The Morality of Revenge

07 July 2016


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?  

Comments (16)

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Sorry folks - we had to reset

Sorry folks - we had to reset our website so we lost all comments made after Sunday! This is a reposting of my blog for this week's show.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

This show would better be

This show would better be entitled the immorality of revenge. Your lawyer is saying justice and revenge are the same thing. I couldn't disagree more. YThe show demonstrated zero understanding of the unjust conditions that underly perpetration in many cases. Those are unjust conditions. Victims should not decide what happens to perpetrators. Often victims are indeed part of the dynamic. Not always. But sometimes. Your speaker lacks a sense of justice because he is so keen on revenge. I believe the desire for revenge should not be indulged.

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

There are four reasons for

There are four reasons for punishment/incarceration. Somehow, they missed protection of society as one of the principal reasons. An individual who has committed a crime worthy of incarceration, is one who shows either a desire to cause harm or a callous indifference/negligence to the harm his acts cause. Which makes him likely to repeat. Incarcerating is a way of society choosing to defend itself.
John believes that the reason the US went after and killed bin Laden was revenge. Seriously? He and the movement that he began, had orchestrated and plotted attacks from 1993 onward, on several continents: World Trade Center (1993), US embassies in Africa, 9/11, Madrid, London, Bali, ... Several other attacks had failed. The idea that killing bin Laden was solely or even primarily out of revenge strains credulity considerably.
Another reason, deterrence, is quite powerful. The problem with eye-for-an-eye or commensurate punishment is that, unless the perpetrator believes with certainty that he would be caught, commensurate punishment cannot deter. If I could steal $100,000 and at worst have to repay the $100,000, then why not do it? I'd have nothing to lose, and $100,000 to gain! Granted there is no credible evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder compared with life-imprisonment, but only naivete could allow one to conclude that would-be criminals do not weigh potential incarceration.
Additionally, in criminal proceedings, the victim (or the victim's family) can become a witness, only insofar as he has something material to contribute -- material in the determination of guilty or not guilty. Otherwise, to describe the extent of the harm incites emotions in the jurors, who ought to render their judgements dispassionately. Once found guilty, then victims and their families can testify, in the sentencing phase.
Emotional decisions can too easily compound one injustice, the harm caused to the victim, with a second injustice, a wrongful conviction, because jurors will be more likely to want to search for someone to blame.
Lastly, the guest's argument seems to be that since vengeance feels good and is natural, it is moral. Yet monogamy is rare in Nature and for many does not feel good; theft feels good and is natural, particularly when the perpetrator can "get away with it." I thought that the very idea of morality, the development of moral codes, is to rise above what is natural, what does not need to be taught or instilled.

MJA's picture


Friday, October 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I think the best revenge is

I think the best revenge is to turn the other cheek. But be forewarned, that kind of morality takes the most practice and strength. =

Guest's picture


Saturday, October 19, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I felt that the guest came

I felt that the guest came dangerously close to endorsing subjective justice - because you felt that you were wronged, you have the right to seek justice against the person you deem to be the perpetrator. The example he gave was extreme - the murderer of a child who used legal loopholes to receive a reduced sentence for his crime. What about less clear circumstances, when guilt hasn't been admitted, when the crime isn't as heinous? Few things seem as dangerous to me as permitting subjective justice. There's no process in it, no reason, no evaluation of the evidence. It's lawless.
On a completely different note, I really disliked that the guest said of a caller, "I'm sure she's lovely, but [her ideas are ridiculous]." I thought it was rude and dismissive. There are more respectful ways of disagreeing.

