Forgiveness, Mercy, Revenge Update 3: Three Revenge Hot Takes

Hey everyone,

After months of reading and developing my views, I’ve finally sorted my arguments into three tentative essays. In this post, I’ll summarize the arguments I intend to make in each one.

1 – “Shall We Not Revenge?” will introduce the model of revenge which I will use throughout my project. I will define revenge in nonmoral terms, so that my calling an action vengeful implies nothing about whether it is morally justified, or whether the target even deserves to be punished. I will borrow from Dr. Gert’s paper to argue that revenge is a personal good (see my last post), and from there I will use an analogy to civil law to argue that revenge is sometimes morally justified.

If someone has caused me severe harm because of their own wrongdoing, it seems morally appropriate for me to sue them for damages. Even if the harm they caused me was not monetary, money could go part of the way to diminishing the injustice which has been done to me. Since I have been victimized, it is appropriate for me to seek compensation at the expense of the person who harmed me. If we accept that revenge is a good, then the same principle should lead us to believe that victims are sometimes entitled to taking that good at the expense of the people who wronged them. This is the core of my argument; the bulk of the paper will develop this view,  while also responding to possible objections.

The title of this paper comes from a famous monologue in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the villain, expresses his resolve to remove “a pound of flesh” from Antonio. Shylock is Jewish, and he resents that Antonio and other Christians have mistreated him out of anti-Semitism. I find this monologue interesting, in part, because Shylock regards the drive to revenge to be evidence of his humanity, as he says, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”


2 – In “Reclaiming Revenge: Toward a Victim-Centered System of Criminal Justice,” I will build on my arguments in the first essay to advocate changes in the American justice system. The legal system makes it easy for the most powerful people to take revenge against those they hate, while also denying revenge to victims of heinous crimes. Rather than attempting to remove vengeance from the criminal justice system, which I think would be impossible, we should redirect the technology of vengeance toward the aims of justice.

This essay won’t engage with arguments for anarchy or prison abolition, although I am personally sympathetic to both. For the purpose of this essay, I am advocating policies which would improve the existing system, without considering the merits of abolition.


3 – In “Standing: The Common Vantage Point of Forgiveness and Revenge,” I will argue that forgiveness and ethical revenge are both rooted in a person’s moral standing, which they gain when they have been made the victim of a crime. If a person has moral standing with respect to a particular crime, then it is in some sense appropriate for them to forgive, to deny forgiveness, or to take revenge, whereas this would be inappropriate for someone who lacks moral standing.

Standing is a minimum requirement for ethical forgiveness and revenge; although it is never ethical to perform these actions when we do not have moral standing, standing does not guarantee that the option we choose will be ethically permissible. Even if I have standing, it might be immoral for me to take revenge against someone when this would harm their innocent children. Likewise, even if I have the right to forgive someone, it might be immoral (or unwise) for me to do so when this would cause me to suffer psychological harm.

By explaining the common root of these concepts, I hope to demonstrate how both forgiveness and revenge are rooted in the moral power which victims hold over those who have wronged them. Rather than being total opposites, they share many similarities because of how they operate within this relationship.