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Society has come to believe that revenge is a "barbaric" and "foolish" remnant of uncivilized society. That revenge is "immoral" in principle and practice

"You're no better," society tells someone who "inflicts" damage or suffering onto someone else who has committed an immoral action

Contrary to popular opinion, are there philosophies that support revenge and retribution? That believe revenge is moral in principle and practice? If so, what are their arguments and reasons?

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    I can't find the excerpt, but if memory serves me correctly, the Hagakure, an old Samurai text, advocates for revenge as a dish best served hot... that it should be exacted before the desire to do it fades. Whether or not this text is deemed philosophy is another question. If it is, it is philosophy of a relatively shallow, instructional sort. It provides advice without delving too greatly into the reasons for the advice. Commented Oct 10, 2022 at 9:43
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    A clear, original, and answerable question +1 Aside from any answers, you may want to think about the psychological states associated with retribution and / vs revenge, and whether they are beneficient ones. YMMV there
    – user62946
    Commented Oct 10, 2022 at 9:47
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    Many philosophies that reject revenge do so on axiomatic grounds—they argue that it is inherently wrong to inflict harm on someone, with revenge not serving as a justification. They might supplement it with some ideas about revenge not having positive effects that counterbalance its intrinsic immorality, but they are against it "just because." A great deal of support for revenge is similar: anytime that someone says "they deserved it because of X," said person is basically endorsing revenge as a good in itself.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Oct 10, 2022 at 20:38
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    Both arguments for and against retribution if they exist could be said to be resolved if you add the usual qualifier karmic before retribution and thus contemplate... Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 21:18
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    Every society believes in it. It's just called "Justice" when it is "peer-reviewed" revenge.
    – Marxos
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 18:30

7 Answers 7

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Yes, of course. There is a very old proverb: Revenge is the best revenge.

In the book Systems of Survival, Jacobs makes the case that there are two systems of ethics that humans follow. She calls them syndromes. These systems correspond to the two means by which people get their living.

The first, and probably older, she calls guardian. This means getting hold of and keeping hold of a territory. Then extract a living out of this territory. This would include such folks as hunter-gatherers. But it also includes more modern institutions such as governments.

The second she calls trade. This means making and doing things of value, then trading these with other people. The classic is the ocean-side people trading with the mountain people. Ocean products for mountain products. Fish for flint, salt for antelope hides, and so on.

She builds a case that each of these corresponds to a system of ethics. Each system is self reinforcing. If you follow all the rules of the system then you will find that your culture is cohesive, persistent, and thrives. But break the rules and things go very badly and rather quickly.

She follows one such example, a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Ik. They lived in a range in central Africa. They followed the migrations of wild animals, hunting for their food and clothing, and living where the hunting was good. They had followed this pattern for many centuries. Their language gave clues that they might have been there doing this since at least ancient Egypt times.

But the authorities made their territory a game preserve. They were required to become farmers. They were given a segment of land sufficient to farm for the size of their tribe. And seed to plant and animals, all similar to their nearby farming neighbors.

At the start of the transition to farming they tried to follow the ethics they followed while nomads. They cared about honor, exerted prowess, they were ostentatious, they respected heirarchy, they were suspicious of outsiders, they shunned trade. And they took revenge.

And they very nearly died out. Their ethics, which had worked well for centuries as nomads, was incompatible with a life as farmers who needed to cooperate and trade with their neighbors. Learning this lesson was drastically harsh for them. You can read of this in The Mountain People by Turnbull. I suggest it is not good bedtime reading since several parts of it are truly horrific.

Today the Ik are subsistence farmers and doing OK. Not exactly rich but they have more than bare survival. They trade with their neighbors. They value learning. They shun force. They even are starting to send some of their children to college.

This illustrates that ethics must correspond to the manner of life in the local culture. Revenge is a vital part of the guardian ethic.

And guardians include the government of a country. Recall that a government must wield force. If they don't then they get ignored. And so they cannot also operate on the basis of trade. Government necessarily falls in the guardian ethic. So, to repeat, they must care about honor, exert prowess, be ostentatious, respect heirarchy, be suspicious of outsiders, shun trade. And take revenge.

Jacobs's thesis is that the set of rules for guardians is a system. It is self reinforcing. Follow all the rules and it will be cohesive and long lasting. Fail to follow all the rules and it will be corrupt and fragile.

So too are the rules for traders. They should follow their rules to get cohesion and longevity.

So the government should stick to non-trade aspects of society. And the merchants should stick to trade aspects. And they should each follow their own rules.

