Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong with REVENGE?

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Dialogue from a hundred interchangeable Law and Order episodes:

  • "You didn't want justice. You wanted revenge!"
  • "The law says 'Thou shalt not kill,' not 'Thou shalt not kill nice people!'"
Each time, I'm thinking:
  • "Maybe justice required revenge? Ever think of that?"
  • "He didn't kill the guy because he 'wasn't nice.' He killed him because he murdered an innocent child - the very thing the state of New York itself might legally kill the 'victim' for."
My point: Bring up revenge, and most people get upset and speak in platitudes. I'd like to know: What's wrong with revenge?

To be more specific: Suppose X is the most severe morally acceptable punishment for act Y committed by person Z. Suppose that the government fails to do anything about Y. What's wrong if a person personally affected by act Y does X to Z?

I won't accept "No one has the right to take the law into his own hands" as an answer. I want to hear some reasons why no one has this right. A few possibilities:

1. "Maybe Z didn't really do Y." This is an argument against misguided revenge, not revenge per se.

2. "The person might inflict more than X on Z for doing Y." Again, this is an argument against excessive revenge, not revenge per se.

3. "Revenge leads to chaos and/or multiple rounds of reprisal." This seems unduly alarmist. Most people are cowards, and punishing heinous acts is a public good. Even if "justified revenge" were an affirmative legal defense, few people would take advantange of it. Indeed, if anything, the market under-supplies revenge.

4. "X, the most severe morally acceptable punishment, is zero." Besides being crazy, this is an argument against any system of criminal justice, not just revenge. Ever seen the bumper sticker "Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong?" You could just as easily have a bumper sticker saying "Why do we imprison people who imprison people to show that imprisoning is wrong?"

There are other anti-revenge arguments, but I doubt they'll fare much better. (Feel free to disagree in the comments...) What's interesting to me is that while most people officially condemn all acts of revenge, 80% of all action movies depict revenge as not only morally acceptable, but morally required. Sin City is an extreme case, but its stance is mainstream. In the latest Die Hard sequel (thumbs down, BTW), for example, Bruce Willis keeps saying that he's going to find the bad guys and "Kill them" - not "Kill them if I must do so in self-defense."

My interpretation is that action movies rely on our strong moral intuition about the righteousness of "making the bad guys pay." Like a lot of art, action movies work by bypassing sanctimonious propaganda and showing (not saying!) important truths that, on some level, we already know. Truths like: Someone who kills the murderer of an innocent child deserves a medal, not a jail sentence.


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
Cyrus writes:

Societal toleration of revenge-killings would provide a background in which other killings could go unpunished, if they could be made to look like revenge-killings.

jb writes:

In theory, and, I suspect, in practice, the "system" of courts, lawyers, due process and trial by jury creates a level of structure that cannot be achieved by any individual acting at their own behest.

I do not know where the magic line is that separates the system from individual acts, even though I know that the system is, in fact, made of individuals, but I do know that the multiple checks and balances in the judicial system, while not perfect, are far preferable to any individual act of revenge. We all know that individuals are deeply flawed, and often incapable of reasoning without emotion. Groups of people, working within a structure, seem more capable of this form of passionless evaluation.

I suppose one might feel that this is the same as saying that voters are rational en masse, but unlike voting, the participants (the jury and the judge and most of the system) have little personal interest at stake in making their evaluation.

One of the reasons I believe this is that, as far as I know, few jury participants are wracked with the guilt of kidnapping after finding a person guilty of a crime and having the judge send that person to jail for 5 years. Because the judicial system essentialy acts as "guilt soap". The only reason this would work is if most people felt that the system was generally effective, logical and rational.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Like any other moral dimension, clearly there's a golden mean. But consider the extreme case of zero revenge, zero grudges. Heaven? I don't think so. Consider lions as model mammals that do not hold grudges. The new dominant male generally kills all the infants in order to get the lionesses in heat more quickly, and not waste time raising another's offspring. Now, if lionesses held a grudge, and tried to get some revenge on the new Lion King by merely not acceding his advances, or not taking care of his new kids, this strategy wouldn't be common. So the lack of revenge, or its precedent, a grudge, leads to evil just as surely as excessive street justice.

