Science demonstrates that the instinct to seek justice–defined in the sense of seeking revenge or self-protective retaliation or third-party moralistic punishment–is found in many species. Guppies, to site a humble example, send out scouting parties to keep a collective eye on big predatory fish. The members of the scouting party take turns approaching the big fish to see if it is hungry, sharing the risk. Biologists have observed that if one member hangs back from taking its turn, the fish in front will loop back behind the slacker guppie, forcing it to take its turn. In traditional and modern human cultures alike, people (and some more than others) are apparently hardwired to enforce just desserts.
Scientific study also reveals that humans possess a strong countervailing force of forgiveness and cooperation. Indeed, research suggests that we prefer cooperation over punishment. “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” said the Count of Monte Cristo (a line picked up by the Mafia). Yet in the end even the Count–whose suave and worldly identity was fueled by the desire to get justice–verified what a recent study suggests–hurt and outrage fades steeply over time. Living well does turn out to be the best revenge.
And yet…but still…is there such a thing as a higher justice?