Retribution and Vendetta: A Philosophical Study


Text by professor Timo Airaksinen

Revenge reacts to harmful action. It is a basic, intuitively justified element of social life. However, the management of revenge is a challenging task. Sometimes, vendetta or blood feud follows: it means revenge on revenge when the participants neglect the question of guilt. This voids the idea of getting even with the perpetrator. Only the law and an authorized judge, when backed with coercive power, can stop the cycle of revenge by nominating the guilty party and punishing them. Two theories of punishment exist: retributive and non-retributive. The former theory focuses on a revenge-inspired idea of punishment. The offender must pay back the harm they have caused. Non-retributive theories focus on the laws the offender has broken: to break the law has its legal consequences. Retributive theories protect the victims through criminal law and the idea of proportional punishment as retribution. Non-retributive theories protect the law that guarantees the citizens' fundamental rights. First, the fate and role of the victim is primary, then secondary. The last chapter discusses the Finnish Roma's vendetta, blood money, and some popular retributive ideas of Texans.

This article is submitted to the Munich Social Science Review: Published here with the permission of the Editor.

The Big Picture

Personal revenge is motivated by an experienced loss, injury, and harm and justified by the fairness of getting even, which entails a rudimentary normative perspective even in the Hobbesian condition of nature.[1] Common intuition demands that the victims' side take revenge on the guilty party. This intuition looks natural, basic, obvious, and fundamental. We can call it a sense of duty. Figuratively speaking, it is part of the natural order of things in the human world (McCullough et al., 2013). However, revenge is problematic because the cyclical acts of revenge – tit for tat – tend toward vendetta that hurts communities by making cooperation impossible and eliminating mutual trust. What the law unites, revenge separates (Christensen 2016; Stainton 2006).

Vendetta is revenge on revenge that creates a perpetual feud between extended families, clans, or tribes in a social environment that lacks a central punitive authority or employs one that is too weak to control the situation. The participants may not recognize the authority. As it happens, a family member seriously harms or kills a member of another family. We can distinguish between the special and generalized cases: revenge focuses either against the killer or any family member. Initially, a vendetta may be special but then degenerate into a generalized case. Harm to its members disrupts family life and troubles its members in toto. What happens to one member happens metonymically to the whole family. They defend members' life, fortune, and honor, meaning they collectively must avenge the lost member. The other family stands behind the perpetrator regardless of her guilt. In this sense, a family is an organic unity.

We distinguish between two cases: the harmful act was prima facie justified or not (on the concept of harm, Feinberg 1984, pp. 31ff.). Maybe one tried to rob a person, in which case the victim's violent reaction was justifiable and, in that sense, defensible. But perhaps one tried to rob but ended up killing the person. In this case, her action is not justifiable. Maybe the killing was accidental, but the culprit is, anyway, responsible – but not guilty – for what happened. If both families think along such legal lines, punishment replaces revenge. If the violent act is unjustified, the victim's side can demand punishment or at least the payment of blood money (see the last chapter of this article). In this way, the cycle of revenge, or vendetta, may not start. The problem is that the two tribes may not agree on guilt and innocence without a third party who independently judges the situation and has sufficient power to uphold its verdicts. Without a competent and powerful, authorized judge, no consensus may arise.

Without a judge, crude consequentialism rules: only observed results and consequences matter (on their difference, Airaksinen 2022). The focus is now on suffered harm, offense, and injury independently of verifiable moral and judicial evaluation. Suppose a family member died. Let us avenge her by killing any member of the other family. Even if the original perpetrator disappeared, revenge is still possible – and necessary. The only fact that matters is that a family member is now dead. It does not matter why she is dead (Yu 2013) or who killed him.

Consequentialist thinking promotes vendetta. Because the original bloodshed's reasons and justification are irrelevant, revenge needs no special defense. The conflicting parties do not analyze what happened and why; what was the reason for the original killing. Revenge is pure exchange of harm, blood for blood, head for head. At the same time, this means the revenge cycle cannot be stopped. It only ends when the families can no longer attack each other.

However, even in the condition of nature, people entertain ideas of fairness and justice. What about revenge? When the enemies meet, perhaps the more powerful avenger kills exactly one member of the other group. If so, the principle of proportionality is at work, which may be the first clue to justice thinking. Action and reaction, killing and revenge, should stay in balance. If not, they escalate, leading to a war in which the weaker tribe gets destroyed. The parties learn to watch out for this, knowing they must limit the scope of vendetta. Two primitive moral principles emerge revenge, embodying the return of harm to the perpetrators and its proportionality, or from one head only one head, not two.

Vendetta's motivation is not merely revenge, the return of suffered harm by harm tit-for-tat. The naiveté of this idea is obvious: these practices are essentially symbolic and allegorical. One can find a fetishist element in the idea of suffering and causing harm. This may not be self-evident in the state of nature, but the fetishism becomes visible when the punitive state emerges (see the chapter on the Finnish Roma below).

