A passion for justice
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What role do emotions play in a system of justice?
When I read Martha Nussbaum's article on the Afzal Guru hanging ('Fatal error', IE, February 28) stating that "for me, the telling point against the death penalty (apart from the concerns over implementation that I have raised) is that it encourages vindictive passions and in effect, enacts a type of mob justice. A system of justice should be above revenge; it should express a calm and balanced attitude towards wrongdoing", I was both clear about what she wanted to say, and uneasy. When I remembered the mass protests and public anger following the horrific gangrape in December 2012 in Delhi, which had produced the path-breaking Verma Committee Report on legal reform in cases of violence against women, I felt, even more, the need to unpack her statement, particularly the phrase "calm and balanced attitude towards wrongdoing". This feeling grew when, on the same day, I read of the death of Stephane Hessel, concentration camp survivor, resistance fighter, and author of Time for Outrage, which inspired the occupy movements, and who called on "younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas... take over, keep going, get angry!"
How does one reconcile a "calm and balanced attitude towards wrongdoing" with "keep going, get angry" in one's aspiration for justice? Are passions antithetical to justice? Is it possible to develop a calm and balanced attitude towards wrongdoing, especially in the aftermath of a horrible crime? What does a calm attitude entail, and does it mean that disgust, distress and other such human feelings that come into play when one is witness to the details of the crime must be exorcised? These are some of the questions that came flooding into my mind.
So let me here try and unpack her statement and offer some reflections for our public debate. There are three elements in the statement that must be discussed. The first is the observation that "vindictive passion enacts a type of mob justice", an outcome that is unacceptable since mob justice is inconsistent with the principles of fairness, impersonality, due process and evidence-based judgment. Rules made and judgments given on the basis of vindictive passions fail this test of justice. The implication here is that vindictive passions would not allow for due process and a fair hearing, since they would cloud the clear stream of reason required for the examination of the evidence. The desire for revenge, it is implied, would hasten the drive towards the conclusion before the work has been honestly done. This is an empirical claim requiring us to study how passion affects the process of rational deliberation, of how emotions obscure reason. Perhaps the keyword in Nussbaum's statement is "vindictive passion" and not "passion" alone. While passion may be necessary for justice, as was the case in Delhi in December, vindictive passion is opposed to justice.
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