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    A very old Proverb? That is Klingon... a species from Star Trek... so the oldest that could be is late 60s... Maybe even late 80s, the language was invented in 1984... Also nomads would be the opposite of holding a territory... And for whom do these concepts work and what is the argument for them working in the first place? And respecting laws is different from taking revenge one is acting as a society the other as an individual. Not to mention that governments can take on various forms and those hierarchical ones are usually very fragile even with excessive violence.
    – haxor789
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 11:35
  • If our territory is this one planet, then we had better get along, because revenge can annihilate both sides of a dispute.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 13:17
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    @ScottRowe What you are doing is known as "wishful thinking."
    – BillOnne
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 14:35
  • @haxor789 falls for the troll. That quote is actually from Shakespeare (translated from the original Klingon), who got it from the Romans. Who got it from the Greeks. Who probably had it hanging around for centuries.
    – BillOnne
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 14:39
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    This binary categorization feels very forced. Do you not have to be a guardian of some land in order to make something to trade? How can a nomadic tribe be a guardian of anything but themselves? Doesn't capitalism make businesspeople guardians of their property, as well as traders of it? Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 14:06
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I don't know about advocating for it, but explaining or justifying.

Jonathan Haidt has the idea of 'antifragility', that if we make everything too safe shocks can be catastrophic, and we need to practice settling things directly where there are disputes and tensions, rather than going to settling them by intermediaries or authorities as a first response, in order to become resilient (the linked answer further down about insults goes further into why this occurs).

In the research behind his Moral Foundations theory, Haidt identifies 'honour cultures' that have feuds as associated with herder cultures, where all accumulated wealth could be lost in one raid (vs more collectivist ethics of agrarians that must plant and harvest together). Hill tribes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Scots Borders with their 'hot trod' tradition of vengeance over stolen cattle and people, cowboy culture not only in the US but also Argentina and Southern Brazil and even Spain.

He also showed teenage years spent near border conflicts or in war zones, tend to make people less tolerant of ambiguity, and more likely to express right-wing values (higher concern for Moral Foundations he calls: sancity/purity, & respect-for-authority). I'd say this points towards a social role for specific cultural strategies, in response to conditions rather than only from appeal to ideals.

On the role of expressing strong feelings in the moment, towards balancing out (humouring) tensions: What are some arguments against insulting being illegal

On the game-theory of violated social contracts: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

Machiavelli said:

"Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries - for heavy ones they cannot." -from The Prince

Discussed here: Does philosophy have a dark side?

I would suggest though that in general ethics are about seeking to maintain some social state or behaviour that is contrary to pure self interest, or actions based only on one person's wish. This enables greater human cooperation.

Revenge and retribution as cultural values likely lead toward Thomas Hobbes picture of The State of Nature: Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). And by allowing or condoning violent anti-sociality, make

"continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" -from Leviathan

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    From the second paragraph, what is “zcooe”? A web search does not reveal anything, and I must confess that I cannot tell what it might be a typo for.
    – KRyan
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 1:16
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    @KRyan I would guess it is a misspelling of "score", but like you I am uncertain
    – eirikdaude
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 9:27
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The argument against them isn't that they are "old", "out of fashion", or "outdated". Or that you "should be better" or that it's not "moral".

The problem is that it simply doesn't work. Like the arguments for "retributive justice" are apparently:

  • deterrence/rehabilitation
  • social cohesion
  • to prevent extrajudicial violence

And it's success in these areas is pretty damn limited at best. Deterrence doesn't really scale with severity but rather with how effective a law is enforced. So the death penalty doesn't deter shit if you know that only 10% of cases are investigated. Or if applied unjustly would constitute state level terrorism. While a justice system focused less on retribution but gets 99% of criminals has a much better chance of deterring crime. Same for rehabilitation, like for many crimes you don't actually learn through the punishment that what you were doing is wrong, you just learn that you need not to be caught to avoid the punishment. Suffering does not necessarily make you a better person it might just leave you even more broken.

And in terms of social cohesion and a logic of "who slays together stays together". You'd effectively still do the deeds and have the psychological effects from it. So you'd either make people suffer in cold blood (so rational and self-reflectively doing a crime) or you'd artificially enrage yourself by demonizing and dehumanizing your victim in order to avoid that thought. So either way you'd move "harming something else" from something that is categorically a problem, to something that is a problem in terms of "who is doing it". The problem is that it is a categorical problem, it both normalizes extreme acts to the perpetrator because they have to rationalize to themselves and it puts the sufferer in a position where they break and might take extreme measures themselves. So even if that would work in terms of enforcing a social cohesion, would that be a mutually beneficial thing? Like this is what mass murderers and war criminals attempt. Letting people share their guilt in order to alienate them from the world and make them perceive the struggle as "death or glory" because a "return to normal" seems impossible.