Suppose a of A kills b of B when A and B are two extended families. Suppose B contacts the police, thus bypassing their original right to private revenge. They may want to avoid the vicious cycle of vendetta, which sounds rational now when policing is available. However, this may not happen. Why? The harm suffered by B is not only a lost life but a lost honor, too. No legal sentence and compensation may bring it back. The meaning of honor is a moot question: what is it? Somehow, A has diminished and humiliated B by killing b, and the only way to recollect the lost honor is to kill a member of A. Here, the focus is on killing, not who is killed and why. The state may execute a, but this is irrelevant. B must act and kill the enemy, which will retain their lost honor, understood as suffering diminishment and humiliation.

When blood flows, the lost honor is regained. This kind of thinking is difficult to put into words. To speak of honor may sound misleading, but what would be a better word? Honor is a fetishistic idea because killing and the idea of getting even as such have no connection to honor, and yet vendetta truly is a matter of honor. The spilled blood symbolizes lost honor. No legal system can help B in their search for such mythical compensation for their lost honor; only their reaction can – the fetishistic implications are clear. Enemy blood turns into restitution of honor, which shows the fetishistic treatment of blood in the mythology of lost honor that is vendetta (see the case of the Finnish Roma in the last chapter).

Revenge and Justice

Let us now consider the details of the simplest case of the above Big Picture. First, we provide no context, in the condition of nature, for individual agents a1 of A and b1 of B when they meet:

  • Individual a1injures b1, and b1 retaliates by injuring a1.

The symmetrical situation is well-defined because a/b entails b/a, and harm is specified as injury. As such, this case exemplifies fairness and justice in its elementary form, unlike the following case, which is not fully symmetric:

(1a) Individual a1 injures b1 and b1 retaliates by killing a1.

Our basic normative intuition is that (1) expresses the minimal social world as it should be. We cannot amend this world; thus, we call it fair and feel content. (1) and (1a) become corrupted when non-specific offenses and injuries associated with emotional dislike and hatred replace specified harm (Donskis 2003).

Suppose a1 kills b1. The killer is now alone because he has eliminated b1, leading to an asymmetric situation: a/b entails a/–. Thus, b1's surrogate b2 emerges; she enters and rectifies the situation:

  • a1 kills b1 and b2 kills a1.

The fact that b2 exists means a family B enters the fray. Why would b2 enter and intervene? To answer, we need to introduce some social context. b2 must have an acceptable motive to intervene so that b2 is b1's surrogate; what does that mean? A social bond ties b1 and b2 together. Therefore, they both hail from the same organic social unit we call a family. They subscribe to the basic organic communal norm: "One for all and all for one" (Hardin, 1995).

As Hobbes says, as individuals, a1, b1, and b2 are originally equal or equally powerful, but b2 can always kill a1 when other family members join her (Hobbes 1651, Part I, Ch13). (All agents can be understood as groups as well.) Another method mentioned by Hobbes is deception. This is not considered unfair if balance is impossible and the desired social goal is to avenge b1. By joining their forces, B's surrogate subgroup balances the power when confronting a1. But now, the elementary symmetry of the situation (1) has vanished; therefore, we need a novel account of its fairness. One way of thinking is this: a1 killed b1, which means he was more powerful; now B's surrogate group, b2, overpowers a1 – indeed, the case may look symmetrical enough to be called fair. The new situation is dynamically symmetrical: a1 was stronger than b1; now, b2 is, by its design, more powerful than a1. Another way to create dynamic balance is available to B: b2 selects a weak member of A whom he kills.

The Regulation of Vendetta

We can postulate additional social elements and thus consider harming and killing a person from a novel point of view. A member b1 of B died, killed by a1 of A:

  • Agent a1 of A killed b1 of B and thus harmed B.

How do we regulate such a situation? Because of B´s victimization, the revenge belongs to them. B may consult its members and nominate an avenger, or anyone may do the job: call her the vehicle of retribution. As we already saw, the vehicle can be a group if the job is too demanding for any individual alone and extra power is needed. Concerning the target of retribution, a1 is an obvious candidate, but any member of A may qualify as well: B was hurt, and now A must be hurt. If a1 is available, his selection sounds obvious and fair. He who harmed deserves to be harmed – and this directs revenge on him. However, this individualistic intuition no longer applies in the organic tribal context. Any A-member may serve as a1's substitute. We called this the generalized case of vendetta because any member of the harmed tribe may avenge the original harm to any element of the guilty tribe.

Suppose we accept the principle of proportionality that does not accept (1a); we get the following:

  • B harms A proportionally to the harm caused by A.

(4.1) Any member of B may harm any member of A proportionally.

After we specify the harm, these cases look symmetric, thus exemplifying the principle of fairness. But what creates a stable vendetta, a long-term nuisance that does not collapse into a social catastrophe? No one may want it, but once a vendetta starts, stopping is nearly impossible. How do we get a lasting vendetta from (2), (4) and (4.1)?

