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I used to think that an eye for an eye was morally primitive. It lacked evolved understanding. Turning the other cheek seemed more elevated. I’m not so sure now. Someone recently pointed out that an eye for an eye was about limiting retribution so that it was proportionate. It was to be one for one not ten for one. In other words, you don’t blow someone’s head off just because they offended you.

So there is more intelligence to that Old Testament notion than is immediately clear. Given that conflict can flare up so easily from the smallest slight there is wisdom in counselling that a response should be measured. There might be more wisdom still in not responding in kind, in trying to take the longer view over an issue so that a peaceful resolution might be found. But in truth that is not the way that most people feel when in adversarial mode. They want to take down the foe there and then.

The American response to 9/11 wasn’t clever. They went storming across the world with their big guns shooting at anything that got in the way. The result has been an almighty mess with hundreds of thousands dead or displaced to avenge three thousand killed at the twin towers. It is questionable whether that response was proportionate. With Britain in tow, two Christian leaders certainly did not turn the other cheek but neither did they satisfy the considered morality in an eye for an eye.

Not that I agree with turning the other cheek. It is so unrealistic to the point of being stupid, almost masochistic. Who is going to offer up “me too” when the women and children are being raped? No, it is an unfortunate truth that sometimes you have to fight back. But the response needs to be intelligent and much of the time human beings don’t act out of the kind of moral intelligence that might ultimately be in their good interests. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are prime examples.

To not immediately respond in kind to an attack might be wise. But I doubt if turning the other cheek is going to help much. An eye for an eye with its sense of proportional response is probably as good as it gets.

sometimes you have to fight back



philosophy • 12.12.10