What is the purpose of punishment? A tool for justice? Or a legitimate way of taking revenge? When justice is sought, why do we ask the question ‘who should we punish’ instead of asking ‘why do we punish’?
As Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morals, institutions of law take revenge out of the hands of the offended party. When I am stabbed, it is not me but justice which has been harmed, and thus justice must claim revenge. So, there cannot be a concept of ‘justice in itself’ since the concept of justice merely serves to protect the sovereignty of the established moral codes of a society. And taking such a stance to interpret the notion of justice is thought-provoking as it provides a ground for a person to re-think other alternatives when considering what actions to take as being a victim. What could be an alternative way to respond to my victim-hood? Does punishment soothe suffering or even alter bodies that have embodied violence? Is it the human condition that wills for further violence as a response to one’s suffering; or is it merely about transforming one’s inflicted pain to receiving pleasure from the punishing of another? If such procedures are what fulfill justice, does one indeed demand justice as himself/herself is already struck by a particular form of violence?
But then, what could be an alternative? If no justice system is going to heal wounds or erase memories, is there really an alternative? Perhaps no any other alternative will undo what has been done as we can only blindly walk towards the future while living the moment which is a product of what has been done. But what if we give place to the cultivation of virtues when the opportunity arises? What if we also consider the act of forgiveness? As Hannah Arendt says “Forgiving is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provokes it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”
Whether forgiveness is an alternative to punishment or not, or whether it undermines the sovereignty of the state in providing ‘justice’ or not; it is, in this world, foolish to seek a purely just compromise for the violence that has been committed. The incapability of judicial systems, the unintended consequences of actions and the imperfectness of Human should lead us into keeping doors open to forgiveness after re-questioning the serving of justice in the forms of vengeance and punishment. Ultimately, one can’t hope to be forgiven unless one forgives.