The proportionality condition may still look problematic, but its rejection leads to serious trouble we may call a war. A harms B, and next, B, to be on the safe side, harms A a little more, etc., like in (1a). The key is "little more," and the problem is that A and B cannot agree on reasonable estimates. To be certain that the tribe is not suffering more than the other one, they increase the inflected harm, and the other part follows suit. A destructively expanding power game begins. If A and B are equally strong, the "little more" may not materialize, and the losses stay balanced. If A is stronger, B will suffer more and must seek allies C. The conflict continues until the parties aim at destruction.

The generalized case allows vendetta to flourish because the original culprit, a1, can be replaced by any member of A and avenged by any B:

  • After A harms B, any b should harm any a.

At the same time, they must respect the following rules:

(5.1) After A harms B, b should not cause extra harm to A.

This prevents an all-out war. Now, as (5) says, B suffered harm, and therefore:

(5.2) Because A suffered harm, B should suffer as well.

And, symmetrically with this,

(5.3) Because B suffered harm, A should suffer as well.

All these are necessary conditions of continuing vendetta. However, we need a sufficient condition. A continuing vendetta follows only if we think we think serially and generalize (5.2) and (5.3). Suppose B kills A; therefore,

(5.4) A avenges their first death to B, B avenges their first death, A avenges their second death, B avenges their second death, and so on ad infinitum.

The fairness of the symmetry between (5.2) and (5.3) does not end the hostilities; on the contrary, they lead to a series of killings according to (5.4). The problem with (5.2) and (5.3) is that taken together, A suffers twice the harm B suffers. To amend this, the cycle of revenge starts. (5.2) and (5.3) are jointly the engine of never-ending violence, as (5.4) makes explicit. The key to understanding vendetta is to see how it is created by serial thought. If we isolate (5.2), we avoid vendetta: B kills A, and therefore A kills B, which closes the case. The harm B suffers is now the prototype of punishment.

Comparatively and intermittently, the two key cases above look symmetrical: A/B and, therefore, B/A. Nevertheless, the consequentialism of (5) is an uninformative, rude, and cruel rule that all the same binds the whole tribe. (5) starts a slippery slope from a primitive fairness requirement and the sense of duty, which, via a couple of links, degenerates into the general rule: "When we meet them, we harm and kill them by any available means because they try to do the same or worse to us." The key word here is "because," which makes the reasons for vendetta circular. The original crime does not matter anymore; the main point is that they try to harm us, which is why we will harm them. Ironically, vendetta may look like self-defense more than a duty to avenge the suffered harm.

In social life, myths and symbols of generalized fear and hatred replace the relevant facts, allowing the revengeful chain typical of vendetta. Vendettas utilize historical narrative traditions. Also, nothing good follows them; they have no beneficial consequences, and their social utility is zero. This is a utilitarian cul-de-sac. Rational agents may regret the rule, yet it appeals to the more emotionally minded traditionalists, especially when their moral code centers on manliness, bravery, heroism, self-sacrifice, and honor supported by the blood fetish (MacLachlan, 2023).

The Demise of the Legal Retribution

Next, I consider legal punishment a substitute for personal revenge and vendetta. I divide the theories of penal law and legal punishment into two classes, which are retributive and non-retributive. Already, Arthur Schopenhauer knew that retribution is backward-looking and non-retributive punishment forward-looking. The former pays back what has already happened; the latter protects law and order in the future. I call punishment retributive if and when it still contains an element of paying back and personal revenge on that basis. Most retributivists want to distinguish between the concepts of revenge and retribution, but it is not a good idea. Such concepts are too vague for that (Kaufman 2016; Rosebury 2009).

Unlike non-retributive punishment, retribution carries some traces of revenge or evokes the spirit and myth of revenge. A criminal must pay back what he did. The terms retributive theory and theory of legal punishment are often seen as synonyms, which is misleading. We should speak of penal theory. This chapter deals with the psychological relics of revenge in legal punishment, which I call retribution. This means I study the elementary psychology of punishment.

My pseudo-historical perspective focuses on the genealogy of justice and the law. The punitive state becomes necessary to control the lives of the tribes and families, making private revenge and vendetta not impossible, at least inadvisable – because they are now criminal activities. Yet vendetta remains possible between families, just like revenge between individuals. But all this is now negatively sanctioned. I focus on the remnants of psychological elements of revenge in the penal law (see the chapter on the popular idea of punishment below).

The state does not aim to maximize utility and happiness; it is no do-good state. In a Hobbesian way, it only guarantees, among many other things, minimal but lasting security between individuals and families otherwise bound together with the iron cables of vendetta. The state and only the state punishes and, in this way, adjudicates quarrels. It assumes the right to punish, which entails the state being powerful enough to guarantee its monopoly of punitive power. The state does not tolerate competing security institutions and firms because they would act like war-like tribes. Their turf wars are intolerable (Nozick 1974, Ch.2).

