In his inspirational Sermon on the Mount, Jesus of Nazareth famously insisted, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him and the other also.” Implicit in this quote is Jesus’ position on one of the timeless moral questions: how to treat those who transgress against us. He commands that we practice forgiveness and refuse to engage our transgressors in an attempt to rectify their actions.
The appeal of this theory is easily recognizable. By following it, we avoid “sinking to the level” of our transgressors by committing harmful acts that we normally would not commit, and it forces its advocates to adopt an admirable love of our fellow humans and an even more admirable element of self-restraint. Unfortunately, while this unconditional love is only admirable, it is not moral, because the theory does not recognize and account for the free will and rational capacities of moral agents.
When an agent with both free will and rationality commits a harmful act, he is essentially affirming that he has chosen to commit the act of his own volition and has considered the ends, means, and justification for the action. By committing the act he is proclaiming, “this is an action that I would endorse; this is acceptable.” I can see no better response to such a proclamation then to follow his example. When someone strikes us on the right cheek they are consciously deeming their action permissible, so they should have no objections to being stricken in kind. Moreover, to object to an equal response would be hypocritical and inconsistent.
Defenders of “turning the other cheek” often respond by arguing that by forgiving our transgressors we provide them with an immediate example of the love and self-restraint they should adopt. They claim that we should reform our transgressors, not punish them. While this seems to be a benevolent and superior alternative, it inevitably results in a violation of our transgressor’s autonomy. By attempting to reform our transgressors we are attempting to manipulate or force them to act morally for our own ends, which is not our prerogative. However, we can force them to be rational by forcing them to stand by their affirmation of an action. Furthermore, through forcing them to be rational we can encourage them to act morally without manipulating them.
Agents commit transgressive acts for one of two reasons; they either do not believe they are transgressive, or they do believe they are transgressive and believe they can avoid being transgressed against in kind. If the transgressor believes his actions are not transgressive, when his actions are directed at him, he is forced to evaluate them as the recipient of said actions, not the committer. And if the transgressor believes he can avoid an equal response, he is forced to cope with the fact that he is now victim of his own actions. In both instances, treating our transgressors how they have treated us is not only the rational response to their actions, but it is also the best way to ensure that they do not transgress again and avoids violating their autonomy. While I see merit in Jesus’ position, it seems inadequate to the doctrine to which it responds—logically an “eye for an eye” seems superior.
(Much of the credit for the objections to "turning the other cheek" belongs to Immanuel Kant and his theory of Retributivism)