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In this episode of Elucidations, Matt sits down with Emily Dupree to learn about whether it’s rational or irrational to try to seek revenge. Click here to download episode 142 of Elucidations.

As a culture, we kinda can’t decide what we think about revenge. Out of one side of our mouths, we talk a big game about letting bygones be bygones, about how revenge and retaliation lead to cycles of violence, and about how nothing good can really come of getting back at people. But acts of revenge, where clearly warranted, also have a visceral moral appeal that it would be absurd to deny. If we didn’t think there were at least some situations in which a person ought to get their comeuppance, then there wouldn’t be so many heroic adventure movies centered around the protagonist’s quest for revenge. When the hero gets back at the villain, it just feels right, like the movie needs to end here and we can all go home; and no amount of pedantic, post-hoc reasoning can ever make that feeling go away.

Solving that dilemma is hard, but as a way of working up to it, our distinguished guest decides to tackle a slightly different question. Not: can seeking revenge ever be the right thing to do—but: can seeking revenge ever be a rational thing to do. Traditionally, most philosophers have answered that question in the negative. Calling it irrational means that it’s senseless and unintelligible, like anyone who does it is undergoing a (possibly temporary) lapse in their basic mental faculties. The reason most philosophers think that it’s irrational to take revenge is that there’s no way to undo the wrong that was done to you in the past. If Person A did something truly horrible to Person B, that thing doesn’t get undone when Person B does a new horrible thing to Person A. And if that’s the case, why do it? Doing it is all cost and no benefit.

In this episode, Emily Dupree argues that in fact, it can be rational to take revenge. How come? It isn’t all cost and no benefit, because in some cases, successfully taking revenge can lead to a unique benefit: namely, the restoration of the vengeance seeker’s moral personhood. For the unique benefit to come, certain background conditions have to hold: the original harm has to have been genuinely morally wrong, it has to have been as egregious as it can be (so it can’t be minor/inconsequential), it has to have taken place under conditions of the political state failing, and it has to have undermined the vengeance seeker’s moral personhood. In that case, it is possible for an act of vengeance to be intelligible as an attempt on the part of the vengeance seeker to get their moral personhood back. Note that our guest isn’t saying the vengeance seeker is right to seek vengeance in these circumstances. The view is just that seeking vengeance under these circumstances can be comprehensible, rather than just bonkers.

Tune in to hear our guest discuss some historical examples of revenge that we can comprehend!

Further Reading

If you’re in the mood to read up on revenge, our disinguished guest recommends Simone de Beauvoir’s essay ‘An Eye for an Eye’, which is available via the following collection:

Philosophical Writings, Simone de Beauvoir, eds. Margaret A. Simons with Marybeth Timmermann and Mary Beth Mader.

Happy reading!

Matt Teichman