Guest's picture


Sunday, October 20, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I think we have to

I think we have to differentiate revenge first. As the name and description implies, it is a premeditated action to return the pain that was inflicted. In nature, when a tiger bites your leg of after you've poked it with a stick, we do not call it revenge, instead it is normal behavior for the animal in question: it simply defends it's own territory and it's own life. Assuming animals do not have higher thinking -like humans and other primates- this causal relationship is almost automatic. Now when applied to humans, we can say the same. When someone attacks you, the autonomous nervous system has only two choices:
1) release adrenaline to the muscles and prepare to run.
2) release adrenaline to the muscles and get ready to fight.
Still, we are human and we are capable of higher thinking. We can basically override our basic instincts, we can master our bodily responses. So we can choose to defuse the situation for our own best interest, because every fight has victims on both sides. We can look into the future, and we can predict that we might get hurt, die or will be arrested if we lose our cool. But then the question arises: what is this emotion that we call revenge? especially after the situation that took place has past. I think it has to do with our ego and the need to take action upon inflicted pain.
The choice of fight or flight did not satisfy us, and in the act our ego might be bruised. Others have witness our shame, our guilt and dehumanization and the infliction of pain. Since humans are social animals, and do have a kind of caste system or pecking order, the social degradation in a certain situation makes want to restore our former social position. And so basic territorial behavior comes back into play. We can either let it go, and possibly satisfy yourself with a lower social ranking, or take the action of revenge to reclaim our social position. The paradox in this, is that by the act of taking revenge, we might even get further down the social ladder. On the other hand, we also might be seen as strong leaders. In any event, it is a highly complex emotion.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM


As everyone is acutely aware, criminals and sociopaths are murdering unprepared bystanders at an ever alarming rate. Thus, the increasing demand for and proliferation of firearms. My wife, long an opponent of gun culture, has finally recognized that recent changes in gun laws were long overdue. We will be going on some shooting expeditions soon, so that she might understand and become suitably proficient with one or more handguns. Morality be damned. No one has carte blanch to take our lives without a fight.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 23, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I appreciate higher thinking

I appreciate higher thinking as much as the next homo sapient. This evening, though, I encountered a paradigm not previously known. A person new to my realm of experience was speaking of something called a Canadian Tuxedo party. Had never heard of this. Seems people show up, dressed head-to-toe in denim, and do whatever else they may do to denigrate Canada and Canadian culture. Jane (not her real name) is around thirty-five years of age. I asked her what she knew about Canada. She admitted not much. I asked her what she thought about such tuxedo parties. Her response was, well, it was what we did. And so, here we go and there we are...oh, by the way, Canadian tuxedos look pretty much like American tuxedos. Unless someone wants something different.

Guest's picture


Friday, November 8, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Forgiveness is powerful? I

Forgiveness is powerful? I must admit I had not heard that before. Many years ago (well, more than ten and less than twenty), I attended an employer-sponsored, week-long training session in Maryland. The training was conducted by notables from notable university environs. The subject: mediation. During the week, one instructor brought forth the notion that APOLOGY was a powerful tool in mediating disputes. I suppose so, but never really got to find out, because after that training and expenditure of state money, I was never afforded the opportunity to exercise the skills gained: Trained to be a mediator but never given the opportunity to develop that skill set. Never did figure that one out. So, are apology and forgiveness the same? Well, they may be close cousins in intention, but neither are worth spit when their application is mere façade. Ethically, 21st century homo sapiens is mostly bankrupt, in my view. You may quote me, if you wish. The notion is not new.(After thought: The political jackass who sent me to mediation training lost his job, only to be promoted to another political jackass position---hmmph.)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, July 7, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I have heard most of the

I have heard most of the platitudes and considered the latitudes associated with this age-old question. I have also thought about what a wise former employer used to say: You've got to pay the price. If someone wrongs you, on whatever level, there is a price to pay. You either get mad or you get even. Because if you immediately forgive or "turn the other cheek", it is your privilege to be slapped again. But, it is not solely for yourself that you need to respond proactively to the wrongdoer. It is for the benefit of others who may suffer from his wrath when he has faced no retribution and no credible deterrence from those previously harmed. People who are allowed to get away with murder will often murder again if there has been no penalty. Old habits are hard to break, so do your fellows a favor: pay the price. Discourage the scoundrel. Display some fortitude. Do not fall prey to mis-directed magnanimity. Or as bikers call it: pussification.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, July 7, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Lex talionis is a maximum,

Lex talionis is a maximum, not a minimum. In a philosophical discussion this should suffice, but apparently this is a room where the joke needs to be explained. That is, law is enacted amongst us to limit and eliminate revenge. Or, as Gandhi is reputed to say, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind!" Furthermore, some people are in a peremptory position over us which permits them to take preemptive action undercutting the ability to retaliate. And without an ethic that prevents that preemptive strike the law itself is undermined in its legitimate meaning as the suppression of revenge, and of its cause
Though I have to admit a certain sympathy with the character played by Michael Palin in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, where, in the final scene, he shouts, repeatedly, the single word, "Revenge!"