And in terms of deterring extrajudicial violence, well that depends not on the retributive nature of the justice system but again on it's reliability. Like does it work and do people trust in it or do they think they are better off on their own.

So retributive justice is part of many legal systems and a lot of people would agree that there needs to be some penalty for breaking existential rules of a society but it's benefits aren't really scalable and are often overstated.

Now that's retribution, revenge is even worse. Because it's the extrajudicial and personal version of retribution. Though it's less about a conceptual problem or "morality", like if you're being attacked and wronged you'd likely even have the moral high ground. And it's pretty natural and relatable if you are emotionally overwhelmed and reaching for flight or fight responses that aim at evading or eliminating the threat.

The problem is again that it doesn't work and is doing more harm than good. Like you're MASSIVELY biased towards yourself and in nature you'd be that for a good reason. Being attacked could be a life or death situation. Though that also means that you're likely ignoring all the other facts. Like who did it, why did they do it, did they have a chance to act otherwise, am I truly innocent in that and so on. So you have a good chance to hit disproportionately hard and fast, because you don't have the backing of society but have to substitute that power through force and there's also a good chance that you strike the wrong person as you're really not in rational state of mind and might unleash your anger upon the next best person regardless of their guilt. And even if you hit the right person there is still collateral damage both literally and figuratively of people being involved and seeing YOU as a threat to them putting them in an emotionally charged state of mind where they see themselves as wronged, in need of self-defense and with the moral high ground. If you attack them without stating your goal you might even give them the legit impression that they have the moral high ground.

After all having a person going rogue and harming "seemingly random people" erodes the trust in the legal system, promoting even more extrajudicial violence. And as those actions are likely disproportional and increasing in intensity that is spiraling out of control fast.

So hot headed revenge might be seen as less culpable, as you were not really in a well balanced, rational state of mind, but it's still something you'd seek to avoid as best as possible as it mostly creates even more problems rather than solving them.

While cold blooded revenge is even more culpable and problematic because you'd make an effort to keep yourself in a state of hatred where you purposely ignore your feelings of restraint in those domains in order to fulfill your deed. So it's not that you're a criminal because you're inhibiting systems were numbed by internal drugs, you purposely trained yourself to ignore them.

So regardless of the authority of the state, tyrannical or democratic, it's usually a good idea to thoroughly investigate the case, take a view days to calm the emotions and to hear all sides of the story, not even to pass judgement, but just to avoid misconceptions and further problems down the line.

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  • It doesn't 'work' depends on the aim. In 'An eye for an eye' times it wasn't about deterring eye poking, the revenge itself was the justice, giving it was embodying the just outcome. So in that sense, it 'worked'. But it was a bloody feuding time prone to escalation over deescalation, & hence we now tend to add '-leaves the whole world blind'.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 22:40
  • If deterring the poking of eyes was not among the aims, why would you poke an eye in return as a form of punishment or treat it as a crime to begin with? Also despite "an eye for an eye" nowadays being idiomatic for brutality, at the time that was already progress as it moved from revenge to retributive justice where it's ONLY an eye for an eye and not more. Though it still had a hard time getting rid of bloody feuds and escalating conflict and I'd wager that reducing those was again intended even at the time
    – haxor789
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 0:24
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    You have an implicitly consequentialist notion of the purpose of justice. People who support the death penalty very often don't care about the research showing it's not a deterrent. Advocates for it very often feel that the killing of a murderer is itself justice, the apportionment of what is due.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 10:32
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    @haxor789: I would say it speaks to a need to believe in justice as being transcendental. That helps an unstable game theory equilibrium of mutual benefit, from decaying into lose-lose situations, among believers. I was just discussing how sacrificing our own lives cannot be the choice of a rationally self-interested individual, but having people who will choose death over destruction of their society has been crucial to human progress. Ideals, like justice, enable that, however non-rational (perhaps, super-rational)
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 19, 2022 at 23:10
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    @CriglCragl I liked how in Frank Herbert's stories, everyone involved in a law case is subject to legal reprisal. There are no innocent parties in that system. Anyone going to court might not come out again, including judges and prosecutors. In fact, they have robotic judges in many cases.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 20, 2022 at 0:45
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In a rather morbid twist of mental history, it turns out that you can find arguments in favor of revenge, albeit not revenge by us, in the Christian tradition. In other words, there is a strong thread throughout the history of Christian hamartiology according to which God is effectively obligated to avenge Himself upon us, on pain of defacing His own honor. This, that is, unless He elects to forgive us; but even then, "mere" forgiveness is not good enough, the ritual of the Atonement still had to be performed to make forgiveness proper into something permissible for God.

