We are often taught that vengeance is a reprehensible or unworthy motivation and that, as a result, pursuing revenge should not be the method of choice when meting out punishment for crimes.
We’ve all experienced the desire for revenge, whether it be when some jerk cuts you off in traffic or you discover that your partner has been cheating on you. Wanting revenge when you’ve been wronged is a natural human response. The question we’re asking this week is whether this desire for payback is something we ought to act on. Is revenge ever the moral thing to do?
When we’re motivated to seek revenge, it’s often out of a sense of fairness. If an injustice has been committed, then the only way to restore balance in the moral universe is if the wrongdoers pay for what they’ve done. Justice will not prevail until those who have caused suffering are made to suffer themselves. This is the basic premise of every Clint Eastwood movie ever made. And it can be very satisfying to see the bad guy finally get his comeuppances, though often settling the score seems to create more victims than it avenges. In the movies, at least, revenge escalates violence, so what started as a just and honorable quest ends up in a blood bath. It’s hard to see how that can restore balance in the moral universe.
In the real world, seeking payback can also lead to unfortunate consequences. Road rage has become a serious problem in the US and, just this month, the governor of California signed a new law into the books to combat “revenge porn” – a recent phenomenon in which bitter exes post private sexual photos of their former lovers on sites dedicated for this very purpose. New York is also considering similar but more wide-ranging legislation to deal with this problem.
So, the desire for revenge is often motivated from spite, bitterness, and an over-bloated ego, and even when the goal is honorable and the cause just, revenge can create more suffering and injustice in the world. But does it follow from this that revenge is always a bad thing?
Imagine someone commits a heinous crime against someone you love. Wouldn’t you want that person to suffer to pay for what they did? Wouldn’t you want revenge? Surely, that’s what the criminal justice system was created to provide — payback. Otherwise, why does the state punish wrongdoers? Anyone seriously proposing that punishment is about deterring crime or rehabilitating criminals is living in a fantasy world. It’s pretty clear from the empirical evidence that it does neither.
Justice is not served until a wrongdoer gets his due. That's what "An eye for an eye" expresses. Of course, Gandhi famously said that “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” However, Gandhi did not understand the point of that Old Testament prescription. That victims would seek revenge was already taken as a given. So, “An eye for an eye” is not a cry for revenge — it’s a call to limit revenge so that it’s proportionate to the crime. You can take an eye for an eye, but no more, and that should be the end of the matter. It’s when we start taking two eyes for an eye that the whole world becomes blind.
If we follow this line of thinking, then how far do we go? If someone takes a life, do we take theirs? Personally, I’m against the death penalty, yet I understand why the families of those killed in heinous crimes might believe that the perpetrators deserve to be put to death. My difficulty with the death penalty goes beyond the obvious problems with the state of the criminal justice system in this country. Even if you were for the death penalty in principle, a quick look at who’s on death row — a lot of poor people and people of color who don’t have access to the legal and monetary resources needed to defend themselves properly — reveals deep injustice.
Setting aside these problems for a moment, imagine we had a perfect justice system that did not unfairly discriminate against those marginalized by society, that valued the lives of all victims equally, and meted out consistent punishments. Are there people that truly deserve to die for their crimes? And if you believe that, do you think it’s the state’s job to put those people to death?
Francis Bacon once said, “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.” In the New Testament we get a similar message — when you’ve been slapped in the face, turn the other cheek. We are called on to forgive, not seek revenge. And forgiveness can be a very powerful thing. Look at what they did in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Restorative justice can help victims find lasting peace, and it can bring about real rehabilitation for the perpetrators of crime. Of course, it only works when the perpetrators are genuinely willing to accept responsibility and make amends. And the victims have to want it too. You can’t force forgiveness.
So, which path is the right one to take? Do we seek payback or do we look for forgiveness? Are there crimes that should never be forgiven? What do you think—does justice mean that we reward good deeds, punish bad, and that everyone gets their just deserts?