What Jeffrey Epstein’s Suicide Reveals About Justice

Jeffrey Epstein is dead. So why do we feel that justice has not been done?

Posted Aug 11, 2019

The occasion of Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide provides a somewhat macabre insight into the nature of justice, morality, emotion and vengeance.  Jeffrey Epstein was the billionaire mogul who faced charges that he sexually abused dozens of girls over the course of his life.  Epstein was also accused of sexual trafficking–making young girls available to other men within his social and business circles.  Mr. Epstein committed suicide in his prison cell on August 10th.

What is interesting about this case is that many of Epstein’s accusers, having heard of his death, expressed anger, frustration and disappointment that Epstein would not be able to appear in court as a result of his suicide. Here are some quotations from a New York Times article by Mike Baker titled Jeffrey Epstein’s Accusers Angered by his Death.

The suicide of Jeffrey Epstein on Saturday left his accusers around the country stunned and angered that they would never see him face a full reckoning for his exploits after coming so close.

Robbie Kaplan, an attorney representing an accuser who was a minor at the time of the conduct and was included in the federal indictments, said that ‘will continue to fight tirelessly on their behalf not only to seek justice, but also to ensure that all of the facts of his monstrous crimes become known to the world’.

Sigrid McCawley, added, ‘The victims await the true justice they have sought and deserve’.

[One survivor…] said that…she was angry he would not have to face anyone in court. “We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed, the pain and trauma he caused so many people’.

At first reading, one is faced with what might appear to be a deep irony: having taken his own life, Mr. Epstein is dead. What is interesting is that what might appear to be the most extreme consequence for his crimes–death– is not experienced by the accusers (and many others) as sufficient or appropriate. Why is this so? What does this tell us about the nature of justice? Morality? Emotion?

The answer is complex.  One might suggest that through his death, Mr. Epstein did indeed “face the consequences of the crimes he committed”. It is likely–and perhaps I’m being generous here–Mr. Epstein took his life out of a sense of shame–he has been exposed as a sexual predator and sex trafficker to the entire world. This is the stuff of shame.  If Mr. Epstein killed himself in shame, it might make sense to say that he indeed faced the consequences of his crime.

Note the important difference between guilt and shame. Although similar, guilt and shame are different.  Both are moral emotions.  In guilt, we take responsibility for wrongdoing. In guilt, we are motivated to repair the moral wrong in some way–by confessing, apologizing, making up for the wrong, reparations, etc.  In shame, we look at ourselves through the eyes of the other and we realize that “I am a horrible person”. Our entire identities are tainted in the eyes of the other. We are unworthy and cannot be otherwise.  In shame, we hide from others so that we do not feel the pain of our spoiled identities.

Nonetheless, if Epstein killed himself in shame, we still seem to be unsatisfied. Why is this? Why do we feel as if justice has not been served–even after his death? Epstein’s death is not justice because the victims have not been made whole.  What would make the victims whole?  Perhaps nothing.  But if anything can, it would be an act that restores the moral order Epstein violated so deeply.

Restoring the moral order does not mean undoing what Epstein did. This not possible.  It would mean getting Epstein to confront the wrongness of what he did. The actual moral misdeeds have already occurred; they cannot be undone. However, moral infraction is still ongoing. It is still open, festering and unacknowledged by Epstein. His victims are not able to confront Epstein with the fact of his wrongdoing. As a result, he has neither had to face nor answer for his moral infractions.  And while he may or may not have confronted wrongdoing in private, his death allowed him to escape the guilt and shame facing his wrongdoing explicitly and publicly.

Thus, our reactions to Epstein’s suicide illustrate an important psychological principle. Justice is not the same as vengeance.  In vengeance, we retaliate in revenge. We want the other to feel pain in response to our pain. Justice, however, is a moral concept. Justice can only occur by repairing the moral order. It is possible for the other to experience deep pain for his infraction–even death–for his infraction.  But the mere experience of pain is insufficient. For justice, we want the other to experience our pain–not just any pain. Justice demands attention to the moral breach, which involves having to face one’s wrongdoing. This is why justice requires much more than vengeance.