Killing now becomes manslaughter and murder, as the law defines them. The state has its punitive criminal laws developed, documented, reliably enforced, and uniformly applied to serve the citizens against lawbreakers, whom we now call criminals. The laws specify punishments that are retributive or non-retributive. Unlike the latter, the former is still associated with revenge as paying back. Accordingly, the latter system is more advanced because it does not play with the ideas of revenge it was supposed to eliminate.

If the punitive legal system utilizes the code of laws to satisfy the crime victim's intuitive desire for revenge, we call it retributive (Caruso 2020). The punishment provides, for the victims, a sense of ending to the kind of narrative the criminal case is. The puck stops here. When the convicted murderer is executed, the harmed family's representatives are sometimes invited to witness how/that it happens. This concludes the case for them as if they were part of a narrative. Excessively long sentences in the USA serve the same function because the prisoner will die in prison. The longest sentence in the USA is Terry Nichols's 161 consecutive life sentences in 2004 (Wikipedia). An alternative is concurrently running sentencing. Notice the analogy to serial thinking in vendetta and its opposite notion of intermittent revenge.

Also, the parole board may ask the victimized family whether they accept the parole. They can veto the board's recommendation. In this sense, the criminal justice system serves the interests of the victims. The retributive system's aims and interests are supposed to appease the vindictive victims. The criminal pays back what she has done to them.

Non-retributive punishment does not subscribe to Lex Talionis or payback as a response in kind, which provided such an easy justification for the death penalty but hardly anything else. Should the rapists deserve to be raped in prison? Should we mutilate criminals who disfigured their victims? Modern states and their public would not tolerate that. Why should we accept the death penalty? Non-retributive criminal law works differently. First, the retributive rule:

  • The criminal must pay back because of her crime, and the state institution called the penal system administers this process, regulated by criminal law, on behalf of the victim. The system's rhetoric is victim-centered.

The non-retributive penal theory states that certain acts and their consequences go against the law, or they break the law, and the law condemns the perpetrators on this very basis. The process sets up an accused person as a defendant. She broke the law, according to the prosecutor's evidence.

  • The prosecutor aims to prove that the defendant broke the law or acted unlawfully, for which she must suffer the relevant penalty. For every description of a crime, the laws specify a punishment. At this point, the victim´s opinions and interests are bracketed out. The system's rhetoric focuses on the offender.

In both cases, vendetta and blood feuds become impossible because the law settles tribal quarrels so that the harm to the tribe or its members is recognized and compensated (6) or becomes irrelevant (7). The search for the guilty party begins. The innocent victims may insist on compensation, but not privately. If they try collecting privately, they break the law and may be guilty of a crime.

In a retributive system, the law assists the victims in getting revenge while denying their private revengeful excesses. In the penal law, the non-retributive system focuses on the metaphor of lawbreaking instead of consequences to the victim. The coded collection of laws of Finland states, for instance: rape a person, and you will be sentenced to prison from one to six years, depending on the seriousness of the case. The text does not call rape a crime. The reader infers that rape is a crime because the rapist gets a prison sentence. Rape may look like a crime, but its actual legal definition does not say so: rape is any non-consensual sexual act when consent must be free and explicit. In such a system, the victim's feelings and opinions play no role – the law rules.

Typically, retributivists insist on the criminal's suffering: punishment must entail suffering, or at least this is how the public sees it. What does it matter if the law punishes if the convicted person does not suffer? The Muslim law chops off the hands of thieves – of course, without anesthesia. Their suffering teaches a lesson for all others. In Singapore, caning is still a common practice in prisons. Corporeal punishment guarantees suffering like nothing else.

Retributive sentencing tends to be more severe than non-retributive. The former listens to and appeases the vindictive victims and their families, while the latter is free to use sociological and criminological findings assisted by cool moral deliberation. The law is now fully independent of the lynching mentality. Lynching mobs claim they do not need the legal system, an argument that never makes sense in a non-retributive legal context. The former focuses on the victim's rights, which can sometimes be satisfied without the law. The latter focuses on the laws themselves: we must defend the legal system and the integrity of the criminal law. Criminals are a threat to the law – or the law and order in social life.

What is the proper punishment for a given crime? In a retributive system, its nature and severity are somehow guided by the criminal acts. The criminal must pay back what he did. Also, the degree of the victim's suffering is relevant to sentencing. Such guidelines may look informative, but how exactly they guide sentencing remains a mystery. The convict should suffer, but exactly how and how much? In a non-retributive system, such difficulty becomes more explicit: how can punishment be effective without causing undue suffering?

The theory and practice of punishment are essentially contested fields and even aporias, yet certain things are obvious. The punishment must not harm the convict, like amputations and caning do. Torture is out of the question and disfiguration impossible. If the punishment is incarceration, no extra hardship should apply. This is obvious for a non-retributivist but less for a retributivist (see the illustration in the last chapter). Incarceration may not entail prisoners' active suffering, which may be hard to accept and justify to a retributivist. You may try to add an odd element of hardship that rectifies this. In many countries, prison conditions are so harsh that they are likely to harm the inmates.