Ryan writes:

I'd say that the real problem is the fact that revenge defies cultural norms. We might glorify it on some level, however, it is not in what our society has accepted as "good" and probably because of our ideal of rule of law rather than people.

As well, on some level, appealing to courts rather than to arms functions as a regulatory mechanism for vengeance by allowing courts to make sure that the first and second problems mentioned don't happen and thus vengeance is justified upon a utilitarian basis as I imagine that revenge seeking individuals would be more prone to irrationality than the average population.

I think that if people lived in world where revenge was common and followed good social norms and was thus efficient then we would have less problems, we see revenge as being uncontrolled and dangerous though and perhaps it might be in a society where social norms are not considered an exceptionally strong force.

Acad Ronin writes:

I got the following from a mystery novel set on the English-Scottish border in the 14th Century or so. It's the best treatment of the issue of the rule of law that I have found to date.

Rule of Law

Carey looked down at his hands. "Do you know what justice is?" he asked at last, in an oddly remote voice. "Justice is an accident, really. It's law that's important. Do you know what the rule of law is?"
"I think so. When people obey the laws so there's peace..."
Carey was shaking his head. "No. It's the transfer of the duty of revenge to the Queen. It's the officers of the Crown avenging a man's murder, not the man's father or the family. Without law what you have is feud, tangling between themselves, and murder repaying murder down the generations. As we have here. But if the Queen's Officers can be relied on to take revenge for a killing, then the feuding must stop because if you feud against the Queen, it's high treason. That's all. That's all that happens in a law-abiding country: the dead man's family know that the Crown will carry their feud for them. Without it you have bloody chaos."
It was strange to hear anyone talk so intensely of such a dusty subject as law; and yet there was a fire and passion in Carey's words as if the rule of law was infinitely precious to him.
"All we can do to stop the borderers killing each other is give them the promise of justice - which is the accidental result when the Crown hangs the man who did the killing," he said, watching his linked fingers. They were still empty of rings and look oddly bare. "You see, if it was only a bloodfeud, anyone of the right surname would do. But with the law, it should be the man that did the killing, and that's justice. Not just to take vengeance but to take vengeance on the right man."
"So you'll make out a bill for Sweetmilk Graham and go through all the trouble of trying Hepburn and producing witnesses and finding him-guilty ..."
"And then hanging him, when a word to Jock of the Peartree would produce the same result a lot more easily. But that wouldn't be justice, you see, that would only be more feuding, more private revenge which has nothing to do with justice or law or anything else. Justice requires that the man have a trial and face his accusers."
Source: Chisolm, P.F. 1994. A Famine of Horses. New York: Walker and Co.

Leif writes:

I think the most interesting/problematic aspect of this is the method/rules by which X is to be determined.

secret asian man writes:

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Haris writes:

The problem here is really one of semantics, as well as of theory v. practice. The way you define "revenge," you really mean punishment. I don't think anyone, in principle, disapproves of revenge when the punishment imposed on the perpetrator is exactly the appropriate amount. Revenge is frowned upon because in practice, the extent of revenge is usually excessive or otherwise inappropriate, and in recent times, cultural norms dictate that "society" approves of the punishment before it is carried out. But in general, I don't think revenge, to the extent that it's ideally carried out, is particularly offensive to anyone.

Matt C writes:

You've named the two arguments I find most persuasive: personal revenge is too likely to get the wrong guy, and personal revenge is too likely to be excessive.

You claim these arguments are only valid with respect to imperfect revenge. Well, sure. But the idea is that personal revenge is likely to be imperfect, more so than getting a third party in the middle of the problem.

Ethan writes:


If everyone takes the law into their own hands then your individual liberty will surely be violated at some point. If the social majority believe vigilantly justice is validated that does not make it morally correct. In the Middle East honor killings by family members who take the law into their own hands is culturally acceptable but this practice is horrific and not justice.

