I Demand Satisfaction (Part III)

Is this gonna get ugly, now? Huh? I hope not. Because I thought what we were here, racial differences notwithstanding, was just a couple of old friends. You know, just both of us Californians.

In the last post, I referenced a social practice that I referred to as Rational Violence by Duel, a practice underscored by the recognition that human beings do not (and in some circumstances, cannot) always get along. In certain disputes, violence may be the best (perhaps even the only) recourse. Naturally, as with most any social practice, Rational Violence by Duel would be circumscribed by rules, rules the following of which would guarantee (to some degree) constraint on the overall effects of the confrontation, control over the measures the participants might take in order to exact satisfaction, and an insurance that certain aims are achieved (involving the greater good). I will address certain proposed rules of Rational Violence by Duel later. For now, let’s return to Jack Burton’s situation. In particular, what I would like to assess is the character – the virtue or lack thereof, we might say – of one who earnestly and, to his mind reasonably, believes that Rational Violence is the appropriate response to such a dispute as I have outlined. Does (or can) the virtuous man have justification for Rational Violence?

First, what might be the justification – if any there may be – for Jack Burton’s choice to engage in a violent reaction? Historically, the answer was (perhaps deceptively) simple: Jack’s reaction falls under self-defense. How? Well, as best I can tell, the reckoning went something like this: (a) if a man attacks me with a knife with the intent of disabling me so that the attacker may abscond with my money, I may defend myself. This is self-defense in the following obvious way: it is defense of my body against probable injury (and, secondarily at least, it is a defense of my property against being wrongfully taken from me). Indeed, this is rather simple and commonplace, particularly today, and is recognized as a legitimate (i.e., legal) response. Yet, now consider (b), what is likely not considered to be so familiar today: if a man publicly insults me, my spouse, or my children, he has engaged in an attack. Of course, his attack is not aimed at my body or my property. No, this time the attack is simultaneously more subtle and possesses more depth: the attack is aimed at my self – my character, my integrity, my honor, what it is to be me. Once again, self-defense is justifiably called for.

What is it for a man to not find his own character, his integrity, his honor, worth defending? [After all, if such things are not of grave importance to a man, we might wonder: “What, then, is?”] The man might be dumb, as are many human men. He might not understand that such things are important simply because he, woefully, doesn’t really understand anything as significant. Or, the man might be indifferent. Again, many men are like this. They do not recognize themselves as essentially social animals, as beings who are very much dependent upon, for their own (and their loved ones’) well-being, others and, consequently, the favor and good-standing of others. He thinks of himself as a solitary, isolated being; whenever public transgression strikes, he thinks to himself, “Well, who cares what anybody else thinks of me? What does that matter?” Or finally, for all I know, the man might have taken seriously School Marm’s indictment of violence in his 3rd grade Social Studies class, and genuinely (though ridiculously) took to heart the repeated (and foolish) mantra: “Violence is never the answer.” Oh well, so much the worse for him.*

For my own part, I’m not sure – that is, absolutely certain – what to make of a man who refuses, even on principle, to defend his honor or integrity. Perhaps such a person confuses honor/integrity with glory, and believes that a violent reaction would be viciously motivated by little more than a Hobbesian thirst for competition and the urge to glorify himself by combat at the expense of another. While I have no doubt some individuals are like this, I do think that it’s intellectually dishonest to believe that all such circumstances can be reduced to glory-seeking. In any case, here is what I am sure of: traditionally, such a man who refuses to defend himself has a name – coward. Here is Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations 5.1):  “But a coward, a man incapable either of defending or of revenging himself, evidently wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man. He is as much mutilated and deformed in his mind as another is in his body, who is either deprived of some of its most essential members, or has lost the use of them.” Wow, that’s a serious indictment: dude is lacking “one of the most essential” components of manhood, has a “mutilated and deformed” state of character. Oof!** This is a serious charge, and one that ought (by my lights) to be taken much more seriously than it currently is. Unfortunately, some think that Smith is overcome with an out-dated machismo that “civilized” men no longer espouse. That may very well be the case, though I have my doubts as to whether it should be the case.