For non-retributivists, prison means punishment without suffering, pain, harm, or injury. Legally controlled isolation is in itself a punishment because, for most of us, it is something we do not want but fear and try to avoid by all means. It entails a wrong kind of social existence devoid of normal life and its joys. It is not a good life, even if the skid-row vagrants may want to spend their winters in prison instead of outdoors in the snow. Yet, long prison sentences tend to harm especially young offenders when they meet hardened criminals and learn from them. They may assume a criminal identity. This is a valid argument for leniency. Prisons should invest in education and work opportunities and be safe for the inmates.

The Aporia Called Punishment

The state claims a monopoly over punishment, which entails that all forms of vengeance, from the two-person revenge scenario to generalized vendetta, are illegal. A fortiori, the theory of retributive punishment does not work. The following sounds like an oxymoron: retributive punishment is needed because retribution is a social threat. The retributive theory must be revised because the law cannot serve private interests at any level. All psychological contamination must be cleaned off. We cannot refer to the law when we desire and claim personal vengeance. The law must stay autonomous to be an objective and impartial social force everyone can trust. The theory of punishment must avoid the retributive trap, but how?

Of the non-retributive views of punishment, we will discuss the deterrence theory. We teach the audience, the criminal element included, that crime has serious, intrinsically undesirable social consequences. It is rational to avoid breaking the law. The ensuing problems are easy to list: serious punishment, especially cruelty, may work best; moreover, punishment is a social deterrent, which is to say we may also punish not-so-obviously guilty persons. We must punish because of deterrence; whom we punish would be a secondary consideration. Therefore, we must add three caveats to the main idea: punishment must not be cruel or unusual, it should be proportional to the crime, and it should be just. All these conditions tend to be rejected by the public when considering and discussing legal retribution. Cruel, unusual, and, in this sense, spectacular punishments utilize the criminal, especially her body, to scare the public, but we must not use criminals as mere means. The conclusion is that the state punishes in normal and justified ways according to the legislation supported by some legal theory and doctrine. And the state must be powerful enough to punish all the local tribes that want to practice vendetta, even when they join their forces against the legal authority. If they succeed, we call the result a failed state. Mexico and its narcos are an example.

All this may sound unintuitive to the public, who still connect punishment with retribution, not with respect for the punitive state's laws. For instance, in Finland, where the death penalty is forbidden even during wartime, most people say they would accept it in the case of truly disturbing murder cases. These, of course, include serious sexual crimes against children. When asked, around 30% of Finns say they accept the legal death penalty. This figure is valid only when accompanied by an explanation of the inherent problems of the death penalty and much higher when associated with real-life narratives of disgusting crimes. To say Finland supports the death penalty is only a minor exaggeration. A typical argument is: I am against the death penalty, but in some special cases, I accept it (for example, Mäntylahti 2011).

The most sophisticated legal systems reject the retributive ideas of punishment. The offender paying back does not work because it does not fit the idea of breaking the law as the essence of criminal offenses. We should reject retribution, focusing on the victim's right to compensation and revenge.

Institutional Coercive Power

The coercer cannot systematically succeed when the agents are rational in a two-person situation. This is to say that only institutions successfully coerce if coercion means extortion by threats – other meanings are possible. I will also mention the direct use of force that is closely related to torture. The coercer presents a viable threat that the object person can neglect if she bears the realized threat's negative consequences. The object person is free to refuse and retain his stuff, but he is not free to refuse and avoid the dire consequences. His first preference is not to yield and to walk away from the situation, yet he is not free to do so. He is not free because what happens does not depend on his decision. He can refuse, but the rest is not under his control. The coercer's power advantage guarantees this. However, the coercer cannot succeed alone without her institutional background and its guarantees of trustworthiness. Hence, the game of coercion needs more than two players, or it collapses into mere force and violence (Airaksinen 1989; Feinberg 1986, Ch 23; Wertheimer 1987).

The two-person case is a cul-de-sac. Suppose a robber threatens me with a beating if I refuse to reveal my Amex card PIN. He has the power advantage over me; thus, I do as he wants. Is my decision rational? It is not: if I refuse, why would he realize his threat? He gains nothing and loses a lot by becoming guilty of battery and risking personal injury to himself. Therefore, I refuse, if I dare – but such emotions do not matter when we discuss rational agents. If I think the coercer is irrational, I should not reveal my PIN because he may still beat me after getting the number, and the worst possibility is that I lose my PIN and still get battered. And as a rational person, I want to avoid this. I should say no to the robber.

Such an example is misleading because the robber may torture me: he beats me more and more savagely until I comply. In most cases, such a strategy is efficient. Coercion with torture works in a simple two-person case. The reason is that the torturer makes his threatening position convincing by starting to hurt me. I believe he is committed to his threat and will continue. However, I can always resist my torturer by refusing to obey him.