Jody writes:

It undermines the rule of law.

Carl Marks writes:

Revenge is not wrong, and revenge is taken everyday legally in this country. When the wronged individual takes revenge, they do so in civil court or through outside settlements.

The problem I have with individuals taking revenge is when they are a third party. Since there are almost always multiple third parties, it is only fair that a group of them should be able to get together and decide the level of revenge. Ideally, everyone would get together, but this is inefficient, we have a jury system instead.

Finally, even third parties can individually take revenge in murder cases, its called wrongful death lawsuits.

Russell Hanneken writes:

Bryan: As Haris notes, your question isn't really about revenge per se. Revenge is an act motivated by the desire to strike back at someone who has done you harm. You're just asking why it's wrong for private citizens to punish people for their crimes. Private punishment could have any number of motives.

I don't think revenge is morally wrong, but I suspect it is, as Orwell wrote, sour rather than sweet.

Tuukka writes:

As Haris previously noted, it's the sematics. I associate 'revenge' with something emotional and impulsive and 'justice' with (calm) deliberation. BTW, if justice is done, why would revenge be needed?

Also, it's a question of justification ex post versus ex ante. I think it's better to have justification ex ante because the deed might corrupt the evidence. Example: if you kill person A and prove ex post that it was okay because she was plotting to kill you, you lose the important evidence provided by A.

Joao writes:

"Justice is about harmony. Revenge is
about you making yourself feel better.
It's why we [ought to] have an impartial system".

That is from Batman Begins. :)

Catullus writes:

Winner's curse. Suppose N vigilantes attempt to seek revenge on the same bad guy. Each vigilante has his own conception of what punishment is appropriate, and will not relent until that level is reached. Result: The bad guy gets hit with the highest of the N estimates (or worse - he may get punished in duplicate). Thus the probability that the bad guy suffers excessively - i.e. more than the "true" / "consensus" / "market" level for justice - quickly approaches 1 as N increases.

Alex J. writes:

The Law and Order view is that we civilians are serfs, unable to justly use force in any way but direct self defense. To the writers "revenge" means punishment meted out unjustly by civilians. If you want to see the polar opposite position, read the Icelandic sagas. Personal vengance was routine and accepted. The original Law and Order takes place in NYC, where the private citizens are comprehensively disarmed.

Locke said one shouldn't be the judge in one's own case, for all of the obvious reasons. However, that is compatible with, shall we say, the victim directing the prosecution.

The original vigilance commitees in SF rose up in response to the corruption and incompetence of the official police. (This reminds me of the WWII vets who took up arms against their corrupt local government in TN.) I think that now the state is so powerful that citizens have a Stockholm-syndrome-like mental block when it comes to private violence. Violence is always a sin (for you and me) but the state transforms violence into non-violence like wine into blood.

Buzzcut writes:

You know, as a show, Law and Order has evolved from greatness to mediocrity.

The first couple of seasons, the writers would have looked at the nuance of revenge. Certainly, revenge COULD POSSIBLY be justified. They would examine it, and even if in the end it was found to not be justified, just the fact that it was considered made the show very different than anything else on television.

But the last couple of seasons, you get these simplistic, self-righteous storylines. No nuance. Just "West Wing" style Liberal fantasy.

How the mighty have fallen.

Karl Smith writes:

There are two important questions here

1) Does revenge morally justify an act that is otherwise immoral?

2) Should act be legal if done out of revenge that would have been illegal otherwise.


The second is easier than the first and so I will start there. My answer is, no. Revenge is should not be a legal justification for an otherwise illegal act.

My answer essentially extends from Bryan’s (1) Maybe Z didn’t really do Y.

The legal system must consider itself the ultimate arbiter of the law. If Z is acquitted of Y then the law must treat Z as if he is innocent of Y. If X then takes action against Z then the legal system must view this as a revenge taken against an innocent.

If not then we essentially have the problem of multiple jeopardy. If I can be acquitted of crime but then justifiably punished by a private member of society at any particular time then I am never really free. Part of the purpose to the legal system is to provide closure on a dispute. To do this acquitted people must be treated as innocent.


