Repressing Revenge

Why we should not stop stigmatizing our retributive instincts. We're better off not encouraging the expression of the retributive impulse.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond's views on revenge and retribution

Writing in the New Yorker, anthropologist Jared Diamond presents a compelling account of the power of retributive emotions. Conducting research in New Guinea, he befriends a local, Daniel, who tells of his enthusiastic participation in tribal warfare driven by the need to avenge the killing of fellow clan members. Daniel exults in having finally avenged the death of his uncle, whose killer ends up paralyzed for life by a bamboo arrow shot through the spine.

In the logic of vengeance, each new death requires retaliation, so there’s no obvious way to end a war; indeed, before the advent of centralized government in New Guinea, some lasted for years. As Diamond points out, gang violence in the United States follows the same tit-for-tat pattern, as does the internecine strife among Shiite and Sunni factions in Iraq. Other examples aren’t hard to come by. Human beings seem strongly predisposed to exact revenge and to deeply enjoy doing so; Daniel’s story is simply a vivid case in point.

Diamond says that it’s for the best that the New Guinea clan conflicts have been brought under control. Disputes that might have triggered endless cycles of retaliation are now adjudicated by courts and magistrates, reducing deaths, injuries and the pervasive fear of being the victim of a revenge attack. But he worries that in taking away the right to pursue one’s own vengeance, modern political states have gone too far in discouraging the expression of our retributive emotions:

…through the experiences of a relative who passed up the opportunity for vengeance and lived to regret it, I came to appreciate the terrible personal price that law-abiding citizens pay for leaving vengeance to the state.

The price we pay is foregoing the deep satisfaction of taking our own revenge, in person, upon those that have wronged us:

We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.

Diamond objects to this modern repression of revenge, and recommends that we give freer rein to our retributive emotions:

My conversations with Daniel made me understand what we have given up by leaving justice to the state. In order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad. But, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged. To a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful. Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.

Diamond here unabashedly champions the expression of retributive emotions as a positive good, a basic human value that can enrich our lives. The satisfactions of revenge are, he says, natural and powerful, on a par with love, so to say we should transcend our retributive feelings is wrong. We should instead seek out opportunities to express them, for instance by attending executions. The state may have taken away the right to personal retaliation, but we can still enjoy the wrongdoer’s suffering or death at a distance.

As the history of taking revenge shows, and New Guinea is a good example, leaving the retributive impulse unchecked tends to increase violence and the suffering it entails. States in which citizens are encouraged to express their retributive emotions will be more likely to punish wrongdoers in order to provide retributive satisfactions, that is, to inflict suffering for its own sake. But inflicting suffering can conflict with other desirable outcomes, such as rehabilitating or retraining the offender, so retributive punishment has definite social costs. Further, in such a state it would be morally permissible to celebrate the suffering of wrongdoers, to revel in it. Neighbors would congratulate each other on achieving retaliatory success, even if, regrettably, they couldn’t personally see to it themselves. In short, encouraging the expression of retributive emotions and their satisfaction by the state can only brutalize a culture, increasing the level of state-sanctioned violence on offenders and normalizing punitive responses to wrongdoing outside the criminal justice system. No more turning the other cheek, no more striving to forgive.

The social cost of retributive emotions

The question Diamond must answer is whether this is the sort of culture we should want. Is this who we should aspire to be: people for whom the pleasures of vengeance are on an equal moral footing with the pleasures of love? This seems to be the direction he’s headed, but it’s hard to believe he would actually endorse such a culture. Perhaps he supposes that we could admit the moral legitimacy of revenge without any of these effects transpiring, but emotions drive behavior, as his suggestion about witnessing executions shows. Consider those Islamic states which host public beheadings and amputations. Or think back two or three centuries, when crowds routinely satisfied their retributive appetites by witnessing punishments now generally considered completely beyond the pale. Do we want to return to those days, or anything like them? History seems to show that only by trying our best to transcend the retributive impulse can we keep it somewhat in check. To have the kind of culture many of us want, we very likely must deny ourselves the satisfactions of vengeance. There are worse fates.

