The quote “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” has often been attributed to Gandhi, to warn people against committing another crime to rectify the one that came before it. But it is not this cautionary quote that concerns me. What’s intriguing is how we can simultaneously agree with this and still justify vigilantism, or vigilante justice. According to Cornell Law, “Vigilante justice often describes the actions of a single person or group of people who claim to enforce the law but lack the legal authority to do so” (Cornell University Law School). But I would like to narrow the range of vigilante justice to be examined. I want to look specifically at the type of vigilante justice that involves an individual taking the law into their own hands “to effect justice according to one’s own understanding of right and wrong” (“Vigilante”). As one may point out, an individual’s understanding of right and wrong is subjective, allowing certain people to empathize with one set of morals over another. I believe this can factor into the one’s opinion on whether or not a certain instance of vigilantism is warranted.
Generally, vigilante justice is only accepted under certain circumstances, but I would like to analyze the reason for this and identify the circumstances in which vigilante action is justifiable through the lens of empathy. Because there are at least two sides to a crime, one that benefits from the crime and one that is harmed by it. When one seeks out their own form of vigilante justice, they may inadvertently hurt more people than were previously involved, thus causing more damage. How do we decide when one crime can fix another, and how do we decide whose pain is more important? No two people can always agree upon the circumstances upon which vigilantism is justified nor the extent to which the crime should be punished — if at all. The reason for this difference in opinion stems from the amount and type of empathy that people have for the vigilante’s cause and those negatively impacted by the vigilantism. I want to examine how empathy impacts our perspectives on vigilante justice and circumstances in which its use becomes justified.
Multiple factors play a role in determining whether or not vigilante justice is acceptable to us. Some include our regard for the specific law being broken, our relatability to each side, and our judgment on whether or not justice has been served. Some sources I would like to consider include Martin L. Hoffman’s “Empathy, Justice, and the Law,” to help explain the feelings that can invoke empathy in people. I would like to specifically look at the empathic feeling of injustice that compels people to act on behalf of other because I feel that it is this sensation that compels people to seek out vigilante justice as a form of helping others. Another source I plan on using is David Fidler’s “The Snowden Reader,” which details the events of Edward Snowden’s decision to release information about the NSA spying on the American people and the subsequent reactions to his choice. While not quite apparent at first, Snowden can be considered a vigilante of sorts. On the one hand, he was a traitor for releasing his country’s secrets, but he also felt as if there was a moral obligation to tell the American people that their basic rights were being violated. I would like to use Snowden as an example for analyzing how the empathy different people have can influence their opinion of Snowden as a hero or villain. Additionally, I am going to use sources that analyze empathy’s limits and biases when connecting to others, as well as a source investigating the instances in which vigilante justice is acceptable to society.
Vigilante justice is a tricky thing that toes the line between heroism and crime, depending who you ask. But everyday, people are faced with great injustices that the law either refuses to address or is incapable of answering. And if given a great enough injustice, people are given little choice but to act beyond the law to promote some kind of justice. Indeed, many vigilantes have been counted throughout history, even heralded as heroes. Countless crimes have been committed for the sake of doing what was right in the perpetrator’s opinion. But what separates the criminals from the vigilantes is our empathy for them.
Cornell University Law School. “Vigilante Justice.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
“Vigilantism.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. 2008. The Gale Group 14 Nov. 2016
Fidler, David P., ed. The Snowden Reader. Bloomington, IN, US: Indiana University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. Accessed Nov 14, 2016.
Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Nov 14, 2016.
Simmons, Aaron. “In Defense of the Moral Significance of Empathy.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17.1 (2014; 2013): 97-111. Web.
Sorrell, Kory. “Our Better Angels: Empathy, Sympathetic Reason, and Pragmatic Moral Progress.” The Pluralist 9.1 (2014): 66-86. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
Zizumbo Colunga, Daniel. “Taking the Law into our Hands: Trust, Social Capital and Vigilante Justice.” Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, 2015. Print. United States — Tennessee.