In any event, I don’t wish to take any particular position on the “coward” label. Of course there definitely are cowards amongst us; even still, we ought to be very careful here. Suppose that Seedy Gang Member #1 does not confront Jack & Gracie, but whispers to his friends, all of whom turn around and laugh at Jack. We’re all pretty confidant – and Jack is damned confidant – that sentiments of abuse have been voiced at Jack’s (and perhaps Gracie’s) expense. And yet, ought or should Jack respond? If he doesn’t, is he a “coward”? I say “no.” Jack can be certain neither of what precisely was said, nor can he be sure that what was said was directed at him and was intended as an insult. But most importantly, the remark(s) was not public. To respond violently would not be, to my mind, a genuinely rational response. Instead, it would be rash. And if Aristotle has taught us nothing else, it’s that virtue resides in the mean.

Yet, in our original situation wherein Seedy Gang Member #1 has publicly insulted Gracie (and by virtue of that, Jack), and has done so repeatedly, maybe it’s the case that courage – as the mean between cowardice and rashness – demands that Jack respond. Indeed, Jack can respond even though – perhaps even in virtue of the fact that – he demonstrates self-control, a genuine measuring of his emotional reaction by engaging in the variety of practical reasoning mentioned previously. Such practical reasoning – taking into consideration past acts, the likelihood of repeated occurrences in the future, along with the appreciation that serving civil papers to Seedy Gang Member #1 would probably be met with hilarity – may result in the course of action most likely to effect the most beneficial state of affairs – Rational Violence.

More, of course, needs to be said. And I do intend to say more about the justificatory features of Jack Burton’s response by way of Rational Violence. However, I will end with an anecdote with which all – particularly males – are familiar: the elementary school playground. We are all familiar with “the bully,” that mean-ass kid who picks on pretty much everyone, though who spares his most spirited animus toward the weakest kid. We’ve all seen it. Hell, some of us may have been either “the bully” or “the weakling” in our past. We’re also all familiar with the universal advice administered on such occasions of bullying: “Go tell the teacher that you’re being bullied.” Meh. Perhaps such a course of action is prudential in some cases, but (again) I think that this is not so in all cases. [Maybe the kid has tattled before, to no avail?] As such, appreciate this: once the weaker kid responds, once the weaker kid defends himself (whether successfully or no), some measure of respect is won. That is, both the bully and the witnesses come to see that this kid is a worthy adversary, one who takes no shit. And we all know the bully isn’t after a worthy adversary; the bully wishes to dominate, and once he recognizes that his “dominance” is without acknowledgment, likely moves on. Perhaps as important, however, is “the weakling’s” realization that he has self-respect, and that this self-respect is worth defending, independently of how his response is viewed by others. This is just to say that there are times when the deliverance (or acceptance) of an ass-whoopin’ may be in order.

It may be that Jack’s situation in the bar with Gracie mirrors this situation on the playground. Here, of course, there are no teachers with whom Jack may engage to “tattle”…Jack may not necessarily be concerned with winning respect so much as he is with retaining respect, respect for himself and continued respect from Gracie and his peers.

(*) Even still, there are of course many other possible ways of understanding such a man’s reaction to an assault on his integrity or self-worth. Another way of cashing this out would be to suggest that the man’s priorities are improperly askew in certain ways.  Yet another response may be pacifistic, whereby the proponent may provide an argument as to why their self-worth isn’t appropriately tied to their reaction to an attack on their self. Fair enough. I take seriously Jesus’ advice to “turn the other cheek,” though I do seriously question the pacifist who believes that this is the most reasonable – indeed, the appropriate – response in all situations. While interesting, I leave these possibilities to one side. After all let’s remember, dear reader, that this is a blog post, not a treatise. I don’t pretend to deal with all relevant possibilities.

(**) Now, was Adam Smith advocating immediate reaction by way of fisticuffs, wild haymakers thrown in anger and ill-controlled rage? Absolutely not. Smith recognized – as should we – that the passions in themselves ought to be resisted. A measured response is called for, and the passions under one’s rational control may in fact demand that the response be a violent one.

