compassionate human animal. We need to move away from the past sludge of being blamers and more toward beings that are concerned fixers – at least if we are looking to progress away from irrational mindsets into a more rational animal. That is the world I want to live in, one where rationality and compassion thrives.
Also see: Deserve Justifies Inequality