An Eye for an Eye: The Morality of Revenge

Sunday, July 10, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 13, 2013

What Is It

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. Incarceration and other penalties, according to this view, can only be justified in as much as they protect society, rehabilitate criminals, or deter further crime. But are these approaches to punishment really more just than the retributive or vengeance model? Don’t the victims of crime deserve some kind of payback for their suffering? Are justice and revenge in conflict with one another, or do they actually go hand in hand? John and Ken trade favors with Thane Rosenbaum from the Fordham Law School, author of Payback: The Case For Revenge.

Listening Notes

John opens the show by saying that for humans, the desire for payback (in other words, for getting even after a wrongdoing) is a natural response. But is it a response we should ever act on, even if it is a natural one, asks Ken? John says that if you cause harm to someone else, they have the right to cause harm to you. Revenge, says John, is a way of restoring balance and the honor of victims. It is a source of empowerment. Ken disagrees; he argues that revenge escalates violence rather than restores the balance John speaks of.  Ken and John end at odds with the question of whether revenge is any good for the victims.

Ken and John are joined by guest Thane Rosenbaum, Professor of Law at Fordham University and author of Payback: The Case for Revenge. John first asks Thane what got him interested in the topic of revenge – perhaps for personal reasons? Thane explains that his approach is victim-centered, meaning that he prioritizes what the victims of a crime need in order to feel that justice has been fulfilled. While Thane has never been personally victimized, he explains, his parents were Holocaust survivors and he is a human rights law professor, so he is sympathetic to the experience of people who have been victimized. John asks Thane why revenge should be a part of the criminal justice system, to which Thane replies that all persons signed, however inadvertently, the social contract, meaning that we yield the role of justice determinant to the State. We believe in the idea of punishment for the greater good of society, but in doing so, we discount the debt owed to and deny the experience of the victim. Ken asks Thane to elaborate on the relationship between justice and revenge and to explain the notion that a call for justice is, in itself, a call for revenge. Thane explains that there can be no justice as long as victims are not avenged. There is a misunderstanding, Thane explains, that revenge escalates violence, but, looking back in history, people have sought proportionality and thus followed the ‘eye for an eye’ system with no escalation of aggression. 

Ken is skeptical as to the idea that people are attune to proportionality when seeking revenge for a crime. Thane says that it must be the case, as is proven by history and by the fact that we are alive and free of long-standing feuds. Lessons from the Bible are also discussed in relation to this question. Ken and John invite audience participation, and questions regarding the desire for revenge as being animalistic and a part of an antiquated brain, the cost/benefit analysis of the criminal as it is affected by possible punishments, and whether or not the victim should have the right to avenge a crime when the legal system fails him are discussed. The show concludes with Thane’s reflection that where there is no vengeance, there is dissatisfaction.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:57): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Caitlin Esch talks to Michael McCullough, Professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Miami, about revenge at a neural level and the evolution of the instinct for revenge and with lawyer Bruce Fein about the morality of the death penalty.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:20): Ian Shoales discusses the ranking of Oakland as the "robbery capital" of North America and brings up questions such as what is to blame for these high rates, what constitutes a crime, and how we measure what an eye really is and whose eye we take when a crime is committed on a large scale.