When Justice and Peace Collide

Jorje H. Zalles

Many of us question how effective confrontation and punishment are as a deterrent of abusive or other forms of unacceptable behavior.

This article explores two different approaches to these serious problems, which are manifestations of the more general and also highly pervasive social phenomenon, present worldwide, of abuse of power asymmetries by the more powerful party. It first describes the essential nature of each of the two approaches, then addresses the relation between them, exploring whether or not they are mutually exclusive and, finally, considers the provocative possibility of reconciling them.


The “justice” approach involves confronting the perpetrator, submitting him or her to some form of judgment proceedings, and eventually imposing punishment, something many describe as “meting out justice.”

Two fundamental objectives underlie this essentially punitive approach to attempting to deal with student-to-student, teacher-to-student or other types (teacher-to-teacher, principal-to-teacher) of abuse. The first objective is deterrence of similar future behavior on the part of the perpetrator or of other would-be perpetrators, and the second is the provision of some form of satisfaction (righting the balance or providing a sense of, again, justice) for the victim.

The justice approach to bullying and similar abusive behavior appeals strongly to many of us for several reasons. It allows us to express, and even to revel, in the emotion of indignation with neither inhibition nor remorse. Feeling indignant, a combination of anger and a sense of moral outrage, is normally not a mild emotional state. On the contrary, it is generally intense and can last for a considerable period of time. The mere rush of intense emotions, whatever their nature, can be appealing in itself.

This approach can be appealing also because it can provide an outlet for aggressive and even vengeful feelings towards others, different from the perpetrator, that have originated in some other context but that we can feel relieved to be able to displace towards the perpetrator. Displaced aggression is most often unfair, but when a prospective object of displacement like the perpetrator of a bullying incident appears on the scene, the opportunity for guilt-free displacement can be quite welcome.

A third reason why this approach can prove appealing is related to the very legitimate idea that we—bullies as well as all others—must take responsibility for our actions, our omissions and their consequences, including most especially those that are harmful.

The first step involves the resolution of the pacifist’s dilemma, that is best verbalized with the question “peace at any cost?” or “peace even at the cost of allowing bullies to keep bullying if we fail to deter them?”

The main attraction of the justice approach for many is the belief that retribution is necessary both as a means of deterrence and because it is appropriate that the balance between perpetrator and victim be “righted” in some manner.

The latter belief is a major element of moral thought from its very beginnings. All systems of human ethical and religious thought have assigned major importance both to rules and commandments for appropriate interpersonal and social behavior and to the consequences of not observing those rules and commandments. Those consequences have variously included loss of divine favor, visitation of trials and tribulations, and condemnation to a wide and horrendous variety of conditions and sufferings, some limited in time and scope, others far-reaching and eternal.

By contrast, the “peace” approach involves assigning highest priority to the relation between the perpetrator and the victim and attempting to change that relation from a condition of destructive confrontation to one in which there is, at minimum, peace between the parties and, at best, what the great social psychologist Herbert C. Kelman describes as “mutual enhancement.”

The peace approach appeals to many of us, first, for reasons intrinsic to the approach itself. Foremost amongst these is the belief that the establishment of such “mutually enhancing relationships” is the prime, most essential of all social and ethical objectives. Closely related to that belief is another, verbalized with eloquence by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a lecture on the peace and reconciliation process in South Africa: “We are made for goodness. are made for love. We are made for togetherness. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders.”

The peace approach also appeals to many of us for reasons that lead us to question the justice approach. Clearly implicit in assigning primary importance to mutually enhancing relationships is the moral judgment that establishing those relationships, not punishing those who are “bad,” should be the paramount objective of ethical systems and of their expression in social policy, including, specifically, school policies.

Additionally, many of us question how effective confrontation and punishment are as a deterrent of abusive or other forms of unacceptable behavior. A wide variety of studies of human violence tends to suggest very strongly that until and unless the underlying sources of the anger and resentment that are manifested through bullying and other forms of abuse are successfully addressed, processed, and rooted out, confrontation and eventual punishment are actually more likely to reinforce than to deter that behavior.


The two approaches—justice based on retribution and intended deterrence and peace based on attempts to change the nature of the relationship between the bully and his victim—are clearly mutually exclusive in at least two regards.

First, they reflect two different approaches to moral responsibility. Under the traditional conceptions underlying the justice approach, the essential problems in ethics are the definition of right and wrong, the attribution of right or wrong behavior to persons or groups, and the meting out of the corresponding rewards or punishments. Moral responsibility therefore emphasizes compliance with laws, rules, and commandments. Under the peace approach, the essential problem in ethics is the establishment of mutually satisfactory and enhancing relationships among human beings, and moral responsibility therefore emphasizes acknowledgment and recognition of the “other” and of his/her/their needs, aspirations, pains and fears, and the quest for peaceful resolution of controversies.

