"We don’t want people wandering in when we’re bopping perverts": On Kant’s Theory of Retributive Justice As Demonstrated In Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul

A, if not THE big question in Plato’s Republic is “what is justice?”. This is one of those easily asked, but not so easily answered questions. Kind of like asking which one is better, Alien or Aliens? In Republic, Thrasymachus says justice is might makes right. When I was doing the Christian thing, justice is saved for God, who doles it out on the Day of Judgment — each is saved or condemned according to his faith. Still others, like John Rawls, say that justice is a matter of fairness. Of course when we think about justice, what we’re thinking about is punishment. what is the proper punishment for wrongdoing? Moreover, are there people who have certain kinds of punishment coming to them? A punishment like, say, the death penalty? One objection to the death penalty is that death as a method of punishment is not justice, but vengeance. Justice, the objectors say,has nothing to do with revenge. Those who support punishment by death may say, it is not mere vengence than plays a role in the punishment (although it is a part), but to punish someone by taking their life is merely returning the favor. This is what, I think we’re getting at when we demand an eye for an eye. It’s not revenge, it’s retribution. Ok, semantics alert: I realize that the words ‘revenge’ and ‘retribution’ are synonyms. I argue that, in everyday usage, we tend to treat them as two differing concepts. Revenge, as we use it, is more connected to the notion of a vigilante or someone who exacts vengeance without regard for the legality of their actions. For instance, a man whose daughter is raped may exact revenge on the man accused by removing his manhood, shooting him several times with a high calibre firearm, and then dumping his body in a shallow grave. He does not care that he has committed murder (among several other crimes). He wants to inflict as much — if not more pain on the rapist as was inflicted on his daughter. To many, revenge suggests arbitrariness. Whether we inflict pain or how much depends entirely on the person doing the revenging. The person committing the revenge is willing to do anything to anyone in pursuit of exacting their pound of flesh. On the other hand, when we think of retribution, we tend to think of something like vengeance on the part of some higher judge or authority, as in the idea of divine retribution. God tells you exactly what is going to happen to you if you do bad. For any unrepentant sin, you burn in Hell. It’s not personal or arbitrary, it’s just what the punishment is. So back to our story. Retribution, according to Random House Dictionary, is (def 1) “requittal according to merits or deserts, esp. for evil”. So, on this point of view, punishment is not excessive or arbitrary — it’s not done to inflict pain — we do it because the wrongdoer deserves it. This is exactly what Immanuel Kant suggests in his theory of retributive justice. Kant says that a rational individual who commits a crime that harms another individual ought to be harmed in return. Kant’s reasoning is based on the notion that a rational individual who chooses their actions deserves to be respected (as a rational moral agent — individuals who possess a free mind and are capable of deciding their actions according to their own free will) and that punishment for their harmful deeds is, in actuality, a means of respecting the freely, rationally-chosen actions of the individual who is punished. We must respect the choices of other rational actors, Kant tells us. According to Kant 1) people should be punished for no other reasons than the fact that they have committed a crime, and 2) punishments must be in proportion to their crime — small punishments for small crimes, big punishments for big crimes. Oftentimes, satire offers us an opportunity to see philosophy at work ( I guess I’d give a plug to Orwell’s Animal Farm, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, and the films of Monty Python. Watch and read). Given this opportunity, I ask this question: is cannibalism an adequate punishment for murder? Before anyone answers no, what if I add that the cannibalee is a murdering thief? This thief, in addition to murder, steals another man’s wife, tries to kill that man, and supplies a local dog food factory with the bodies of murdered perverts, would that change anyone’s mind? The thief in question is Raoul Mendoza, played by Robert Beltran (who is probably better known for his role on Star Trek: Voyager. Well, better known by Star Trek geeks, anyway) in the late Paul Bartel’s 1982 comedy Eating Raoul (Bartel also directed Death Race 2000, which I highly recommend. Not only is it a damn fine movie, you also get to see a pre-Love Boat, and future Republican congressman Fred Grandy’s ass, which may be a bonus for some folks out there). Described by the tagline as a “Comedy of bad manners”, the plot goes something like this: Paul and Mary Bland (played by Bartel and Mary Woronov) want to open a restaurant , but don’t have enough money to do so. After clubbing a swinger on the head with a frying pan (while he attempts to rape Mary), the couple discover that the swinger has a large amount of cash in his wallet. The