Hello. I wanted to ask about revenge. (1) Is there anything morally wrong with taking revenge? (2) If the urge to take revenge is a genetic instinct (and surely, it's quite plausible that it might be), why should it have less moral authority than any other feeling about right and wrong? The background to this question is that, while there's no explicit eye-for-an-eye in the laws of most contemporary societies, usually judges take community expectations and appropriate punishment into account when sentencing, and not just factors like legal requirements, precedence, rehabilitation and deterrence -- so revenge is arguably still very much a part of modern law.

Modern legal systems and practices are probably shaped by a number of different factors, as you note. Criminal sentencing, for example, is likely to reflect concerns about rehabilitation, deterrence, consistency — and revenge. You rightfully ask: Should revenge have a place in how wrongdoers are treated -- is there something morally suspect about revenge?

First, it's key to recognize that revenge does not simply aim at making a wrongdoer worse off. Revenge is instead partly a matter of motive: Whenever we punish someone, we aim to make them worse off in some way. What distinguishes revenge from deterrence and other motives is that in acting so as to avenge, we aim to make the wrongdoer worse off for no other apparent reason than that the wrongdoer should be made to suffer. We aren't attempting to discourage the wrongdoer (or others) from acting wrongly, nor are we attempting to use the suffering as a way to improve the wrongdoer's character, etc. Revenge is fundamentally vindictive. To punish a wrongdoer out of revenge is to cause her to suffer, so to speak, just so that she suffers.

And it is the vindictive character of revenge that makes it morally suspect, according to many philosophers. The main worry is that it seems odd to think that we can have good moral reason to do something that seems to aim at nothing good. Suffering, normally, is a bad thing. The advocate for revenge isn't suggesting that we should cause wrongdoers to suffer because doing so will result in some good. Vengeance, it is said, is supposed to be good for its own sake. But that (one might think) is puzzling. Surely the only way to justify causing some bad is by pointing to some other, presumably greater, good it brings about. Yet that's precisely what revenge is not. It's supposed to justified simply because of what the wrongdoer has done, not because of what good will result from avenging that wrong.

Granted, advocates of revenge may respond that this critique misses the point: Revenge itself is good. There's something right or proper, they may propose, about a wrongdoer being made worse off. Normally, suffering is bad. But the suffering of wrongdoers is made good by virtue of the fact that it a wrongdoer who suffers. Other may argue that the good of causing wrongdoers to suffer isn't intrinsic to it, but nor does the good reside in causing a good result by punishing the wrongdoer. For instance, it may be good that wrongdoers do not enjoy any advantage from their wrongdoing.

The larger point, however, is that however instinctual a desire for revenge may be, it appears to be a suspect moral ideal, just insofar as it seems to aim at what is bad in some sense because it's bad.

Some good sources you might consult here are Martha Nussbaum's recent book Anger and Forgiveness, which rejects revenge, and the work of Jeffrie Murphy, who advocates for vindictiveness.

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