Bryan Caplan  

See Saw III... If You've Got Nothing Better to Do

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I'm a huge fan of the original Saw, and the first sequel was also quite good. The latest installment is watchable, but it's too heavy on gore and not strong enough on story and characterization.

The only novelty of Saw III is the theme of forgiveness. The movie plays up the idea that revenge doesn't make people feel better about their past victimization.

I'd love to see some empirical happiness research on this point. I'm willing to believe that forgiving makes people happier than nursing grudges. But I also think it is very likely that - contrary to all platitudes - revenge is a surer and quicker path to the recovery of happiness than forgiveness.

In evolutionary terms, revenge serves the clear function of deterring future offenses against you and your family. Not feeling good about getting payback from those who've done you wrong just doesn't seem evolutionarily stable.

And introspectively, revenge gives closure. Every time you remember the wrong done to you, you'll also call to mind the way you balanced the scales. One of my happiest childhood memories involves a sneak attack with my lunchbox on a kindergarten bully. The pain of the bullying is long since forgotten, but the joy of righting the scales of the schoolyard is still with me.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Eric writes:

Upon reflection, I regret when I have been unnecessarily cruel. As this includes the vast majority of mean things I've ever said or done, perhaps the 'rule' of forsaking grudges is on balance a way to avoid this. The handful of righteous smack-downs is just too infrequent. I agree one needs to punish bad behavior, but for personal insults of the non-lawbreaking sort, mere shunning and avoidance of the offender is a pretty good strategy. That said, if someone ever argues with you and points his finger very near your face or into your chest, punch him.

As the Jedi know, giving into your anger brings out the Dark Side.

Seth writes:

"In evolutionary terms, revenge serves the clear function of deterring future offenses against you and your family."

Or, it perpetuates a cycle of violence in which every act of vengeance is seen as a new justification for reaction, inciting rather than deterring future offenses against you and your family. Questions of "who started it" eventually become a chicken-and-egg debate and everyone ends up worse-off. See: Israel v. Palestine.

"Every time you remember the wrong done to you, you'll also call to mind the way you balanced the scales."

Vengeance and justice are not synonymous. The satisfaction gained from revenge is often short-lived, just ask any number of felons.

Monte writes:

"Or, it perpetuates a cycle of violence in which every act of vengeance is seen as a new justification for reaction, inciting rather than deterring future offenses against you and your family. Questions of "who started it" eventually become a chicken-and-egg debate and everyone ends up worse-off. See: Israel v. Palestine."

Good point. If Israel would simply turn the other cheek, they could occupy the moral high ground and allow Palestine to occupy them. Sounds like a Pareto improvement to me.

Seth writes:

"Good point. If Israel would simply turn the other cheek, they could occupy the moral high ground and allow Palestine to occupy them. Sounds like a Pareto improvement to me."

Thread: Hijacked.

Monte writes:

"Thread: Hijacked"

Offsetting penalties. Replay the down.

Ragerz writes:

I think Caplan may be right about this. The most important thing for a victim to do to restore happiness is somehow bring about closure and move their focus to more happy aspects of life. Revenge is surely one way to achieve such closure. (Unless, of course, you are prosecuted for your act of revenge. In that case, revenge may prolong the process of closure.)

It should be noted that revenge and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one might more easily forgive someone after having the satisfaction of knowing they paid a price for their actions.

The best argument against revenge is due process, not the pyschological well-being of the victim. Few things are more tragic than revenge being wrongly directed at someone who is innocent.

If I was on a jury in the trial of a parent accused of killing someone who molested their child, I would engage in jury nullification --assuming I was fairly confident that they got the right guy.

Seth writes:

Ha! All right, I withdraw my example of Israel v. Palestine which I regretted even as I typed it. I stand by the intended point of my original comment, though, which is that vengeance can incite as much as it can deter.

And, just to spice up this thread a little, I thought the original Saw was silly.

Monte writes:

Seth,

I'll concede your point regarding vengeance. Retaliation and revenge typically excacerbate rather than resolve. In terms of "transactional analysis" (see Eric Berne's "Games People Play"), they are counterattacks which escalate the conflict. It's sort of like scratching a poison ivy rash. It feels so good, but makes it worse.

Ragerz writes:

Monte,

Doesn't the "typical" effects of revenge vary based on context? Can't we predict that certain situations will often result in some sort of cycle (i.e. religious based revenge) versus others which will often not (revenge against a typical criminal)?

Monte writes:

Ragerz,

I believe the counter-example you use more closely resembles justice than vengeance. Seth qualified this point with his first post.

Dain writes:

Ragerz makes a good point.

If one can concieve of "revenge" including finding the guy that ripped you off, and it's done within a context of others that adhere to an ethic of fairplay in business transactions, then the situation will not spiral out of control because there is widespread consensus on the wrong that need be righted, and the injustice ends when the wronged party is "made whole again".

With religious revenge, all others of the same religious group feel compelled to join in.

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