Why we welcome poetic justice and despair at poetic injustice


Recently it was reported that a hunter who had shot an elephant was crushed when it fell over dead on top of him. A friend emailed the story to me with one word in the subject line: “Justice!”

Additional (and somewhat less contentious) examples of poetic justice include: a terrorist maimed by his own bomb before he’s able to injure others with it; a moralising, guilt-inducing preacher getting caught for cheating on his wife with a prostitute; and an anti-black racist who discovers through DNA testing that he is partially of African descent.

In my life, I recount a black woman who had been hostile towards me for being a white guy romantically involved with another black woman but who ended up marrying a white guy herself. I smile every time I think about her.

What is poetic justice?

Poetic justice is usually defined as an outcome in which “vice is punished” in a “peculiarly appropriate” or “especially apt” manner. But it’s not clear that punishment is really what is happening in the above cases. People are undergoing harm or discomfort, but these bads are not being intentionally inflicted by an agent to censure wrongdoing, a straightforward understanding of punishment.

In addition, even if one wants to count these bads as “punishments” in a broad sense, the natural question to ask is: What, exactly, makes them peculiarly or especially appropriate?

Some other dictionaries suggest an answer to this question: that the punishment is delivered in an ironic way. But this doesn’t strike me as quite right. Yes, an agent ends up in a (bad) situation that he or she did not expect, but getting caught and sentenced by a court does not amount to poetic justice, even if unexpected.

Furthermore, irony is often meant to signify incongruity, but what stands out for me about poetic justice is that it is so fitting. There is a kind of harmony – or aesthetic unity – in poetic justice that the usual definitions fail to capture.

Let us try this: poetic justice is typically a person having wrongfully harmed another and then received harm of the same sort from an extra-legal source, or harm of a different sort caused by his harmful act, or (best of all?) harm of the same sort caused by his harmful act.

The reality of poetic injustice

A virtue of this understanding of poetic justice is that it naturally grounds a parallel analysis of poetic injustice. People do not often speak of this category, but some events are aptly described this way.

I think of Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, an undergraduate classmate of mine who was smart, beautiful and kind and who worked to advance peace and justice in Central America. She was shot on campus in her mid 20s by a deranged gunman and paralysed from the neck down for the rest of her life. Despite this, she engaged in charity work until her 30s –– only to get breast cancer and die at the age of 40.

The more well-known case of the 1993 killing of American Fulbright exchange student Amy Biehl also comes to mind as an example of poetic injustice. She was a young anti-apartheid and pro-democracy activist who was stabbed and battered to death outside Cape Town by a group of black people because she was white. (There is, in contrast, some poetic justice in the fact that two of her killers came to work for a foundation named in her honour.)

Poetic injustice, I suggest, is characteristically a matter of a person having gone beyond the call of moral duty to help others and then received harm, perhaps of the same sort she was trying to alleviate, and (worst of all?) from those she was trying to help.

Reacting to poetic in/justice

Why can poetic justice sometimes be awesome and poetic injustice awful? Why do we tend to welcome poetic justice, and shake our heads in despair at poetic injustice?

Poetic injustice seems terrible to me in part because of the absurdity, futility or meaninglessness involved. Although philosophers distinguish between these things, what these bads have in common is the failure to achieve desirable goals in the face of having tried. Or, worse, the bringing about or suffering of undesirable conditions in the face of having sought to promote desirable ones. Beyond the injustice of not deserving bad when one has tried to do good, there is something pointless here, or a waste involved.

Now, what makes poetic justice so delicious, at times? Sometimes we like poetic justice because the law is not in a position to mete out what is deserved. Returning to the cases above, it was presumably legal to shoot the elephant and to exhibit racist attitudes. Only poetic justice could do the job.

But this point doesn’t get to the nub of the issue, because the law could deal with, for example, a terrorist. Why is it better, in a way, that he is injured by his attempted bombing than that he is sentenced to jail for having made such an attempt?

Part of the explanation might be that other people do not have to perform the unpleasant and morally questionable task of inflicting penalties. We can never be absolutely certain that someone deserves to be punished, or that we are justified in giving someone the punishment he does deserve. Better if God, or nature, or the guilty person himself inflicts the harm.

But this point, too, is not enough. Presumably it’s also better, in some respect, that the guilty person’s wrongful act ends up harming him than that the deserved harm to him comes from an omniscient God or an ignorant nature. Why?

I cannot say for sure at this point. But I’m tempted to think it has something to do with the effects not merely on the guilty party, but also on those threatened or affected by them. If someone has behaved poorly, all the better that this person gives us something to smile about.