on utilitarianism, quentin tarantino, john rawls, and mr blonde

Stuck in the Middle with You: Mr. Blonde and Retributive Justice

Joseph Ulatowski

If they hadn’t done what I told ’em not to do, they’d still be alive.

Mr.Blonde, Reservoir Dogs (1991)

Whoever has committed Murder, must die.

Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals (1797)

None of the memorable scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs have affected viewers so much as the one in which Mr.Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a cop while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel. Some viewers have argued largely on the basis of this scene that the violence in Reservoir Dogs is entirely gratuitous and that the film is thus morally indefensible as a work of art (call this the “orthodox view”). Oliver Conolly writes:

The infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs in which someone’s ear is cut off is not of any interest in terms of any insight into the psychology of the characters in the film. It is hard to see how it could interest anyone except someone with a particular interest in that particular form of torture.69

We can easily see that this must be mistaken. The fact that a person would gleefully cut off someone’s ear gives us a great deal of insight into that person’s psychology, just as the differing reactions of the other members of the gang to this action give us insights into theirs.

We may also learn something about the moral universe of the movie by thinking about the reasons given by the other characters for why Blonde’s treatment of Marvin the cop either is or isn’t a cause for concern. If we look at the perspective of the characters for whom it is not a problem, we may find that their acceptance of his brutal behavior has larger repercussions for our understanding of real-world philosophical problems. In particular, we may discover that some of the “gratuitous” attitudes toward violence displayed by these criminals are not all that different from some of the attitudes that underlie certain widely-accepted theories of justice and punishment.

In contrast to some film critics and philosophers of film, I maintain that Blonde is a far more complex character than someone who just enjoys shooting—and presumably killing—people. The naive belief that Blonde is nothing more than a psycho torturing for the fun of it stems from the critics’ assumptions about the correct theory of punishment. Given a different theory of punishment, we can make better sense of Blonde’s actions.

Let’s look at two theories of punishment: the utilitarian theory, probably held by the critics who misunderstand Blonde’s actions, and the retributive theory, which makes those actions appear more understandable.

But first, what is a theory of punishment?

Theories of Punishment

A theory of punishment attempts to provide a justification for an authority to inflict some penalty on a person for a wrongdoing. Any theory of punishment requires:

1. proper authority,

2. form,

3. proportionality.

First, the person or entity administering punishment must have the proper authority to do so. Governments have the legal authority to punish citizens for committing crimes, and parents have the moral authority to reprimand their children.

Second, the form of punishment administered should be appropriate to the crime: for example, minor moving violations might draw a fine, whereas murder might incur the death penalty.

Finally, the punishment should be proportional to the wrongdoing—that is, the amount of punishment inflicted, in whatever form, should not exceed, or fall short of, the degree of the original infraction.

Punishment can be defined in a negative or a positive way: that is, it may involve either the intentional deprivation of some good, right, or privilege belonging to a person, or the requirement of some restitution or compensation to make up for a person’s wrongdoing. If Smith is arrested for driving drunk, a judge may revoke his driver’s license or send him to jail, whereas if Jones is caught stealing merchandise from a store, she may be required to do community service or pay a fine. Of the two theories I will describe, the utilitarian theory emphasizes a positive approach, whereas the retributive theory emphasizes a negative one.

The Utilitarian Theory of Punishment

The utilitarian theory of punishment justifies punishment if maximizing people’s general happiness is a likely consequence of carrying out the punishment. One version of the utilitarian theory, which has probably influenced critics who condemn the violence in Reservoir Dogs as gratuitous, may be stated as follows:

Punishing a person is morally justified if and only if some future good, such as incapacitation to commit another harmful act, rehabilitation, or deterrence, is served.

The utilitarian theory of punishment is a forward-looking theory rather than a retrospective one because it justifies punishment based upon the consequences that follow from the wrongdoer’s actions, rather than focusing on the wrongdoer’s actions.

The utilitarian position as stated above may seem plausible, but there are objections to it. For example, if a person holds high political office or is otherwise influential in the community, then punishing that person may have undesirable effects. It may compromise the well-being of the commonwealth or even start a riot. Since this would not maximize  social utility, the pure form of the theory outlined above would seem to dictate that we ought not to punish the influential person, or at least not as severely as others. Most fair-minded persons in our own society would probably agree that social status ought not to be a consideration in an acceptable theory of punishment.

