by Terry Kenneth Aladjem. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 266pp. Cloth $85.00/ £45.00. 9780521886246. Paper $26.99/£16.99. ISBN: 9780521713863.

Reviewed by Whitley Kaufman, Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Email: whitley_kaufman [at]


Terry Aladjem, a lecturer in Social Studies at Harvard, raises in his new book the problem of the peculiar vindictiveness of American culture. Consider for example the astonishing growth in the United States prison population. More than one of every hundred adults in this country is now in prison, and the US leads the world in the number and percentage of citizens behind bars. The American response to terror attacks has also been dramatically different from that of Europe’s; in response to the 9/11 attacks, the US started not one but two wars, with the aim of, as the common phrase went, “bombing them back into the stone age.” What is equally extraordinary is that both the wars and the incarceration explosion have largely been pursued with only the most minimal attention to the costs, not only the overall financial costs but also the human costs to those affected (the casualties in Iraq, and the effects on prisoners and their families). It is quite amazing how little attention has been paid to the basic question of whether the unprecedented boom in incarceration has in fact even reduced crime significantly, or whether the benefits of the reduction are worth the costs, or whether other methods of reducing crime (including anti-poverty programs) would be more effective, cheaper, and less harsh. What could explain this development?

Aladjem aims to explain this phenomenon through a study in political theory. The ambitions of his book are remarkable. Aladjem purports to account not merely for the rise of vengeance, but also such cultural developments as sadomasochism, bungee jumping, gambling, televangelism, life insurance, the fascination with hemorrhoids, and the AIDS Quilt, among other things. But even more extraordinary are the conclusions he draws about liberal democracy. Liberalism, he declares, may be “founded on a mistake – revenge is neither left behind in nature nor comfortably transformed in legal justice” (p.50). Our society subscribes to the comfortable “myth of justice,” by which the irrational desire for vengeance has been transformed into the rational demand for justice. But, Aladjem claims, this is not only a fiction, but a dangerous deception. It is a central failing of liberalism that it is unable to confront directly the desire for revenge, leaving us in a state of “contradiction” such that the official justice system “denies vengeance” while the culture is “utterly obsessed” with it (p.2). But vengeance is incompatible with democracy, since revenge is essentially “authoritarian” in nature. And this is a very dangerous situation, Aladjem warns us, one with “extraordinary implications” for our present “cultural crisis” (p.46). We may even be at a [*273] breaking point, where the “ill-founded attempt to rationalize punishment and to deny its vengeful aspect has reached a point of intolerable stress” (id.). For Aladjem, we are in urgent need of major reforms in our criminal justice system, in order to make our system of punishment truly democratic, in that it shows respect for the criminal, does not coerce morality, does not punish vindictively, and recognizes its own fallibility.

The question is whether Aladjem has made an accurate diagnosis of the cause of the rising tide of revenge and punitiveness. Here one begins to wonder. He argues that the notion of “justice” by which we carry out punishment is actually merely a cover for the vengeful impulses that dare not speak their name. This is not a new idea, and has been developed by both Susan Jacoby (1983) and Dan Kahan (1999) (the latter of which, oddly, Aladjem does not mention). And it is increasingly accepted among moral philosophers that retributive justice is but a euphemism for the sentiment of revenge. Where Aladjem differs is in his unrelentingly negative portrayal of the vengeful impulses. It is a truism that vengeance can be excessive, blind, and indiscriminate. But for Aladjem, vengeance is always and necessarily excessive, devious, indiscriminative, irrational, arrogant, vain, authoritarian, harsh, and even self-deceptive. It intrinsically lacks humility, respect for the other, or a sense of fallibility. It is thus incompatible with a liberal democracy founded on the idea of agnosticism about ultimate truths and moral certainty.

But why should we accept this extreme and one-sided portrayal of revenge? A number of commentators defend the idea of personal vindication, so long as it is measured, proportionate, and reflective (Susan Jacoby, Jeffrie Murphy, Peter French). And Aladjem seems to be unaware of the fact that Aristotle (whom he cites as an expert on tragedy) asserted that a virtuous person should exact proportionate retaliation against a serious wrong, so long as it satisfies the Golden Mean: neither too much nor too little. Aladjem does not even consider the possibility that revenge could be anything other than blind, excessive, and irrational (not to mention self-deceptive and arrogant). Nor does he give us substantial arguments or reasons why we should believe this portrayal of vengeance, relying mostly on literary illustrations of revenge, including Achilles’ rage against Hector, or Hamlet’s desire to send Claudius’ soul to eternal fire. But why must we assume that a person desiring revenge assumes infallibility and moral certainty? (Ironically, Hamlet suffers from just such doubts about whether and how to take revenge). To be sure, the question of whether vengeful feelings are morally permissible or not is a difficult one. But it will not help this debate to provide a straw-man version of them.