To the first I also answer, no.

Here the principle is this: no one can violate your rights solely in an attempt to raise their private utility. The rights of X can only be violated in that case that:

1) X has already violated another’s rights
and
2) The violation is necessary to prevent the violation of future rights.


In short, the justification for punishing criminals is that a credible threat to punish is necessary to prevent future violations. Punishment is excess of that necessary to produce a credible threat is unjustified.

Revenge as motive implies punishment inflicted for personal gratification. To the extent that his is in excess of that needed to produce a credible threat it is unjustified. If you simply happen to get personal gratification from punishment necessary to produce a credible threat that is fine. However, revenge cannot make an unjustified act, justified.


As to why there is revenge in movies. There is revenge in movies because it is personally gratifying. Indeed, often we like movies that contain acts that are personally gratifying but otherwise morally unacceptable.

There are movies in which we root for criminals or other bad guys. Though I don’t find sexual deviance to be morally unacceptable many people do, yet enjoy watching it on film. In fact, part of the appeal is that you can see things being done that you cannot do.

Giedrius writes:

I suppose you could just as well say
"Like a lot of art, [some] [not necessarily] action movies work by bypassing sanctimonious [libertarian] propaganda and showing (not saying!) important truths that, on some level, we already know. Truths like:
drug users belong in prison
or
evil corporations should be stopped from taking over the world..."
The dangers of such thinking are an important topic in a recent book, called "Myth of rational something" or whatever...

Jordan writes:

I'm working on a paper on models of restorative justice, which to one extent or another attempt to integrate reconciliation and forgiveness into the process of criminal justice. My working thesis is that one model uses restorative justice to complement the retributive work of the state, while the other attempts to supplant the retributive work of the state by means of restorative actions.

One interesting aspect to this is that in the Christian tradition, the "revenge" motive is validated and circumscribed in the Old Testament, and then in Romans 12 and 13, the "personal" element of revenge is negated and ceded to state power, as a representative of divine judgment.

Brian McDaniel writes:

I agree with Acad's implicit point. While the current configuration of our society may undersupply revenge, sanctioning/allowing revenge may easily oversupply the same, leading to private feuds that are ultimately destructive to society. This isn't hard to imagine: there are plenty of historical and existing societies where private revenge led to excessive violence that was ultimately harmful to everyone.

Of course, ceding the right exclusive right of violence to Leviathon has its own problems (not least of which is that Leviathon will accumulate more power), but it is probably better than living in a society plagued by feud revenge.

Bill writes:

I take a more stringent view of justice. I don't think anybody ever said jusice was "fair." I would consider "justice" to have been done in all of the following situations:

A kills B's wife. A is duly convicted and sentenced to prison term or death.

A kills B's wife, is tried and acquited.

A kills B's wife, B kills A. B is then convicted and sentenced to prison or death.

A kills B's wife, B kills A.

A kills B's wife for some justifiable reason, B kills A.

A kills B's wife and gets killed by a bus the next day.

A kills B's wife and is never tried. Here, I think justice was not done. B could always try to kill A, if he really wants "justice," then he should be willing to price for it, danger to his own life.

Telnar writes:

I believe that the positive externality provided by justice/vengeance is to deter future crimes by others and to protect innocents against this particular criminal. Punishment per se does not produce an externality unless it provides one of those two things.

It's not at all clear that vengeance is well suited to providing deterrence and protection. Deterrence should be calibrated based on the ex ante harm that the offender was able to see that he might do. Protection should be based on the future harm that we can foresee this particular defendant causing. Vengeance on the other hand is most likely to be motivated by the actual harm that was done leading to inefficient amounts of it (in both directions).