The utilitarian theory may also seem to justify harsh penalties for minor offenses and light penalties for major offenses if these penalties have the best effects generally. For instance, imprisoning or even executing a person for violating speeding laws might deter others from speeding, but harsh penalties for minor offenses and light penalties for major offenses are unfair because the penalty doesn’t fit the crime. Again, most persons would agree that the amount of punishment ought not to be given according to the effects it will actually produce; instead, the amount of punishment ought to be determined by the seriousness of the crime.

These objections and others like them are easily addressed with a few modifications, and in fact most contemporary versions of the utilitarian argument are sophisticated enough to fend off such objections. The more fundamental objection out of which these specific ones emerge, however, is the one that leads us to our second theory

The objection runs like this: according to the utilitarian theory, some good must be gained to justify punishment. But if the punishment depends for its justification on some future good—on the likely effects it will produce—then it seems to lose sight of the crime that has been committed. We shouldn’t punish a person only if it will be advantageous for the community; instead, we should punish a person because he or she has done something wrong, and therefore deserves it.

The Retributive Theory of Punishment

This brings us to the retributive theory of punishment.70 Whereas the utilitarian theory uses the foreseen consequences of punishment (the good or bad effects) to argue that some sanction is   morally justified, the retributivist says that we are justified in punishing a person simply on account of the fact that the person has done wrong. According to the demands of justice, wrongdoers deserve to suffer. John Rawls writes:

Punishment is justified only on the ground that wrongdoing merits punishment. It is morally fitting that a person who does wrong should suffer in proportion to his wrongdoing. That a criminal should be punished follows from his guilt, and the severity of the appropriate punishment depends on the depravity of the act. The state of affairs where a wrongdoer suffers punishment is morally better than one where he does not, and is so irrespective of consequences.71

If the retributive theory is correct, society has a moral duty to punish wrongdoing, not just a practical interest in doing so. The retributive theory is retrospective or backward-looking, in that it doesn’t depend on the outcome of some action to justify punishment. Two problems vex the retributive theory. We have to decide who deserves to be punished, and the theory has to be defended against the charge that it is nothing more than a form of retaliation.

According to retributivism, only wrongdoers, those people guilty of doing something wrong, may be punished for their actions. Rawls says, “What retributivists have rightly insisted upon is that no man can be punished unless he is guilty” (p. 7). Therefore, on the retributivist’s view, moral culpability is both a necessary and sufficient condition of liability to punitive sanctions.

Some retributivists maintain that we do wrong if we don’t punish the man who has done wrong by doing the same to him. Retributivism can then be seen as a form of retaliation (lex talionis, the law of retaliation or ‘an eye for an eye’). According to  lex talionis, criminal acts should be punished by like acts. The classic early modern (1797) statement of retribution as lex talionis is by Immanuel Kant:

Even if a civil society resolved to dissolve itself with the consent of all its members—as might be supposed in the case of a people   inhabiting an island resolving to separate and scatter themselves throughout the whole world—the last murderer lying in prison ought to be executed before the resolution was carried out. This ought to be done in order that everyone may realize the desert of his deeds, and that blood-guiltiness may not remain upon the people; for otherwise they will all be regarded as participators in the murder as a public violation of justice.72

Kant insists on equivalence of punishment not only in quantity but also in quality of punishment. Such equivalency seems to justify retaliation or revenge.

All retributivists hold that punishment should be graded in proportion to desert, but they’re not all committed to any particular penalty as being deserved. So, lex talionis is not something common to all theories of retributivism.

Mr. Blonde, the Utilitarian Theory, and Retribution

Mr. Blonde’s violent behavior is best understood as exacting a form of retributive justice upon his enemies. He punishes his enemies because—according to his judgment—they deserve it. Blonde’s actions, from the perspective of the social code he observes, are within the confines of a consistently retributivist approach to punishment. Unlike the utilitarian, for whom some gain in human happiness justifies the violence of punishment, Mr. Blonde does not need to justify what he does in terms of subsequent consequences. Blonde punishes Marvin because Marvin has attempted to thwart his plans and is thus “blameworthy.”

In addition, the cops killed Blonde’s collaborators. An implicit moral rule or principle is that no one should harm another. This is also known as the harm principle and it was most clearly articulated by John Stuart Mill. Mill writes, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.”73 The cops violated the harm principle  when they killed Blue and Brown. For Blonde, it could be that the persons who violate the harm principle deserve punishment. So Blonde believes he is justified in punishing the cop.