I would say the torture case is coercive, but now the threat is not singular but continuous. The coercer first tells the victim that he is going to torture him. This is a normal threat that the victim may choose to ignore. When the torture starts and continues, he must reconsider. An example of a singular threat is blackmailing. You say you will tell my wife of my adulterous love life if I do not pay you a fat sum of money. I refuse; what should a rational coercive agent do? – nothing. Notice that threats are not always violent. The main difference between singular and continuous threats is this: unlike in the case of singular threats, the initial refusal to obey does not mean the torturer will not get what they want. But it is also logical to think he cannot, in two-person cases, continue torturing the victim, unlike an institutional torturer can. We can find shocking examples from the US "War against terror."

When the coercer is an institutional agent whose reputation depends on realizing his threats, they become convincing even without torture. The police and the Mafia both protect their reputation. Therefore, their singular threats are fully convincing. The police code of conduct is coercive because I know I am not free to refuse to cooperate and keep what they want. The police knock at the door; they tell me to open it; now I am not free to keep it shut and intact. I am free not to pay taxes, but I cannot refuse to pay taxes and keep my money. Behind this is the institutional need to keep threats convincing, backed by their major power advantage over a single agent. The threatened person cannot claim payback or entertain vindictive feelings. The hope to get even with the police and other state coercive agents makes no sense. State-independent coercive institutions are illegal. When they coerce, the victim may, in her dreams, get even with them in the name of justice.

State coercion is a major way of exercising power, even when citizens obey the law without paying attention to the underlying threat. Normally, we abstain from robbing and killing even without considering the relevant legal punishment. We pay our taxes and treat minorities respectfully. This is partly an illusion because the collapse of the punitive state will lead to anarchy, which may be more or less murderous (Dower 1999).

I argue that retributive punishment systems are coercive, unlike non-retributive systems. In other words, the former is threatening, the latter is not, which makes it preferable. My intuition is simple: retribution is a threat, unlike punishment. Think of a murder and the murderer who is afraid of punishment and tries to avoid it. As to punishment, should he choose a retributive or non-retributive system under which he will be judged? We can predict that the retributive system is more severe because it contains two elements: the sentence as retribution and as punishment. In contrast, the non-retributive system contains only punishment. Suppose the punishments are incarcerations of equal length, and therefore, the retributive system's prison conditions must be harsher – otherwise, the two systems would be equivalent. The retributive system must contain a retributive element; in this case, it may mean harsher prisons. This is the threat in question.

If it does not harm the prisoner, the punishment alone is not a threat, as I said above, but a probable and predictable outcome of the crime. The murderer tries to avoid it, of course, but this does not constitute a proper threat. It is like the cost of what you want. You consider the positive value of the result of your crime; next, you consider the negative value of the punishment and its probability. After this calculation, committing a crime may look like a rational choice – if one has a criminal mind. In this perspective, a punishment is not a threat. An expensive car's price may prevent you from purchasing it, but it is a threat to your finances only metaphorically. Law-abiding citizens understand crime as a moral notion and try to avoid it – regardless of circumstances, they do not steal. A criminally minded person steals if the situation speaks for it. He is ready to take his chances with the law and, therefore, he may consider the law as a threat. However, in the non-retributive case, the law is just a cost factor. But to say so indicates a criminal mind. However, neither is a punishment threat to a law-abiding citizen because a crime, for moral reasons, does not tempt her.

Harsh prison conditions count as an unjustified extra risk of harm. The criminal cannot accept them in the same way he must accept his legal punishment – this makes the harshness of the conditions a threat, and the threat makes the law coercive. Coercive, in what way? Coercion means the use of threats to make the other person obey. Here, the threat is the retributive extra punishment added to the legal punishment. The logic is: If you commit a murder, we apply double punishment on you, that is, one by the law and another informal and unstated; do not commit murder, and you avoid harm. Compare this with the non-retributive case where the murderer faces no threat but a systematically judged consequence of her criminal choice. She can think, I do this, and what is likely to follow is a court case against me. There is no threat in this scenario.

Illustrations and Examples

Blood Money

A real-life example of social fairness is blood money, an individually negotiated payment compensating for manslaughter. Here, we must be careful with the word murder as a juridical term. Blood money does not, strictly speaking, apply to murder because criminals were not in a position to pay or affluent enough – and blood money operates in times and places where the juridical system did not work properly. For instance, in 17th-century Finland, Swedish law could not yet be enforced properly. Suppose two landowners fought over a piece of a plot, and one killed the other. The custom of the land was that blood money should be paid, for instance, a couple of oxen and a flock of sheep. The poor people could not do this. Robbers did not qualify. Also, aristocrats and clergy were excluded: if a peasant touched them with the slightest aggression, the result was a death penalty. The case went first to the appellation court in Vaasa or Turku, and the culprit was then sent to Stockholm (Blomstedt 1986). At the end of the 17th century, the rule of Swedish law became gradually but firmly established in Finland. Especially in sexual legislation, the direct model was the Mosaic law.