Jack Burton

This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there. When not doing historical philosophy, he’s fighting the forces of evil (i.e., Lo Pan, his minions, and leftists). To those who fear university bureaucrats, “social justice” activists, and anyone with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

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  1. I like this series, it’s thought provoking. As I mentioned in another thread, I don’t believe this series is being written from a Christian perspective with Jack being set forth from a Christian ethos, so with this in mind I think the series makes sense from a “worldly-wise” perspective (that’s not derogatory, it’s just the simplest way I can think of to say it).

    But since you mentioned the Good Lord, below is a nice snippet (I think) taken from an article by David VanDrunen about this section from the Sermon on the Mount, and the high calling of Christ for His people. I don’t personally view this as being pacifist, it’s just that there are two competing worldviews in conflict, one earthly and one heavenly.

    Also if you think about it, “turning the other cheek” is a tacit invitation to be struck a second time. This ties back in an ultimate sense to the cosmic treason and “slap in the face” God Almighty endured (and endures) from rebel sinners, and instead of responding in kind, responds with grace. That’s not natural, it’s supernatural. It’s not weakness, it’s omnipotence. Ironically we’re like a 2-old throwing a tantrum and slapping her father in the face, something she would have no capacity to do were she not being held by him.

    Not saying Jack is wrong by his lights, because of where he’s coming from (this fallen world), but his options would be different if he were part of the kingdom of heaven, that’s all.

    Anyway, here’s the piece, I hope you and your readers find it edifying:

    It is significant to note that Jesus does not tell his disciples to ignore and walk away from the person who harms them, but to take a second slap, to give up a second garment, to go a second mile. The lex talionis prescribes a second action that is proportionate to the first action: the person who causes the injury is to receive the same injury in return. Jesus’ words in 5:38–42 preserve the twofold action and the proportionality of the lex talionis. The difference is that he exhorts his disciples to bear the second, retaliatory action themselves.17 A proportionate penalty is still borne, but the wronged party rather than the wrongdoer endures it. This reflects the larger Matthean theme that Jesus’ disciples must imitate Jesus in his suffering at the hands of sinners. Jesus has already told them that suffering is their lot in the present age (5:10–12), and later he explains that as he will go to the cross so also they must bear the cross (16:24–26). Matthew’s gospel alludes to, though does not explain in detail, the substitutionary atonement, Jesus’ dying on behalf of his people to secure the forgiveness of their sins (see 20:28; 26:28).18 Human beings, as it were, slapped God in the face through their sin, and God responded with the lex talionis—not by justly slapping them back but by bearing that retaliatory slap himself through Jesus. God’s saving action in Jesus satisfies retributive talionic justice once and for all. By bearing in their own bodies the just penalty due to wrongdoers in order to bring healing and reconciliation, Jesus’ disciples are privileged to show forth God’s gracious action toward them in Christ. In this way Jesus’ words in Matt 5 reflect not the abolition but the fulfillment of the lex talionis. The way of life of Jesus’ kingdom is, quite literally, marked by refusal to seek just retribution against the wrong-doer and willingly suffering for the sake of Christ.

    • Well…perhaps this series of posts isn’t intrinsically Christian. Though even there I’m not so sure. In the next post, I intend to compare what I’ve said thus far to the situation of the Just War theorist. As it happens, I think it stands up reasonably well. So, unless one thinks that war is never justified, I find it difficult to believe that one can reasonably think that Rational Violence at the individual level is never justified.

      Even still, your comments bring to light several issues that the reasonable Christian would need to consider in careful detail. I am not certain that the full range of Jesus’ teachings would preclude all forms of violence, particularly of the retributive sort. Yet, I agree that this is a terribly complex matter, and welcome further contemplation from others.

    • Thanks for the feedback Mr. Burton.

      Christian Two-Kingdom theory makes room for Just War theory. Biblically there’s a difference between interpersonal retributive justice for insults and slights, and the actions of the state (“magistrate” in Reformed Christian-speak). Paul speaks of the latter in his epistles. There’s also a difference where personal self-defense and the defense of others is involved as I also mentioned in another thread in response to That Single Individual.

      Christian thought is robust in these areas, I think, and makes clear distinctions between individual/interpersonal personal slights, self and other defense, and matters of state (national defense).