Also, it’s much easier for courts in reviewing what has happened to an offender to add more punishment than to subtract punishment which has already occurred. This argues that even if we were to decide to permit vengeance that we should prevent it from exceeding the minimum level which is clearly necessary (since there might be exonerating evidence or mitigating circumstances which could be unknown to the ones seeking vengeance). That minimum level is probably none in most practical situations based on the likely information set of those considering vengeance.

mike kenny writes:

Maybe a person should have the ability to use a 'reasonable law-breaking' defense. The person's defense team would have to establish that in breaking the law the person acted reasonably, and that following the law would have been unreasonable in the person's particular case.

I'm basically applying Richard Posner's pragmatic legal thinking to the problem, as I understand it. His argument seems to be that laws are tools that are sometimes fallible and there probably needs to be a means of escaping obviously bad consequences of applying law. Judges presumably need this ability to escape obviously bad consequences, and perhaps citizens do too.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The state reserves the monopoly on violence.

Probably a good idea, but sometimes I'm not even sure how much violence I trust the state with, much less non-state actors.

Gary Rogers writes:

I have not seen anyone question the motives of the person taking the revenge. You can certainly make an argument for a person who is truly wronged to take revenge on the offending party. But consider someone with less pure motives that trumps up charges or blows a situation out of proportion to eliminate a competitor or person standing between him and his goal. Someone who is willing to take what he wants through force and call it revenge. Due process and the rule of law make it harder for these people to operate.

TGGP writes:

Like a lot of art, [some] [not necessarily] action movies work by bypassing sanctimonious [libertarian] propaganda and showing (not saying!) important truths that, on some level, we already know. Truths like:
drug users belong in prison

Which movies are you referring to for that example? I can definitely see "drug dealers", but not "drug users", with the possible exception of "Reefer Madness".

Stephang writes:

The Torah actually reads "You shall not murder". The Hebrew words for "kill" and "murder" are quite separate. Killing is taking a life; murder is an unlawful killing.

Jose writes:

All very well in theory, and I very much agree with Brian Mcdaniel.
I assume that the kind of revenge Mr. Kaplan is talking about requires a violent act. Does anyone here have any experience subjecting another person to direct violence? Any experience with boxing, the martial arts, the military or law enforcement? Can you imagine yourself comitting a violent act on another person for the purpose of revenge? What is kind of violence is appropiate? Eye for an eye kind of violence? If you exact revenge for a shooting, will you shoot the criminal? Stab them? What if it's an act of another nature? Would you have it in you to commit that act? Would you be able to live with yourself after exacting revenge in a violent way? Are you trained to commit violence in a premeditated and dispassionate and effective way?

As folks interested in things economic, and with your Libertarian outlook you should realize that experience and experimental behaviour are positive things in most aspects of life. In the case of retributive violence, I believe it is best left to people with the correct temperment, training and authority rights.

Dezakin writes:

Every time I read one of these sort of blog posts by Bryan I get the impression he's incredibly emotionally immature. I had the misfortune of having an individual do grevious harm to someone close to me a long time ago and was plagued by the desire for revenge. Had I the opportunity to take it I would be no better off nor made the world a better place.

That we want evil people to suffer is human, but not right. We should want evil people to be prevented from doing evil.

Stuart Armstrong writes:

When someone kills another, there are disagreements - disagreements about the justification of the act, disagreements about the nature of the punishement, disagreements about how to deter this act in the future (even assuming all the facts are known).

In revenge, the opinion of one person dictatorially provides the answer to these questions, without an elected govenment or a market to balance other people's opinion. In everything else, we've learnt to compromise, to balance different people's wants and priorities. Why should justice be any different?

And of course films will be full of revenge - we all chaff against the compromises that are forced on us. We all hate the fact we can't do what we want, follow our urges. Films live out this escapist fantasy for us.

Barbar writes:

Juxtaposing these comment threads ("OK Bryan, sometimes people like to watch things in movies that they wouldn't actually want to do in real life") with the "Bryan Caplan is the smartest person I know" recommendations I've heard in the past makes me laugh.

I mean, I know common sense is often wrong and a good thinker is willing to challenge assumptions. But still.

I'm awaiting Caplan's next graphic novel/political analysis breakthrough: "Iraq: So Much Justice It Hurts."

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