Friday, October 21, 2005


The first Carnival of the Feminists is up at Philobiblon, and it has started me thinking about the virtue of vindication.

Vindication, according to Thomas Aquinas (the translation of vindicatio as 'vengeance' is not particularly good, but it does a little better than 'vindication' at indicating the forcefulness the Latin word conveys), is an important virtue associated with justice. It consists of the infliction of 'penal evil' on a wrongdoer. 'Penal evil' is punishment.

Now, since we are inflicting punishment on a person, there's a sense in which vindication is a dangerous virtue; there is always danger of going into an act of vindication in a vicious state of mind. For instance, if the intention is directed chiefly to the evil, and 'rests' there, dwelling on it, that is a corrupt intention; it involves taking pleasure in evil done to another, however slight, and thus is hatred of one's fellow human being (which, of course, is contrary to charity). However, if the intention be a good intention, i.e., if the point of the act of vindication is not merely to 'get back' at someone, but is to accomplish some genuine good (e.g., repentance, restoration of the innocent, etc.) then an act of vindication can be a virtuous and just act. Indeed, in many cases not vindicating others is unjust. For instance, it is the responsibility of someone in position of authority to do what he or she can to vindicate the innocent; and (Aquinas is very clear about this, and quite rightly, too), whatever may be the virtue of patiently enduring wrongs against oneself, it is wicked to overlook wrongs done against others. According to Aquinas, the primary root of vindication is zeal: the fervent love of others that makes one rise up when injustice is committed against them. The vices opposed to the virtue of vindication are (by excess) cruelty or brutality in punishment and (by deficiency) remissness in vindication.

Aquinas has a brief but interesting discussion of vindication when 'the whole multitude of people' is guilty. When it is not possible to separate out the innocent from the guilty, vindication may be taken against the multitude itself, either in whole or in some particularly egregious part. When separation is possible, vindication should be taken against the guilty, assuming that this does not scandalize the innocent themselves. (If it does scandalize the innocent, some alternative would have to be found, e.g., a milder vindication or an amnesty, unless the scandal is a lesser evil than not engaging in the act of vindication.)

But what means of vindication may there be? What is appropriate depends on the particular case. Aquinas follows Cicero and Augustine in identifying eight kinds of penal evil:

Involving forfeiture of bodily safety
death, stripes, retaliation

Involving forfeiture of freedom
servitude, imprisonment

Involving forfeiture of external goods
exile (the good of citizenship), fines (the good of wealth), ignominy (the good of reputation)

Except for death, which is reserved for the gravest cases, these punishments all admit of varying degrees. The purpose of punishment in vindication is medicinal: the person who vindicates punishes in order to restore the health of society.

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