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Tamler Sommers Ph.D.

Justice and Honor

Variation across cultures in attitudes about justice.

"I would have rather him stayed on the street -- and get some street justice . . . I'm very upset that I can't do nothing about it. I'm very upset that this dude took the sucker way out and turned himself in. I'm mad and angry."

(From "In or Out of the Game" by Kevin Merida. Washington Post, December 31, 2006)

A.J. was upset, mad, angry, and yet it seems like justice was served. The murderer was charged for his crime and is going to be punished according to the gravity of his offense. He will receive his "just-deserts." So why is A.J. so angry and upset?

The answer is a common one in the context of crimes that occur in what are sometimes called "honor cultures." A.J. is angry and frustrated about who is administering the punishment. The idea that justice should be "blind" or impartial turns out to be both culturally local and quite recent in origin. It does not seem to extend to cultures where protecting honor and reputation is of paramount importance. In these cultures punishment by a third party (e.g. prison terms issued by courts of law) is simply not considered the just or proper outcome. Third party punishment does virtually nothing to rectify the offense. As an Albanian tribe leader tells Laura Blumenfeld in her excellent book Revenge: for Albanians, prison is "a nuisance, nothing more than a delay. Prison isn't satisfying for the family."

This disagreement over the worth of third party punishment is just one example of the radically different attitudes about justice found between honor and non-honor cultures. In a recent article, I've argued that the differences boil down to this: In non-honor cultures, particularly those found in Western individualistic countries, the focus after an offense is on how the offender or criminal ought to be treated-on the suitable punishment for the offender. As long as the offender receives a punishment that "fits the crime," it does not matter who administers it. (Indeed, personal retaliation is often derided as "vigilante justice.") By contrast, the focus in honor cultures is less on the offender, and more on how offended party ought to respond to the offense. After insults or offenses, there is tremendous normative pressure on members of honor cultures to avenge themselves personally-even in some cases when the target is not the original offender! Here are a couple of passages that illustrate the kind of pressure I'm talking about. The first describes the norms of people on Island of Corsica:

"Whoever hesitates to revenge the target of the whisperings of his relatives and the insults of strangers, who reproach him publicly for his cowardice. In Corsica, the man who has not avenged his father, an assassinated relative or a deceived daughter can no longer appear in public. Nobody speaks to him; he has to remain silent." ( Busquet,1920: 357-358)

The second describes what happens to Albanian highlanders who are lax about avenging themselves in timely fashion:

"A man slow to kill his enemy was thought "disgraced" and was described as "low class" and "bad." Among the highlanders he risked finding that other men had contemptuously come to sleep with his wife, his daughter could not marry into a "good" family. If he does, he retains his honor." (Hasluck 1954: 231-232)

Both of these societies are prime examples in the anthropological literature of honor cultures. You find similar attitudes in some frontier and tribal groups, many (but not all) Islamic societies, in inner city gang life, mafia cultures, and many other types of societies as well. People who do not personally respond to offenses are disgraced and shunned, the victims of "contemptuous" attempts to sleep with their wives. (Personally, I'm not a huge fan of respectful or polite attempts to sleep with my wife, never mind contemptuous ones!) Third party punishment robs people who adhere to these norms of their opportunity to retaliate to offenses in the appropriate manner. So it's no surprise that impartial punishment, administered by a third party, is not considered the just or morally appropriate outcome.

Many in the individualistic West respond to these kinds of attitudes by calling them primitive or irrational. In my view, however, anyone who does this is guilty of (1) underestimating the complexity that often characterizes these normative systems (the norms and beliefs of the Icelandic honor cultures, for example, were incredibly elaborate and sophisticated, the subject of endless discussion, analysis, and revision from within) and (2) of overestimating the philosophical soundness and perhaps even the coherence of Western Individualistic attitudes about justice.  And the more research I do, the more I find that there are plenty of other areas where views about justice and responsibility bear very little resemblance to those found in the contemporary West. The book I'm writing examines this deep variation across cultures and argues that there is no principled philosophical means of establishing any single view as objectively correct. I then consider some intriguing implications of this position for policies of international engagement and theories of criminal punishment

More details and examples to follow in future posts--comments very welcome!

Further Reading and References:

Blumenfeld, L. 2002 Revenge: A Story of Hope. Washington Square Press.
Boehm, C., 1985. Blood Revenge. University of Pennsylvania Press
Busquet, J. 1920. le droit de vendetta et les pacii corse. Pedone.
Hasluck, M. 1954. The Unwritten Law in Albania. Cambridge University Press.
Nisbett, R. and Cohen, D. 1996. Culture of Honor. Westview Press.
Sommers, T. "The Two Faces of Revenge: Moral Responsibility and the Culture of Honor." Forthcoming. Biology and Philosophy. Available at Blackwell's OnlineEarly. Draft version here.

Also, the Third Season of HBO's amazing series The Wire tells the story of a clash between differing attitudes about honor and justice on the corners of West Baltimore.