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, July 9, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

People want all sorts of

People want all sorts of things, from vengeance to happiness and security for all to sex with their children to forbidding marriages between people of different races.   Civilisation is a process of deciding which are worthy (or,  less stridently moralistically, more beneficial,  though there is of course a moral judgement there as well) and which are not,  and particularly which of those are worthy of being backed by the power of the locally-relevant force monopoly. What is 'natural'  may work well for vands of thirty to fifty hunter-gatherers, being they Rousseavian paragons or nasty, brutish, poor, and short, but we can do better, we have, and the better we have done, the less we've craved vengeance. 
And to say that we are able to recognise proportional revenge as embodied in the law and have no long-standing feuds is ridiculous in the extreme: from the Israeli-Palestinian borders to Dallas to every wronged-feeling jerk with a gun to a U.K.I.P., Golden Dawn,  or Trump rally we see humans utterly unable to see the limits of the wrongs done to them or of its meet recompense. 

marxplank's picture


Saturday, July 9, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Your guest should apologize

Your guest should apologize to the lady that mentioned new brain and old brain. He called her silly, which revealed his ignorance and came across as very arrogant.
It is a well known fact that our brain is structured in layers and the old brain, also known as reptilian brain, is responsible for very immediate reactions such as flight-or-fight. On top of that brain the mammalian brain was developed and is responsible for social behavior (to oversimplify) again on top of it the neo-cortex which enables rational thinking. This is what she was clearly referring to and it is surprising that your guest was ignorant of it. It would have suited him better to be less condescending with people that call in.

kanasanjee's picture


Saturday, July 9, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Your guest today ("Revenge")

Your guest today ("Revenge") is an absolute jerk and a sexist PIG. Referring to a caller as "Lovely" and "Silly" was outright condescending and the comment of coupling her with the other caller was downright reprehensible. You guys really should have taken him to task. Reflect (Philosophize) on your inability to confront such horrible sexism

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, July 25, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

It's a matter of which polity

It's a matter of which polity people feel most aligned with. Revenge is never doing justice. It is unhelpful to think positively about what justice, right and wrong, is. As long as our goal is to "do justice" we will fall into the trap of finding ways of legitimizing revenge and retribution. Or, for that matter, of being rude or taking offense at it. It is a very dubious business to set up systems justifying punitive measures of any kind. Restoring peace is the only rational meaning to the law, as to customs and good manners (which are not supercilious). Injustice is never an isolated event. It requires social support. People must feel that the polity they are allied to has their back. One person cannot enslave another alone, or throw the first stone in a riot. It requires a polity. The point of justice, then, is to deny that polity by opening avenues of resolution between all divisions in the community. Ethos, that is, must be inclusive, and never exclusive. People must feel embraced and never shut out. And that means the violator must be made to find a polity that will naturalize him or her to that embrace rather than to the exclusion of the other. Revenge, retribution, and even punishment, is never doing justice. But how hard it is to convince any polity that peace is the only just response to political division, any more than that reconciliation is the only just response to acts of violence or insult, or just bad manners!

cybersecuritylawsrc's picture


Thursday, August 5, 2021 -- 3:45 AM

The uploading or posting, or

The uploading or posting, or threat of posting, of sexually explicit photographs or videos online, without the consent of those depicted, is used to threaten, control, abuse, bully and humiliate those in the images or film. It is a gross violation of an individual’s privacy. The explicit nature of the images is simply the method or vehicle through which the revenge is exacted.