On these two accounts, Blonde’s actions appear to be retaliatory rather than strictly retributive. The first interpretation argues that Blonde is justified in punishing the cop because his plans were thwarted. Anybody’s plans may be interrupted, but that doesn’t warrant torturing a person. Blonde’s getting back at the cop is not righting a wrong. Similarly, on the second view, Blonde’s torturing the cop is the result of the harm done to his fellow burglars. The difference between revenge and retribution is that the former is done for an injury or harm, while retribution is done for a wrong. What we have to show is that Blonde’s actions aren’t done because of a special tie to the events as these two interpretations suppose.

It might be objected that the cop doesn’t deserve what Blonde does to him, that slicing the cop’s ear off and trying to set him on fire is too harsh. This objection is about the proportionality of Blonde’s actions.

One complicating factor cannot be dismissed here: Blonde is clearly sadistic. Even some of his colleagues seem convinced of this. At one point, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) remarks, “this guy’s a fucking psycho.” Not only does Blonde kill without remorse people who get in his way, he seems impervious to human suffering and he even takes delight in inflicting pain and terror. He jokes and dances as he taunts Marvin. He tells Marvin that he doesn’t care if he “knows anything” (the original pretext for holding Marvin captive and beating him up is to attempt to find out from him who tipped the police off to the robbery), but that the thought of torturing a cop “amuses” him. After cutting off Marvin’s ear, Blonde speaks into it mockingly before tossing it aside. Marvin’s pleas that he has “a little kid growing up” are answered with callous disregard (“You through?”) as Blonde douses him in gasoline and lights a match (“Have some fire, Scarecrow”). If it were not for Mr. Orange’s intervention (in the form of a bullet that blows Blonde away), Blonde would not hesitate to burn Marvin alive.

Is Blonde’s sadism relevant? There is a distinction between acting on a principle and acting in accordance with a principle. One might, for example, act in accordance with a moral law without being motivated buy the moral law. Consider the case  of someone who refrains from committing a violent crime solely because they fear the consequences of getting caught. Such a person would not be acting on a moral principle, but would be acting in accordance with a moral principle (such as “do not harm”). Similarly, if one has a great deal of evidence for some proposition, but believes that proposition on the basis of something a fortune teller told her, she would have justification for her belief, even though she wouldn’t be justified in holding her belief (as her belief was formed in a dubious way). The same general point can be made about Blonde’s actions. Clearly Blonde is acting on his sadistic urges, but his actions can (at least to some extent) be justified by retributivism, even if he is not personally acting on a retributivist principle.

Mr. Rawls and the Decision Procedure

Mr. Blonde’s actions do accord with a pure retributive theory of punishment. But pure retributivism is susceptible to serious problems. Do Mr. Blonde’s actions accord with a more defensible version of retributivism? Let’s look at a version of retributivism presented by James Sterba, incorporating ideas from H.L.A. Hart and John Rawls.

In the 1960s, the famous legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart developed a modified form of retributivism.74 Hart says that punishment is only justified when inflicted on someone who has committed an offense with mens rea. Mens rea is a legal term meaning ‘guilty mind’. In other words, no one is to be punished unless they freely chose to do something unlawful, with knowledge of the circumstances and the consequences. Hart also insists that punishment must serve in the reduction of crime generally. So in Hart’s account, in addition to retribution, a social utilitarian aim must also be furthered for punishment to be justified

Further developing Hart’s theory, Sterba applies to it Rawls’s concept of “justice as fairness.” Rawls put forward the idea that what is just is what is fair, and what is fair is something that can   be captured by imagining that we get to choose some social arrangement without knowing in advance what position we will occupy within that arrangement. For instance, we would choose the best arrangement for allocating income to people, without knowing whether we would personally have the highest or the lowest income. We would give special weight to the worst off position (since we might be in that position). What we would choose would then be fair.75

Sterba adapts Rawls’s notion of fairness to come up with a form of retributivism as fairness.76 Fair principles for the legal system would be those that anyone would find acceptable without knowing what position within the legal system they would be placed in. Sterba’s approach saves pure retributivism from its biggest problem: that actions are more likely to be done out of revenge. I think that Sterba’s argument can be used to show that Blonde’s actions are a reflection of retributivism as fairness.