Blood money prevents vendetta because both families believe in its fairness. Richard Gottheil and David Werner Amramn (1906) give an interesting account of blood money. The Jewish and Roman law did not allow blood money for murder or even accidental homicide. They write: "Among the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples, blood money or "wergeld" was commonly paid, and a regular scale of prices fixing the value of lives was established by law." In those times, the law was just oral tradition; thus, the two families negotiated the exact amount of blood money. If they could not agree, they fought it out.

The Jewish and Roman case entails that the state and its religious institutions were strong enough to inflict penalties, including the death penalty, consistently and efficiently. The authors give an example of an ox killing a Jewish man. If the case was judged to be a murder, the murderer should die; if the ox was the culprit, they executed the ox. Court cases against animals have a long history in Europe. Pigs were the leading criminal element before dogs. A murder required compensatory death, even if the murderer was an animal (Goodwin and Penforado 2015).

The Bible says, depending on the translation: "Revenge is my domain, so is punishment-in-kind, at the exact moment their step slips up because the day of their destruction is just around the corner; their final destiny is speeding on its way!" and "To Me belongeth vengeance and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste." (Deuteronomy 32:35) No private person may seek for retribution, which belongs only to God and His authorized church and state. It is easy to see why the Jewish law does not accept the idea of blood money: it bypasses God's ire. "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12:19). The Biblical law is retributive, and the punitive state law, in the old Christian societies, its derivative. To shake this tradition has been difficult.

The Finnish Roma's Culture of Vendetta

The Roma are an ethnic, cultural, and linguistic minority that has lived in Finland for over 500 years. 10-12 000 Roma live in Finland, and 3000 Finnish Roma in Sweden. They have preserved their unique culture remarkably well, considering they have experienced serious discrimination, marginalization, and other social hardships. In Finland, Professor Emeritus Martti Grönroos is a rare academic authority on Roma culture and the practice of vendetta between their families. He spent a couple of years in the Roma community during his research career.

Understandably, the Roma do not discuss vendetta except among themselves, says Grönroos, whom the Finnish MTV interviewed on 20.10.2017. I review his key ideas. His title is "The purpose of avoidance is to avoid blood revenge" (the original article is in Finnish, my abridged and edited translation). The key idea is simple: members of the families, related by vendetta, must avoid each other to avoid violence.

The history of many Romani families in Finland is associated with blood feuds. Among the 10,000 Roma in Finland, large 200-member families avoid each other. A blood feud is always between two families. Bloodshed can be avoided only if Roma families who hold grudges avoid meeting each other, which is a symbolic form of blood revenge. The cycle of revenge never ends. Blood feuds are not secret. However, this is a delicate matter outside the community. The Roma have lived in the margins for a long time. They have many other things they don't want to talk about outside of the community, but blood revenge is the most important for them. Grönroos supports open discussion. However, not everyone agrees on the direction the discussion has taken. Miranda Vuolasranta, the president of the Finnish Romani Forum, thinks that individual cases have been given too much weight. The media wants to maintain a negative image of Roma culture, and it is reinforced by individual people who talk about their own experiences of their relatives and families.

There are no rules for this system of vendetta. The enemy can be slandered and offended. The enemy can be harmed in every possible manner. Avoidance sounds too nice a word to describe a situation where a person has to run away in fear of violence. For some, things get to the point where there is no longer a place where they can live. As a rule, vendetta does not affect women and children. However, there are no clear rules about it.

Women's immunity sounds inconsistent with their need to move away, with their children, from their homes. The Roma families form communities; therefore, not all towns in Finland or Sweden may look like suitable places for them to settle.

In an interview on PoliisiTV (Police Television, in Finnish) on 6.9.2007, Riku Lundberg, a senior police constable, himself a Roma, states that vendetta among the Roma is a hard fact – as a child, his family was under threat. He says that avoidance is necessary to dodge bloodshed, and recent examples prove it – all this has happened. If the avoidance rule is not respected, a killing may follow. As he puts it, "blood will fly" (blood flows, in idiomatic Finnish, "veri lentää").

According to Lundberg, family A has seriously harmed or killed a member of B. B seeks revenge, which they realize when they meet a member of A. If A successfully avoids them, nothing happens. But time does not heal the wound, so in the long run, something must happen. Meanwhile, family B has an upper status among the other Roma. After taking their revenge, they lose that status to A, in an endless vicious circle. Lundberg says he cannot explain this willingness to get even when it means the loss of status that the revenging side has. To threaten is more honorable than to face it – which sounds natural enough. Power is always admirable. Vendetta has its mysteries, which again proves its ancient origin and logic.

As said above, the Roma have lived long in the margins and preserved their traditions well. Theirs is a remarkable community. The Finnish Roma's practice of vendetta, even in its restricted form, is noteworthy because the Finnish state policing and the legal system are so efficient. Yet, old cultures die hard.