      I think it’s probably fallacious to conflate the categories,.at least on Christian terms.

    • This will most definitely be of interest in the next post, for sure. Hope to hear what you have to say when I compare Just War to Jack’s situation as I’ve outlined it. As I’ve said before, this series of posts is entirely exploratory, and so I make no claims to being correct. 🙂 By my lights, being _entirely_ at odds with Christian moral teaching would be a serious setback!

  2. I’m interested to see if Rational Violence by Duel can be consistent with Catholic moral theology. In particular, I’m thinking of Veritatis Splendor:

    …the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.

    The relevant “universal rule” is the prohibition against murder. Is it possible to enter into a Rational Violence by Duel contract that does not have murder as the intent of the duel? At the time of the duel, it may appear as self-defense (i.e he’s shooting to kill me, so I’m shooting not to be killed), but the reason for the duel is not an accident. What kind of “moral species” is choosing to duel? Is it murder, self-defense or some other species? Anyways, just some food for thought. Thanks.

    • Good question, Urban II. From my experience, the great theologians themselves have typically opposed it, for what it’s worth (Francisco Suarez in particular, who was writing when duels were much more common).

      One very important aspect of the line of thought present in the posts has been thus far ignored, and as you point out, should _not_ be ignored, viz., killing. Thus far, I’ve said that Jack should not – nor should anyone – engage in the nuclear option for (say) a perceived insult. But I don’t think I’ve made that point as clear as perhaps I should have. You ask, “Is it possible to enter into a Rational Violence by Duel contract that does not have murder as the intent of the duel?” In the type of Rational Violence I have in mind, killing should not be the goal, which is why I’m going to have to say something about the use of weapons, I suppose. While “ass-whuppin'” has been the euphemism of choice, there’s a sense in which it’s not a euphemism at all. I genuinely mean the sort of violence that falls well short of death, more in line with a competition between persons.

      Now that you’ve brought this more clearly out in the open than I have, I see that I need to deal with this point in more depth in the final post. Thanks!

    • I’d also be interested to better understand Jack’s working definition of “honor” as a virtuous man. There’s a point where “honor” fades into “pride”. Need Jack be on guard against

    • Indeed, this is an excellent question. The answer is…complicated. 😉 Basically, one may think of honor in at least two ways: as other-regarding and as self-regarding. Admittedly, I blend the two in these posts (which is probably not a good thing). The way that I tend, personally, to think about “honor” is a finer or more precise kind of self-respect, an accordance of value to those principles and commitments that are near and dear to one’s heart, to to speak. Of course, this makes it sound almost egoistic in its entirety. And I don’t think that quite captures it. After all, we do hope that those who we love will see these same values/principles as important to us as well, as being in some sense identifiable with us.

      I don’t pretend there isn’t a tension here though. Far from it. But you’re right: pride may upset the balance of rationality and (genuine) justice, and as such, is to be avoided. Very nice point.

  3. Im reminded of King David. From his psalms and actions you get a picture of a humble man who wanted peace with those who hated him: he prayed for them, when they suffered, he fasted and mourned as for a mother. Yet, he knew he was Yahweh’s anointed King, and he did call for vengeance and retribution against his foes. (Psalm 35) He was for peace, but not afraid to take action, even for the most part he humbly waited it out.

    While he likely had Saul in mind in Psalm 36, and so wasn’t afraid to call Saul out for his evil, he spared Saul twice out of regard of Saul’s position as the Lord’s anointed. He said, ‘As it is said in the proverb of the ancients, ‘Let wickedness come from the wicked, but my hand will not be upon you.’ And he even chided Abner for his failure to guard Saul, saying ‘Abner, you deserve to die! Why were not watching over the life of your lord?’

    Then there is the whole fiasco with Nabal, who had dishonored him, leading David to seek vengeance in an indiscriminate way, to the extent where he planned to kill Nabal’s servants. Compared to his later mitigated response to Shemei who mocked him while he fled from his son; who, he did later punish via Solomon.

    I’m not sure what you can make out of his example, or the relevance to where you want to go with this, but I figured that I’d mention it.

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