William Ian Miller - Eye for An Eye

Posted By: Tino Gara
William Ian Miller - Eye for An Eye

William Ian Miller - Eye for An Eye
Cambridge University Press | ISBN: 978 0521856805 | 19/12/2005 | English | 278 pages | PDF | 1 MB

Analyzing the law of the talion–an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth–literally, William Ian Miller presents an original meditation on the concept of "pay back". Miller's unique theory of justice offers redemption via retaliation. It espouses the view that revenge is a highly structured phenomenon that requires a deep commitment to balance in order to get even in a strict but fair manner. As a result, we find that much of what is assumed to be justice, honor and respect is just a way of providing a means of balancing or measuring valuations. Moreover, according to its biblical roots, the law of the talion implies that the value of an eye can only be matched with another eye, suggesting that body parts are to be considered units of valuation. Pursuing this further, the talion seems to require such parts as a preferred means of payment. Thus body parts have a justified claim not only as money, but as the most valued type of payment as well–by uniquely fulfilling the most demanding (and thus most honorable) means of compensation. Applying this concept to the real world, Miller argues that Shylock's pound of flesh wager can be justified circumstantially in The Merchant of Venice and that blood oaths effectively ensure the most lasting bonds of trust over time. He also analyzes other societies and cultures, comparing the ancient and seemingly more primitive with their modern counterparts, by gauging the role of the talion, as a means of maintaining honor within them. Sadly, the ancient and more primitive seem to have functioned more righteously, for the most part, because the execution of violent retaliation was tightly controlled by the talion and accordingly limited its excesses.

"William Ian Miller has written a marvelous book that I found absolutely riveting. Eye for an Eye succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating that the lex talionis was often meant and taken literally; that it still plays a powerful, if submerged, role in our thinking about revenge and justice today; and that, in practice, it was not nearly as brutal or unfair as other, putatively more civilized ways of dealing with the need for revenge. The book is superbly written and often hilariously funny. I loved it."
-Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago

"In Eye for an Eye William Ian Miller provides a full-bodied defense of retributive justice, of just deserts, and of an explicitly arithmetic approach to right and wrong that counts up the eyes, limbs, bodies, and lives on our various social fields of battle, and seeks to right the scales. Miller shows just how pervasive this drive to account for our rights and wrongs has been in legal history, how deeply we continue to feel it, and how limply inadequate are our modern liberal and utilitarian understandings of justice that try to aggressively to purge this elemental instinct from our law and laws. Provocative, erudite, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny – it is also, often, convincing. Where it is not, it is nevertheless successful: Miller tells his stories in such a way as to make palpable just how much we have sacrificed, as we've turned our collective backs on the age-old project of seeking the precise correction of commensurate wrongs."
-Robin West, Georgetown Law Center

"A provocative reminder of the primal passions hidden by sanitized legal theories."

An Unsurpassed Wealth of Insight about Justice
After five dazzling books each penned - in its own way - at the outlands of the vast intellectual map he is master of - William Ian Miller now gives us Eye for an Eye - a supercharged book fixed inexorably, brilliantly and meticulously at the core of his unrivaled expertise on revenge cultures; a book which explicates with extraordinary sensitivity, precision, even delicacy Miller's tough-minded sensibility about justice. In his preface Miller calls his book "an anti-theory of justice." The appellation is less a description of his own work than a concise critique (so very concise, indeed, as to be a flat dismissal) of the abstract theories of justice that have dominated the academy in the past century and have made scholarly writings about justice irrelevant to 99.99% of the world. Yet Miller's book is a theory of justice - one which insists that justice is about righting the balance, achieving reciprocity and cultivating a willingness to bear the not inconsiderable costs of getting even. Miller explores and explains the nuances of balance in its relation to wrongdoing and he argues convincingly that revenge - to be worthy of the name - must be finely tuned, skillfully measured, and meted out with intelligence (not to mention style). Miller demonstrates the admirable sophistication of revenge cultures. He shows us both how vengeance within such cultures was not indiscriminate, unbridled violence and that much intellectual agility and practical reasonableness went into getting it right when getting even.

Eye for an Eye is also a theory of the body and the body in its relation to justice. We may call it an "anti-theory" here too, since to do so will imply an equally flat dismissal of the generation of academics whose cooler-than-thou theorizing about "the body" has successfully bullied us into to thinking about "the body" as a brainy idea - too feeble, however, to stray too far from its intellectual bolsters like "culturally constructed" "articulated" or "inscribed upon." Miller's theory of the body never lets us forget all that we already know only too well about eyes, teeth, arms, legs, hands, fingers, feet, toes and toenails. (Anyone who has lost a big toenail or broken their pinky will identify acutely with Miller's discussion of the value of these parts.) Miller proves that bodies can and have paradoxically done double duty both as the nuclei of human dignity and as more or less valuable currency in economies of getting even. Bodies and body parts are money, both as measures of value and sometimes also as means of payment.

The crucial - and genuinely earth shattering - insight of this book and the core of Miller's theory of justice is that the lex talionis - the law of an eye for an eye - facilitates rather than ruling out what we see as the more "civilized" processes of negotiation and compensation. He makes a fascinating and compelling argument that - in the language of Calabresi and Melamed - the lex talionis protects our eyes, teeth, and the like with "property rules" not "liability rules." This means that the victim not the wrongdoer, and not a third party, decides how much the wrongdoer must pay for putting his eye out. If the wrongdoer balks at the victim's price - very well. But the credible threat of a return brooch in the eye might just (as we would say) bring the wrongdoer back to the table. Miller masterfully show us that eyes, teeth and lives have greater value in such a regime; and it is in our own culture - not in the revenge cultures that we look down on as barbaric - that life is cheap.

Miller's discussions of the scales of justice, the subtlety of discourse particles like "just" and "even," circumcision, cannibalism, accountants, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, compensation and commensurability, and the significance of the seating arrangements at Viking feasts are among the many virtuoso performances in this book that are not to be missed.

About the Author
William Ian Miller is the Thomas G. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. He has also taught at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and the Universities of Bergen and Tel Aviv. Professor Miller holds a JD and a PhD in English, both earned at Yale. His various books, including most recently Faking It (2003), The Mystery of Courage (2000) and The Anatomy of Disgust (1997), have enjoyed critical acclaim throughout the world.

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