Despite the apparently stark contrast between the two approaches, justice and peace, each one has its strengths and weaknesses that render it only partially effective.

Second, the two approaches involve completely different procedures and attitudes. The justice approach requires that the act of bullying or other abuse, once brought to light by the victim’s accusation or by other means, lead to confrontation with authorities or other defenders of the victim and to some variation on the concept of a trial. The attitudes of all parties involved are clearly zero-sum: whereas the bully or abuser was previously engaged in “I win—you lose” behavior, the intent of the justice approach is to generate precisely the opposite outcome, with the bully or abuser becoming the “loser.” The peace approach, on the other hand, requires that, despite the anger or sense of hurt that might have been caused by the acts of abuse that have occurred, the parties work jointly attempting to understand and negotiate their differences, set aside the issue of blame, and seek some form of mutually satisfactory resolution in which neither loses.

It would therefore seem that, faced with cases of bullying and/or other forms of abuse within a school community, its policymakers are faced with a clear choice between the two approaches: either justice or peace.


Despite the apparently stark contrast between the two approaches, each one has its strengths and weaknesses that render it only partially effective. I propose the possibility of reconciling the two approaches in search of both justice and peace.

The first step in the underlying logic involves the resolution of the pacifist’s dilemma, that is best verbalized with the question “peace at any cost?” or, in the specific context of this article, “peace even at the cost of allowing bullies and other abusers to keep bullying and abusing if we fail to deter them?” My proposed answer is “No, not at any cost.” There must be limits. Bullying and other forms of abuse are not acceptable, simply because they do not meet the critical criterion for judging a relationship to be a good one, namely, the fact that it is “mutually enhancing.”

The second step involves attempting to better understand the psychology of retribution, revenge and the acquisition of some sense of justice on the part of victims. Very valuable thought has gone into this in recent years, and it has become increasingly clear that mere retribution against a perpetrator, the classic expression of which is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is not the only means by which a victim can eventually overcome the residual anger and other psychological and emotional states that are the essence of what is described as “unforgiveness.”

These steps help us to move away from the extremes—either retribution, no matter how harsh, for the sake of justice, or non-retribution, no matter how heinous the hurt or offense, for the sake of peace. Only then it becomes possible to visualize a set of beliefs, attitudes and procedures that can accomplish a reasonable reconciliation between justice and peace:

—the belief that the perpetrator is a troubled human being whose circumstances and behavior very probably reflect insufficient emotional and psychological growth.

—an attitude that assigns high priority to acting on behalf of both and, therefore, of establishing a constructive relationship between them.

—working with the perpetrator to: (a) help him or her understand that he or she has caused pain, suffering and offense that are not acceptable, even though the reasons why he or she caused them could be understandable; and (b) help him or her process the possibly understandable reasons for that unacceptable destructive behavior. The concept of “understandable even if unacceptable” behavior requires a brief explanation: bullies and other abusers most often act as such because they in turn have been bullied or abused. An essential part of helping them to stop behaving in that destructive manner is helping them to move beyond the hurtful and vengeful feelings within them that are the roots of their own destructive behavior.

—based on the previous work with the perpetrator, attempting to convince him or her to acknowledge the pain and offense that has been caused and to ask the victim for forgiveness.

—helping the victim to explore the possibility of moving out of unforgiveness and into a sense of “righted balance” on the basis of the perpetrator’s request for forgiveness rather than on the basis of more traditional retribution and punishment of the perpetrator. This does not necessarily mean that the victim must forgive. I do not agree with placing the essential onus for finding both justice and peace on only the victims, or with the unfair thought that they “must” forgive. But helping victims to move towards other roads out of unforgiveness does mean something closer to forgiveness than to an infinitely destructive will for revenge.

If successful, the approach I have just outlined would lead to several desired, even necessary results. The victim would have been helped out of unforgiveness and would therefore be open to the possibility—utterly unlikely while unforgiveness is still present—of entering into a mutually enhancing relationship with the perpetrator, rather than seeking to take revenge or demand punishment, thus fueling an endless cycle of mutual violence. The perpetrator would face an undoubted form of justice—not the punishment that the pure-case justice approach might advocate, but certainly something akin to it inasmuch as the fact of moral unacceptability of his or her behavior has been clear throughout the process, and he or she has therefore had to admit, in what is usually a humiliating and painful experience, to ethically unacceptable behavior.

Most critically, the perpetrator will have been helped out of the psychological and emotional problems that caused the abusive behavior in the first place. He or she will succeed in preventing a repetition of the abusive behavior, and will be willing and able to enter into mutually enhancing relationships with others, including the victim.♦

Jorje H. Zalles PhD is Professor and Department Chair of Conflict Resolution and Leadership Studies at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Quito, Ecuador, and has served as Visiting Scholar in Conflict Resolution at Harvard. He can be reached at  jzalles@laescuelaparapadres.com.

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HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Fall 2011