couple soon discover that alot of swingers are loaded. The couple decided that they can not only rid the world of “horrible, sex-crazed maniacs”, but also make enough money to open their dream restaurant (which they want to call “Paul and Mary’s Country Kitchen) — if they lure perverts to their apartment, kill them, and take their money. After he breaks in and discovers the bodies of dead perverts, the thief Raoul makes a deal with the Blands where he agrees to get rid of the bodies (by dropping them off at the local dog food manufacturing plant) in exchange for a cut of the profits. Long story short (too late), Raoul makes a move on Mary, tries to kill Paul, and ultimately ends with Raoul getting his just deserts (pun intended) as a main course served at a dinner with the Blands and their real estate agent, James. Ok, first off, we admit that it is the Blands who kill the perverts. We can say that two wrongs don’t make a right, and that they are all guilty of wrongdoing. Despite their best motives, there is really no way that the Blands can excuse bopping perverts. That point is taken. The Blands are not innocents in this situation. But this fact does not mitigate the fact that Raoul’s fate was an appropriate punishment for what he did. We can attempt, however, to argue in the Blands favor. Let’s look at who they kill. First off, the people that they kill are perverts. They all respond to ads the Blands place in the local press that cater to perverts (unusual then, Craig’s List now). At least 4 of the “sex-crazed maniacs” are maniacs. There are at least 4 attempted rapes on Mary Bland during the course of the movie. One client, played by Ed Begley,jr., is a crazed Vietnam vet who tries to rape Mary and seems quite abusive. It’s easy to see that his intentions are truly malevolent. When Raoul strangles him with his love beads, it’s not only ironic ( a hippy getting strangled by love beads), but the creep gets what he deserves. We can argue for Paul and Mary, but it’s a bit harder to do the same for Raoul. He’s really not such a nice guy. When we first see Raoul, he’s leaving an apartment carrying a hi-fi system. We know that when he’s passing himself off as a locksmith in the Bland’s apartment, he’s relly casing the place to break in later. As we get to know Raoul, we discover that he’s fully capable od blackmail, and strangling a man with his own necklace. In addition, he seduces Mary and wants to kill her husband. The Blands also discover that Raoul has been keeping the profits from selling the perverts’ cars from the Blands while getting a cut from what the Blands find in the perverts’ wallets. Last but not least, he’s selling the bodies of the perverts to be used for dog food! One could argue that this is a pretty extensive list of some pretty big crimes. And, as Kant says, big crimes call for big punishments. So, given Raoul’s list of no-nos and Kant’s theory, one could also argue (could being the operative word) that, by killing Raoul, the Blands are doing some version of Kant’s retributive justice. If Raoul is a bad guy who is guilty of big crimes, was his death (in the manner in which he eventually ends up a meal himself) coming to him? I think that it was. Of course, one may object that revenge is never good, and that, the person doing the revenge (in this case the Blands) are in the end no better than Raoul. In Sam Raimi’s Darkman, Dr. Peyton Westlake asks himself, after he’s dished out some revenge killing, ” what have I become?” suggesting that he has become exactly what he sought to destroy. In fighting the evil that harmed him, he had become corrupted. This is a common sentiment that many anti-heroes such as Batman or The Crow’s Eric Draven wonder after they start on a path of get evenism. And, of course, when the credits roll, and we see a very happy Paul and Mary standing outside of their Country Kitchen (home of the Bland enchillada), we wonder what is in store for the couple. There is a darkness to their happiness. Afterall, they did more than kill Raoul, they ate him. But unlike Draven or Westlake or even that nutty-ass Bruce Wayne, Paul and Mary seem completely unaffected by their moral crimes. They see no wrong in what they’ve done. In a way, it makes the couple even more monstrous than Raoul. When Mary expresses some regret for killing Raoul, Paul quickly reminds her that Raoul got exactly what he deserved. Which is exactly, I think, what Kant would say. I believe that Kant would tell us that we are completely justified in being horrified by what the Blands have done. And the Blands should be punished appropriately. But, the fact that Raoul associated with people that were more evil than he does not mean that we should think that Raoul deserved less than what he got. Paul is right. Raoul got exactly what he deserved to get. Raoul was a pervert himself, but a pervert of a different type. Raoul had a perverted sense of morality. He stole, he committed adultery, he killed a hippie, he (gasp) smoked reefer. He was totally willing to involve himself in the business of feeding perverts to dogs. Unfortunately for Raoul, dogs aren’t limited to animals who walk on all fours. Sometimes, the most fiersome dogs are ones that walk on two legs — and occasionally, they eat us before we can eat them.
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