Now humans being ingenious at mutating their arguments at will, it has followed that God's purportedly justified hatred has often become the image of human beings acting on God's orders, to carry out His hatred. Now humans aren't actually totally depraved, however, so a great many people realize how spurious this delegation of authority is, or even go on to reject divine as well as human vengeance.

But if you want arguments in favor of hatred and punishment, even to the point of genocide, I'd look into Christian apologetics (William Lane Craig comes to mind, he's semi-recently defended the rape-genocides commanded by God in the older texts). Another option might be looking into theories of ressentiment, e.g. in Neitzsche or some Marxism-informed circles. I imagine Nazi analysts might've also favored such attitudes at times, so maybe check out Mein Kampf? (Though note that there were some weird filters on SS membership where explicitly sadistic personalities were at some point supposed to be excluded, on the grounds that the extermination of the Jews was supposed to be a clinical, dispassionate procedure.)

Having said all that, I would also like to note that if Christian nationalists, Marxist extremists, and Nazis are going to be your best source of evidence for arguments on behalf of vengeance, I do wonder how justifiable the premises of such arguments could possibly be.

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One can structure an utilitarian argument for revenge as a cultural practice thus:

Let morality be that which increases total wellbeing.

Total wellbeing equals total benefits minus total costs.

When a decision-making person must pay the full costs of a transaction, he will only carry out the transaction if the benefits to him exceed the costs. There may be benefits to others in the process, but in any case, the transaction creates net positive utility. The more such transactions there are, the greater the wellbeing of the society.

When a decision-maker is capable of ignoring the costs of a transaction, he will carry out the transaction if the benefits to him exceed the costs to him even though total costs exceed the benefits. This transaction will create net negative utility. The more such transactions there are, the less the wellbeing of the society.

Therefore, that which effectively communicates transaction costs to the decision-maker is moral. That which does so most efficiently (either at less cost, or more effectively) is most moral.

Crime is a form of transaction in which the decision-maker (the criminal) is capable of ignoring most of the costs of a transaction (the crime), which are paid by others (the victims). This will promote net negative transactions, so members of a society have a collective interest in communicating the costs to the criminal.

Revenge is also net negative per individual transaction, but revenge as a cultural practice communicates the costs of the transaction (the possibility of revenge) to the would-be criminal.

If one grants this argument, what follows is a discussion about who should take revenge, under what circumstances, by what means, in what manner, and after exhausting which alternatives, in order to most effectively and inexpensively communicate transaction costs to decision-making entities.

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    The nice thing about this answer is that it also explain how changing circumstances can change how acceptable revenge is. As society develops, the costs change, as well who bears them. In modern society the justice system takes care of punishing criminals, so individuals don't need to exact revenge to promote the public good. And slighted individuals are also more likely to make mistakes, so revenge becomes a net negative compared to a (properly working) justice system.
    – towr
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 5:57
  • Perhaps "crime" should be a more specific term, as there are many crimes with no costs to anyone other than those artificially imposed by the government (and felt by the criminal) Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 14:10
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In the sense that one function of religion is to provide guidelines for one's behavior, that is, to provide an ethics framework, it may be in order to refer to Christianity here.

The revenge idea is the underlying ethics of the Old Testament.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth

is the central tenet. While that may seem barbaric to some of us, it was a civilizatory achievement because it replaced unrestrained retribution and unshackled rage with a measured response. Reading it as a restraint also provides a path to understanding the next civilizatory step laid out in the New Testament:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

This is a prime example of "dialectic lifting": Lift as "take up", lift as "repeal", and lift as "elevate". The old statements are taken up, nullified, and eventually — dialectically synthesizing this opposition — elevated into something new. The civilizatory progress begun in the Old Testament is driven forward to a new stage: In a modern community everyone would contribute more than they get out.

Therefore, one answer to your question would be that proper, measured revenge can serve as a restraint in places that would otherwise go overboard with violent responses.

But while this basic achievement is an important, fundamental principle that must be protected and cherished, it is also the basis for further civilizatory progress. In that it resembles other basic principles like equality before the law.

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You need a critical theory, I reckon. When you engage in acts of revenge and retribution alongside another community agents, is your happiness more "ideological" than when you do not, Which could be just to say, do you lose something (even if that could be only your sense of physical etc. safety, non-instrumental thinking, whatever).

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  • Is this what you refer to with "critical theory"? Critical theories attempt to find the underlying assumptions in social life that keep people from fully and truly understanding how the world works. Finding assumptions seems like a good idea, but with those out of the way, there is not much left, I think? We have, like, gravity and evolution.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 17:43

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