Thoughts on Revenge

Unlike reparation, most moral philosophers regard revenge as morally unacceptable, in the sense that harm is inflicted but achieves little to nothing for the revenging party, aside from satisfaction.  Revenge can be destabilizing because the harm inflicted is very often perceived by the receiving party as not proportional to the original encroachment, and can easily descend into a vicious circle such as a blood feud.

Our evolved, primitive sense of justice is the main driver for revenge, since it seems to be consistent across different cultures, and not limited to humans.  The primary motive for humans is to seek pleasure or satisfaction by inflicting harm to the perceived offending party, and perhaps as a secondary motive, to potentially deter future offenses.  Revenge is not necessarily justice, however that is not in the scope here.

What the revenging party gains is mainly emotional.  Namely, pleasure or satisfaction from knowing that the offending party has suffered as a result of his party’s action.

An operational definition of revenge according to Wikipedia is “a harmful action against a person or group in response to a real or perceived grievance”.  I think that this definition lacks some of the key psychological requirements central to revenge.

Let’s see what makes up revenge.  For simplicity, let’s call the party seeking revenge A, and the recipient party of the revenge B.

First requirement, a perceived grievance against A, with B being the perceived offender.  Or is it?  Say B tortures a puppy unaffiliated to A, and A decided to whack B with a sledgehammer on behalf of the aforementioned puppy.  Is that considered revenge?  I would argue that it is, since A is taking pleasure in punishing B for actions that offended A, albeit  indirectly.  It would be considered as exacting revenge on a third party’s behalf.  Therefore, I would revise to be, “a direct or indirect harm or injustice perceived by A, with B being the perceived offender”.

Second requirement, intention of harm by A to B in direct response to said perceived offense.  If there is no intention, it cannot be considered revenge.  Say A accidentally runs over B with a truck unknowingly.  A can certainly take pleasure in this development, however it cannot be considered revenge, since there had not been an intention to do so FOR the original grievance.  At best it can be considered “karma”.  But not revenge.

Third requirement, formulation of a plan by A to inflict harm upon B.  Or is it?  Say B happened to walk under a piano and A saw the opportunity and decided to cut the rope holding the piano, flattening B in the process.  That would certainly be considered revenge.   There is no advance planning, only a snap decision in face of a fleeting opportunity.  So scratch that requirement.

New third requirement, actual infliction of harm upon B through conscious action or inaction by A.  Say B is drowning and A declines to act to save B.  That would certainly be considered revenge.  What about the conscious part?  Say B is drowning with 9 other people.  If A consciously decides to save others and not B, that is certainly revenge.  However if A simply clams up and does not save anyone, then it would be hard pressed to call it revenge.

Fourth requirement, derivation of satisfaction or pleasure for A from the infliction of harm to B.  Or is it?  Say B drowned as a result of A declining to act.  However after doing so,  A did not derive any pleasure, contrary to what he had thought he would.  Is that still considered revenge?  I believe most would say yes.  So what was wrong with the requirement?  I argue it is the anticipation of pleasure or satisfaction that is essential, and not the actual outcome.  Therefore, I would revise the requirement to be, “anticipation of satisfaction or pleasure for A from the infliction of harm to B”.  It is irrelevant whether said satisfaction is actually experienced or not.  So what, then, is the act of revenge without anticipation of pleasure?  I would call it a form of retribution.  It seems more like the governmental justice system, indifferent and detached.

Final requirement, B knowing or guessing to a reasonable certainty that said harm was inflicted by A, in response to a previous perceived grievance.  Or is it?  Does B have to know that the harm was inflicted by A for the revenge to be valid?  It would certainly be more satisfying to A knowing that not only had perceived justice been done but also that B was aware that it had been doled out by the wronged party.  Most would agree that this proposed requirement is not essential to revenge.  It would require significant mental discipline on A to resist the natural urge to gloat, and realize that there is no real upside to B knowing.  It is a comparatively rational form of revenge, and in my opinion the only type that ends the vicious circle.  So let’s scrap the final requirement.  Of course revenge is not only between A and B, but also to deter other parties from potential transgressions towards A.  I think that whether publicly/implicitly known or not, A would still sport a Duchenne smile.

Revenge is therefore better defined as: “Inflicted harm through conscious action or inaction in direct response to perceived direct or indirect grievance, with anticipation of satisfaction or pleasure from the infliction of said harm”.  I am probably committing great offenses to the English language here but hey, this is my blog.

Take the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon as an example.  Currently the perpetrator is unknown, and no party has claimed responsibility yet.  It is probably reasonable to speculate that it is likely to be an act of revenge, rather than a ill conceived test or stupidity gone awry.  Should the responsible party not come forward at all, I would argue that is a more effective modality of revenge.  Not that I condone the bombing in any way; this is simply my opinion on the nuances of revenge execution.


1. The bombing suspects are now known, but my point still stands.

2. I am ignoring a very important function of revenge, which is deterrence.  Deterrence is most effective when the revenge is done in a public (or at least implicitly public) manner.  The lust for revenge likely evolved psychologically from deterrence.