Some long-standing and flourishing cultures lived in the condition of nature in the Hobbesian sense: they lacked written laws and coercive legal institutions. Their laws were based on oral tradition and social consensus. If consensus broke down, they fought it out. I have in mind two examples: the Islanding Free State from 930 to 1264 and the 20,000-year-old culture of the First Nations in Australia (Clunies Ross 2000; Bernt and Bernt 1999). Both were successful in their ways in their environment. Neither had a central coercive authority, unlike the early sub-Saharan traditional despotic kingdoms before European colonialism destroyed them (Lenski 1966; Canetti 1960, Rulers and paranoiacs: African kings). It is a pity that this interesting part of African history is so little known.

The Icelandic society is described in sagas, which give a lively picture of their retributive thought and practice of vendettas. The First Nations' legal beliefs form a complicated punishment, revenge, and warfare network. They did not wage total war, however. All this aims for fair solutions to quarrels; thus, continuing vendettas mean cultural failure. Berndt and Berndt write (1999, Feud and warfare, pp. 356-362):

In Western and Eaters Arnheim Land … some feuds can be traced back several years, with a balance between killings never quite achieved and all attempts at peacemaking proving ineffective. … The immediate aim of most fighting in this area is that the 'enemy' should be made to suffer the same injury that it had inflected – that is, compensation in the like terms. … In all cases we have outlined, while there is so much verbal emphasis on revenge, it is plausible to infer that underlying this is the more general aim of achieving order or balance. … In other words, peace should follow the application of law. But if this fails and dissension continues – if, for instance, a feud cannot be dissolved – then we have a state of war or potential war.

Popular Ideas of Retributive Punishment in Texas

I taught an elementary ethics class at Corpus Christi University, TX (in the Texas A&M University system) in 1995. My students were lower middle class and working class and had particularly confident and articulate ideas of retributive legal justice. They were teaching me; they did not hesitate with their opinions, and they all agreed. They failed to understand my counterarguments. Their constitutive background view was that prison inmates are radically different from normal people like they. Convicted criminals looked to them like a different race of people who could not be understood or sympathized with. They were still thinking like the eugenics specialists Caesar Lombroso in Italy and Francis Galton in England in the end of the Nineteenth century. Their ideas were more natural and lasting than one may think. Brooks writes:

Years of psychological and physiological profiling convinced the Italian physician, Caesar Lambroso, that criminals belonged to one of these so-called sub-races of humanity [….] A criminal was "an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals." Large jaws, high cheekbones, handle-shaped ears, idleness, and the love of orgies […] characterized the average criminal.

Galton tried to reproduce these results in England, unsuccessfully, although he believed that "we are entitled to expect to find in any large body of convicts a prevalent of the truly criminal [bodily] characteristics." (Brookes, 2004, pp. 210, 2011209, 2010)

I asked my students if they had ever committed a crime, and they all swore they had not. The prisoners were bad people; they were good. I told them I had committed many criminal acts, although I had no criminal convictions, and they became so horrified that the only way out was to say I was only joking. I was sure they would go and denounce me to the Dean. They would tell him their teacher has a criminal background, jeopardizing my future. My words calmed them down. They could not appreciate that we all commit crimes whether we realize it or not, but this does not make us criminals. Traffic violations, smuggling, minor violence, harassing women, underage drinking, drinking in the wrong places, occasional drugs, tax fraud, lying about social benefits, racist language, and other misdemeanor is common.

The students accepted the death penalty as essential without any qualms. A murderer deserves to die. They argued that Texas prisons are far too lenient. They said the prisoners' free education and free TV are wasted benefits – the students must pay. Life in prison is, as they said, easier and perhaps even better than the students' everyday struggles. They also thought that the prison sentences were too short. I asked how the families of the prisoners would feel if their loved ones' lives became miserable in prison to the extent that they were likely to be harmed. They did not react. They did not understand what I was speaking about. The students could not imagine prisoners having loving families. The US prison conditions are harsh, and sentences are very long. Some liberal lawyers in the US call their Criminal Justice System criminal. High-security prisons are dangerous places everywhere, but especially in the US. In this case, high security sounds all too ironic.

My students' legal thinking was strongly retributivist because they assumed bad people must pay back what they did. This is an ambiguous metaphor: it cannot mean that they must return the profits and benefits they gained; it means they must suffer like they made their victims suffer – but merely spending time in prison does not do so. This entails punishment and extra hardship not mentioned by the law. Prisoners must suffer to the point that it comes close to harming them. The students' idea of punishment was vulgar and cruel as they failed to consider criminals as human beings. At the same time, it was representative of retributivism and typical of vendetta: the warring families do not consider the enemy as human beings equal to them. They demonize the enemy (Sherman 2003), just like my students did.


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[1] Revenge, in English, has many synonyms: retaliation, retribution, vengeance, payback, reprisal, avenge, and compensation. Compare this with power, whose meaning is endlessly varied and ambiguous. In Finnish, the noun kosto (revenge) has no synonyms, and no single word is equivalent to power.