Diamond’s case for the moral legitimacy of vengeance is simply to point out its power over us, that we deeply enjoy getting even. If we (or the state as our proxy) can’t inflict the desired suffering on our wrongdoer, we are left frustrated, unsatisfied, very much as we might be sexually frustrated, hungry, thirsty or tired if we can’t manage to satisfy those needs. If we can legitimately avail ourselves of food, drink, sleep and (uncoerced) sex, why not vengeance?

One response to this question is to point out the social costs of encouraging the expression of retributive emotions, as I did above. But it might be argued that, just as we’re willing undergo considerable hardship for love, and a great deal of hardship for food and water, the hardship of a brutalized culture is not too high a price to pay for the satisfactions of vengeance. In other words, the champion of retribution simply asserts that in his value hierarchy it ranks high enough to be worth trading off other values, should that be necessary. Because he strongly wants to express his retributive emotions, he’s willing to pay the cultural cost. But of course this isn’t a principled reason for us to agree that expressing retribution emotions should be allowed, and that we should compromise other values to allow its expression. To assert the sheer power of the desire for vengeance, which is primarily what Diamond does in his piece, doesn’t justify its satisfaction.

Ordinarily, champions of retribution justify it by saying that wrongdoers deserve to suffer, whether or not their suffering brings about any benefit, including the benefit of satisfying retributive desires. That is, they explicitly disconnect the rationale for retribution from its emotional basis, since otherwise they could be (and often are anyway) accused of pandering to the desire for vengeance. But why then do offenders deserve to suffer, why should they suffer (for that’s all deserve means here), if such suffering serves no interests, not even the interests of those wanting retribution?

Although Kant and other philosophers have tried mightily to articulate a disinterested basis for retributive punishment, there has not emerged any particularly clear or compelling account along these lines. This isn’t surprising because moral practices ultimately can’t rest on anything but human interests, on our basic needs and desires, and on our all-things-considered best judgments about the right balance to strike when these needs and desires conflict, as they often do.

Seeing this, we are returned to the conversation about what sort of culture we want, what sort of people we want to be. It’s only in this context that the question of retribution can be addressed, and retributivists would do well to admit that "deserved" suffering is simply that which the victims of wrongdoing want inflicted on the offender. This exposes retribution for what it truly is: the expression of the basic human desire for vengeance, retaliation and revenge – not a new or startling revelation, of course. Once we’ve come clean about this (and Diamond’s article is helpful in forcing the issue), then we can argue about the extent to which, if at all, we should encourage retributive emotions.

When conducting this argument, there isn’t an independent standard outside our needs and desires that tells us the correct balance between taking revenge and, shall we say, forbearance. Instead, we often find ourselves of two (or more) minds, with conflicting impulses that duke it out without the benefit of a higher-order value which can resolve the conflict.[1] We are simply hosts to an internal war between vengeance and forbearance. The victor is determined by reflecting on the qualities of the culture that would result if one or the other motive gained the upper hand, keeping in mind the fates of past and present cultures. The motives themselves prompt this reflection. And of course we argue back and forth with others who have a stake in the outcome. Eventually, we might find ourselves at least provisionally convinced that a culture which minimizes the expression of retributive emotions is best overall. And we can give reasons for that position, as I did above when citing the likely brutalizing effect of legitimizing vengeance. But none of those reasons is independent of the contest of values as it works itself out in our heads. Others, like Diamond, might reach a different conclusion.

Each side hopes to influence the value conflict going on in the listener by offering arguments that put the best possible light on their favored value. But there isn’t any further non-partisan, disinterested basis outside the arguments to appeal to. So, I can only hope that Diamond, hearing the argument about brutalization, would retract his recommendation that we reverse our policy of stigmatizing retributive emotions, a hard-won cultural achievement that’s taken hundreds of years. Has he thought carefully about what this would entail? Should the desire for vengeance really be given a place alongside love, compassion and forgiveness in the pantheon of prized human emotions? To ask this question seems answer enough.

TWC, May 2008


[1] Joshua Greene, a Harvard neurophilosopher who researches morality using MRI scans, speaks of conflicting intuitions “duking it out” in the brain as we neurally compute moral dilemmas, see here.