Monday, March 10, 2008


Someone asked Confucius: "What do you say to the idea that we should repay evil with kindness?"
Confucius replied: "Then how will you repay kindness? Repay evil with justice; repay kindness with kindness."

-- The Analects of Confucius, chapter 14, verse 34 (sometimes listed as verse 36).
We don't just have an obligation to avoid harming or treating others unjustly; we also have an obligation to prevent others from doing harming or treating others unjustly. Not only should we keep ourselves from doing anything wrong, we should also defy the wrongdoing of others.

While it is controversial how far this obligation extends (see the entry on personal responsibility), it seems clear that we are responsible for more than just our own conduct. Not only do I have an obligation to not murder people myself, I also have an obligation to try to stop others from committing murder (by calling the police, at least, if not stopping them personally).

Defiance Vs Love and Kindness

It is often said that we should respond to evil with good, to hatred with love:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

-- Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:38-39, NIV.
"Repay injury with kindness."

-- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 63 (some translations omit this passage).
There is something to be said for encouraging forbearance and forgiveness, and not giving in to feelings of blind revenge.

But, as the quote from Confucius at top expresses quite well, this runs the risk of failing to treat good differently from evil. If we repay injustice with kindness, what are we going to repay kindness with? What do we have left over in order to reward and encourage good deeds, if we are responding with kindness to bad deeds? Good and evil, kindness and harm, are different, and they need to be treated differently.

By resisting the injustices that other people are committing, we do a variety of good things: we stop the harm they are causing in that moment; we prevent them from doing harm further down the road; we send a message to others that similar behavior will not be tolerated, and; we make it less likely that the victim will create a further injustice by over-reacting to the mistreatment they are suffering (as victims sometimes do when they believe them must fend for themselves all alone).

How to Respond to Evil, Injustice, and Harm?

There are lots of different ways to defy the harmful, unjust, or evil things that others do, though knowing which is appropriate in a particular situation is another matter of controversy.

Among the options available for responding to people who are guilty of harm:

  • verbal criticism;
  • public protest;
  • some form of separation from or ostracism of the perpetrator;
  • taking away their property;
  • perhaps even violence.

These are all options, in principle. Punishment is a common response.

The natural reaction is to retaliate in kind: you hit me, I hit you back. And this response does have something to be said for it: it's proportional ("you get what you give") and educative ("now you know what it feels like"). But, it's probably not the appropriate response as often as we think it is.

Moreover, there is a question of how much we are expected to sacrifice in order to defy injustice. A phone call to the police doesn't seem to be too much, but what is? Are we expected to risk -- or to actually give up -- our own lives in order to resist the harm that others are doing?

And, as always, defiance is one moral consideration among many others that we have to take into account, and it's not always clear what the consequences of our defiance might be.


So, while we have an obligation to defy injustice, the way in which we should do so is a matter of debate.

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