According to Sterba, representatives in the original position will not choose principles that maximize utility because

a necessary requirement for selecting [principles] would be that the representatives did not experience any risk aversion when they imagined themselves as possibly turning up in any of the represented positions in a system which maximized utility. (Demands of Justice, p. 69)

If any representative believed that the principle didn’t improve the conditions of the least desirable positions, then on Rawls’s account they would not choose those principles.

Sterba’s legal enforcement system includes some safeguards against problems that may arise. First, his system will not punish excusable behavior because Hart’s account only punishes people if they commit an offense with the cognitive and volitional conditions of mens rea. Second, his system would not punish innocent people, since it doesn’t justify punishment via utility maximization. Finally, Sterba argues that since the criminal would have been able to avoid his fate if he had chosen to   abide by the reasonably just laws of society, we decide the basic principles of legal enforcement with the interests of the victims in mind (p. 77).

The last safeguard is controversial, and it is one with which Blonde may not agree. The victims of the crime and the criminals who perpetrate them both have some claim to be in the least desirable position in a legal enforcement system. Sterba acknowledges this, but he believes that the criminals aren’t the least advantaged.

However, if the criminal were the product of a violent environment and if our environment shapes our character, then there is no way that she could have chosen to do otherwise. To choose to do something other than she did may be perceived as sacrificing her well-being. Since well-being is everyone’s concern, the criminal could not have chosen a different path.

Support of this interpretation comes directly from Blonde. After Eddie arrives at the warehouse, Pink and White confront Blonde about his psychotic behavior. White doesn’t want to leave Blonde with the captured cop “because this guy’s a fucking psycho.” Blonde went crazy in the store blowing away everyone in sight. Blonde says: “I told ’em not to touch the alarm. They touched it. I blew ’em full of holes. If they hadn’t done what I told ’em not to do, they’d still be alive.” When a person is in a hostage situation, an implicit principle is to do as the hostage taker tells you to do. If a hostage doesn’t listen to the hostage taker, then she should expect the hostage taker to punish her. We might think of the hostages and the hostage takers as parties in a contract where the parameters of the contract are created and instituted by the persons setting it up. Since the people violated the rules, they were the wrongdoers. Because Blonde is a retributivist, they deserve to be punished.

Blonde couldn’t have chosen to do anything else than blow the people full of holes. He says, “Fuck’em, they set off the alarm, they deserve what they got.” Blonde understands that he and the others are in a precarious position. They’re robbing the jewelry store. If they’re caught, they’ll go to jail. Going to jail is not in the interest of Blonde or the others. For Blonde not to shoot the people would be to sacrifice his own well-being and the well-being of his collaborators. The people in the jewelry store made it more likely that Blonde and the others would go to jail by sounding the alarm. Blonde takes it upon himself to  make the people understand that they’ve done something wrong. So, to his mind, he’s justified in blowing a few away, and he couldn’t have done otherwise because that would be endorsing their actions and sacrificing his own well-being.77

—from Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy: How to Philosophize with a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch, edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad (Open Court, 2007)


68 Quentin Tarantino, “Celluloid Heroes.” 1995 interview by Chris Willman in Quentin Tarantino: Interviews, edited by Gerald Peary (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), p. 147.

69 Oliver Conolly, “Pleasure and Pain in Literature,” Philosophy and Literature 29 (2005), p. 314.

70 For a broad overview of different forms of retributivism, see Ted Honderich, Punishment: The Supposed Justification Revisited, revised edition (Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006).

71 John Rawls, “Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical Review 64 (1955), pp. 4f.

72 Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 106 [6:333].

73 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 7.

74 Hart is combining some features of utilitarian theory with those of pure retributive theory, to develop a stronger theory of punishment which overcomes the weaknesses of both theories. H.L.A. Hart, Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law (Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 1-27

75 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999).

76 James P. Sterba, The Demands of Justice (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), pp. 63-83.

77 I am grateful for comments on a draft of this chapter by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, and I would like to thank Kathleen Evers, Heather Figaro, Rich Mancuso, Dave Moreshead, Ed Page, and Allen Terrell for discussing the topic of this paper years ago after I had watched the movie for the first time. Though they weren’t privy to reading drafts of this chapter, the discussions we had played a large role in the formulation of my ideas.


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