It is thus difficult to accept Aladjem’s insistence that vengeful feelings are necessarily authoritarian and incompatible with democracy, or that liberalism suffers from a profound theoretical contradiction, let alone his alarmist suggestions that modern democracy is reaching a stage of crisis. It is of course a puzzle why America has moved down the path it has. But the fundamental flaw with Aladjem’s explanation becomes apparent when it is observed that the problem is uniquely [*274] American, and not one that is universally experienced in modern liberal democracies. If anything, the majority of modern democracies (Canada, Australia, Europe) are moving in the opposite direction, towards eliminating the death penalty and reducing punitive sentences. But this undercuts Aladjem’s thesis, for then the explanation of America’s trend must be found not in some purported intrinsic contradiction at the heart of liberal democracy, but in something unique about the American situation. Unfortunately, his book does not address this more interesting question: why has America taken this vindictive turn, unlike other democracies? Aladjem seems only barely aware of the problem; he suggests that the problem may be limited to “our particular democracy” (p.xix), but gives no explanation of what is unique about our democracy, why it has caused the rise of vengeance, or why other democracies have gone a different path. In any case, it is evident that there is nothing intrinsic to liberal democracy that creates this problem. In order to address the problem of American uniqueness, he would of course have to give a very careful and precise definition of “liberal democracy” and of how the American version of it differs from that of other countries. But this he does not attempt to do.

Furthermore, for all Aladjem’s alarmism, the “extraordinary implications” for reform that he suggests turn out to be surprisingly bland. We should recognize our fallibility, he insists, and punish with restraint and only use coercion as a last resort. But what moral philosopher would disagree with this, even those who defend the role of vengeful impulses? The state, he says, has a duty to the offender to “listen to him wherever that is possible” (p.165). It is difficult to evaluate this claim, since what counts as “listening” is highly contestable; Aladjem’s elaboration that we should provide a “discursive exchange in which one might hope to be understood” (p.166) is not very helpful (the use of italics for emphasis is no substitute for careful exposition). Every offender already has a right to be heard in court and to confront witnesses against him, and a right to a lawyer: why precisely is this insufficient? More concretely, Aladjem calls for eliminating the death penalty. His argument against the death penalty is one that has been rehearsed many a time: that it is irrevocable and therefore inappropriate given the possibility of error. Aladjem does not however address the classic responses to this argument, that a sentence of imprisonment is equally irrevocable, since one cannot give back those years of freedom taken from the prisoner (this oversight is remarkable, since Aladjem repeatedly criticizes vengeance for falsely believing that it can remake the past), and moreover one might equally say that the solution is to retain the death penalty, but apply it only rarely and only with a requirement of super due process. The death penalty does not by its nature assume infallibility. This is not to defend the death penalty, but only to suggest that one cannot dismiss it simply by labeling it as “authoritarian.”

Aladjem also calls for eliminating the practice of shaming or humiliating offenders, for this would be “indifferent to their subjectivity” (p.166). But once again it is hard to find much of an argument here, let alone one that can be deduced from the very structure of [*275] democracy. In fact, throughout the book Aladjem writes as if there were universal agreement on what the moral foundations of liberal democracy are, or even what liberal democracy means. But of course there is no such thing, and the claim to be able to derive specific policy conclusions from any such theoretical foundations is unconvincing, to say the least. And even if we enacted these reforms, it is hard to see how this would defuse the “crisis” or resolve the “contradictions” in liberalism. How do we contain or control the vengeful impulses? Will denying them an outlet make them worse? How exactly does one resolve a “contradiction” in a political system? What is missing is the deeper philosophical framework with which to approach the problem of vengeance.

Aladjem is not shy about making grand pronouncements about our culture, politics, and society: he declares that “we have been punishing from the wrong paradigm” (p.164), that the modern world has a radically new conception of evil (p.72), that liberalism contains two distinct principles of authority (p.148), that modern liberal democracy is internally contradictory, and that it is on the verge of a major crisis, among other things. But to establish such bold conclusions in political theory, criminal justice, and even theology will require far more careful philosophical argument and profound engagement with the current and past philosophical literature. The use of idiosyncratic interpretations of literary texts or cultural symbols and a handful of legal anecdotes to demonstrate how justice can go awry is no substitute. Ultimately, the book comes down largely to Aladjem’s expression of a desire for a kinder, gentler and less punitive America. With this sentiment many people will heartily agree. But I imagine few will be convinced by his claim to have discovered a new and devastating contradiction at the heart of liberal democracy, or his prediction of an imminent crisis in our culture, or his claim to have discovered a way to save our political system from itself.

Jacoby, Susan. 1985. WILD JUSTICE: THE EVOLUTION OF REVENGE. New York: HarperCollins.

Kahan, Dan M. 1999. “The Secret Ambition of Deterrence.” 113 HARVARD LAW REVIEW 413-500.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Whitley Kaufman.