In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: January 2012

Code of Hammurabi

Detail from the Code of Hammurabi stela (circa 1772 BCE).


The Ethics of Revenge

Revenge – and attempts to regulate revenge – have played a powerful role in human history. Revenge looms large in cultural representations from ancient myth to the works of Shakespeare to the current television season.

In this edition of “Ethical Inquiry" we explore the ethics of revenge (defined as “retaliating in kind or degree,” which implies proportional revenge, or, more broadly, “to inflict injury in return for”).

Background: Roots of Revenge

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that revenge, and emotions in general such as anger and happiness, exist because they evolved through natural selection. They argue that humans are biologically driven to violence. Experiments have shown that revenge hits the same reward center as sugar, sex, and narcotics. Thus, revenge has a strong positive biological incentive.

Other scientists have shown that symbolic revenge is less tempting than revenge-in-kind or “real” punishment. In other words, revenge is pleasurable only when it does tangible damage.

However, though there may be biological incentives towards revenge and violence, there may be biological costs to not pursuing revenge. Leaving aside the harm inflicted by acts of revenge, victims can “suffer ‘subordination stress,’” which produces a variety of harmful physical effects. “Victimizing someone else,” ideally, but not necessarily, the original perpetrator, can relieve this stress. Sandra Bloom summarizes it in this way: “hurt people hurt people… [R]eciprocity, or ‘tit-for-tat,’ is the basis of social relationships… [T]he desire for revenge is an evolved outgrowth of our human sense of unsatisfied reciprocity.”

There are “backward-looking” motives for revenge and “forward-looking” motives for revenge: “backward” focuses on rectifying the past, while “forward” aims to deter the offender (or other potential offenders) in the future or to ‘teach them a lesson.’

Modern justice institutions use a combination of those views, punishing individuals for criminal actions while striving to prevent future harmful actions. There is continuing debate as to whether the goal of prevention is best achieved through punitive measures or through rehabilitation and correction.

Revenge can be motivated by a theory of deterrence. That is, if a person lets an injury go unanswered, other people will be more likely to attack that person instead of going after someone who is more likely to respond in kind. Thus, by pursuing revenge, future aggressions can be deterred. It establishes credible deterrence, hopefully preventing future aggression.

Retaliation remains a state option for this reason. Retaliation to discourage “bad behavior” amongst states, including discouraging nuclear proliferation, remains common even in the era of international law and the United Nations.

Retaliation to discourage “bad behavior” amongst individuals and corporations is a common intellectual underpinning to many large financial judgments and prison sentences.

The Price of Revenge

Just because revenge is rooted in our evolution does not, of course, mean that it is ethical or even healthy.

On the contrary, the desire for revenge, even if not acted upon, can physically harm people through the stress it causes.

Obsessive pursuit of revenge, especially for minor injuries, is part of many psychological disorders. Some have proposed that an overwhelming desire for revenge for a specific traumatic event constitutes its own disorder, “Posttraumatic Embitterment Disorder.” In essence, what separates normal “embitterment” from “Embitterment Disorder” is the strength of the reaction. Retaliation that is wildly disproportionate or misdirected is a sign of mental illness.

There are other costs to taking revenge. Retaliation creates more victims. Retaliation may also beget retaliation. Even the fear of being retaliated against for taking revenge, however justified, can weigh on a person’s psyche. Thus, while there are strong biological reasons to pursue revenge, there are also biological costs.

Some have made a link between revenge and crime  – unsurprising, perhaps, since revenge by definition typically falls outside the bounds of state-sanctioned legal punishment. In 2003, it was estimated that 20% of violent assaults and property damage in the United Kingdom were motivated by revenge.

Revenge is often motivates “vigilante justice” – that is, “when justice is not forthcoming from a higher authority, people will and do take justice into their own hands.”

Individual acts of revenge can also go beyond the level of the original transgression.


Cycles of Revenge

If the purpose of revenge is to make up for past wrongs and deter future ones, then revenge cycles negate the supposed benefit of revenge. Escalating acts of aggression may draw more people into conflict and cause new acts of harm rather than preventing them.

One of the most storied feuds in the United States is the Hatfield-McCoy family feud of 1878-1891 in West Virginia/Kentucky, which led to many deaths. But cycles of revenge and family feuds continue around the world to the present day. Post-Qaddafi Libya is at risk. Blood feuds fester in Albania. Gang wars are often as much about getting revenge as they are about turf and money.


Regulating Revenge?

Arguably, religious texts and early law codes did not in all cases seek to remove the revenge mechanism: rather, they sought to limit it and, at least to some extent, replace it with impartial arbiters and executors of punishment/restitution.

In justifying a vengeful action, people often try to frame the issue as a matter of justice. However, justice is distinct from vengeance. Justice is an “impartial” mechanism for determining punishment. In contrast, revenge can be a very personal and subjective form of punishment.

Hammurabi’s law code created a justice based around the premise of proportionate retribution. “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”

The Torah includes similar language: “anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return.” Also, to provide impartiality, the extent of harm and the nature of the restitution or punishment would be determined by judges.

This text also incorporated the goal of preventing future harm: “the rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you.”

In the case of murder, however, a much more advanced system was developed based on allowing kin an opportunity to execute the slayer of their kin, but only if the elders approved.

Gandhi is believed to have said “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” delivering a pithy critique of the “eye for an eye” approach to justice and retribution.

The New Testament takes a similar attitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Jesus’ clearest refusal of the revenge instinct may be his order to “not resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” His condemnation of the mob about to stone an adulterous woman also had anti-revenge implications: if all people have done wrongs, what right do they have to punish others?

Part of the purpose of modern legal systems is to replace personal revenge with impartial justice. When victims or witnesses lack confidence that the legal system will catch the criminals who have harmed them, they lose faith in the system and are less likely to report crimes.

There have been cases, however, where victims have shaped their desire for revenge into a new mechanism of justice. A great example of this would be the post-World War II Nazi hunters, many of them victims of the Holocaust. Acting with relatively little oversight and with a great deal of personal investment, such movements raise questions: “What is justice? What is revenge? Can they be one and the same?” Given the considerable overlap in motive between the two, perhaps there is bound to be grey area between them.


Final Thoughts

The impulse for revenge has been with humankind for a long time, and does not appear likely to go away any time soon.

Those who live in societies with impartial agents of justice that are relatively competent may find it relatively easy to leave punishment, retribution and deterrence to an “impartial” system.

But many people are not fully protected by their justice system. In these cases, should revenge be considered a viable, if less-than-ideal, option?

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding revenge? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Benjamin Beutel ’12.