Making sense of revenge.

I wrote about forgiveness here.

The gist is that it’s in your interest to forgive.

Don’t, and you give someone power over you.

You allow them to live in your head and prevent you from getting on with your life, to better things.

Why then, should revenge make any sense?

The Case For

It’s hard to talk about something without being in that situation because you never know if you’ll behave as you think you will.

But that shouldn’t be an excuse to not think about it either. Let it just be a disclaimer.

In fact and fiction, it’s common to read about people taking revenge.

Someone harms a person you care deeply about.

You can make it as personal, as emotional as you want to make the case stronger – the murder or rape of a child. Will you not ‘take revenge’?

You can come up with several arguments in favour.

The Protecting others argument. Will you allow him to get away with it – what if he finds new victims?

The Peace of Mind argument. Revenge might ‘restore’ your peace of mind.

The ‘Justified’ argument. You will be ‘justified’ if you act because he clearly ‘deserves’ it.

The Case Against

All three of these arguments aren’t very convincing.

I evaluate them on a single parameter – utility. Utility is cost-benefit.

Which means – do your actions make your own life better?

In other words, if you go ahead, is your life better or worse than it would be if you refrained?

That’s all – words like ethics, morality are just words, they don’t come in the picture.

Start with the ‘Protecting Others’ Argument.

If protecting other potential victims from this person is genuinely your motive, you should realize this has nothing to do with revenge at all, so it can’t be used to justify it.

The end is ensuring the aggressor can’t harm others; taking the law into your own hands is just one means to ensure this, and not a very good one.

Is it worth ruining your future and probably spending your life in jail for this? You’d be extremely altruistic to answer yes.

Pursuing action within the law could probably achieve a similar effect at a much lower cost, even if you don’t have faith they’ll get punished (you’d imagine that someone’s less likely to commit a crime if they think they’ve drawn attention to themselves).

Next is the ‘Peace of Mind’ argument, acting to ‘restore’ your peace of mind.

‘Restore’ implies you’ve lost something, but peace of mind isn’t something you just ‘lose’.

No one ‘takes’ it from you; you choose to give it away. You didn’t have to; it’s not an inevitable consequence.

Nor is there any reason you’ll get your peace of mind back if you avenge yourself – harming someone won’t restore what you’ve lost. But it probably will bring consequences for you.

The ‘Justified’ Argument is that hitting back at someone who’s hit you is justified.

This is not even wrong – to be wrong, you have to at least be relevant.

This is simply irrelevant.

Who cares about justifying anything to someone? They won’t be with you to face the consequences of your actions no matter how strongly they seem to agree with you that you were justified.

In any case, you’ll always find those who think it’s justified and those who don’t. This is usually nothing more than picking someone who agrees with you, something you do to give yourself validation.


When you look at it dispassionately in terms of cost-benefit, you see what revenge is.

Someone’s harmed you.

You decide to harm them back.

Your action brings you no real benefit in that it doesn’t restore what you’ve lost.

It brings you real harm because you now face some consequences.

Perhaps you take the law in your hands and open yourself up to punishment.

Or, in less dramatic cases than this example, instead of trying to end it, you strike the next blow in what now becomes a war that takes up your time and energy.

What options do you have if you don’t take revenge?

One is always to let it go, to get on with your life. This will sound cold and heartless (and perhaps weak) to many, but it is a real option.

It’s pure utilitarian calculation at work, without emotional involvement at all – you decide you can’t do anything to undo past wrongs, and see no reason to write off your future because of the past.

Therefore, you choose to resume your life.

The other is to pursue ‘justice’ – in the sense of punishment for one’s actions – but through legal means, or at least through ways that don’t bring disastrous consequences upon you.

When you’re emotionally impacted and can’t let it go, this is an option.

Looking at it practically, it’s not of a lot of utility – you spend years to bring one offender to justice – but if you consider it essential to get emotional closure, then it’s not a bad thing.

There is another way that blends these two, where emotional involvement meets utility to create maximum impact and bring yourself emotional closure.

You sometimes read of those who, after losing someone in an accident / crime or facing one themselves, make their lives about these causes.

Rather than pursuing ‘justice’ in their individual case, they seek to help others who might be going through what they had to.

In fact, sometimes they forget and reconciliate with the very person who harmed them, because they recognize that it’s a waste to dedicate their whole lives to bringing someone to face punishment, and because they don’t allow negativity to consume them.

In a way, it’s like spending a billion dollars on a small toy, or using a missile to kill a cockroach – you could do so much more with what you had, which is an entire life in this case.

Launching initiatives to support others in similar circumstances offers far more utility while perhaps bringing more emotional closure than simple ‘individual justice’ could hope to achieve.

Signalling Revenge

There is one problem though with this.

If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t take revenge, who lets things go or helps others rather than pursue justice, and if others know about this, it makes you an attractive target.

People will know that they can hurt you and you probably won’t do anything about it – if they’re stupid, they’ll attribute it to weakness, if they’re a little perceptive, they’ll see you choose not to pursue it.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of people who’ll try to take advantage of this.

It’s a nice example of how rational behaviour becomes irrational and irrationality becomes rational because of other people’s responses.

Even if you think it’s rational not to retaliate, such restraint can easily become a losing strategy and an irrational response.

Whereas hitting out at someone who harms you – something that usually brings you no benefit and thus seems irrational or at least emotionally driven – can be your optimal strategy and most rational response.

Even then, it’s still not really a good strategy to retaliate after you’ve been harmed.

It fails on two counts.

That you get hurt because you wait till someone harms you.

And secondly, not only do you waste your life avenging yourself, but you probably start a pointless war war that consumes your time – you retaliate, your opponent retaliates, and this loop repeats.

If you already know that people can be irrational, it’s better to act on that knowledge before someone harms you.

One way I’ve found to do this is signalling – barking so that you don’t have to bite (barking is much easier than actually biting).

You do something, behave or act in a way that intimidates or at least makes people think before harming you (harm is a very broad word, you’ll find this holds in a lot of situations).

So that others understand you’re not a pushover and don’t attack you – otherwise they might find you don’t retaliate and mistake that for weakness, and that’ll be a much bigger waste of your life if you’re ultimately forced to engage.

Yes, it comes with a cost – that you might come across as curt, abrupt, arrogant, or even angry – but that’s a price you pay for this defence.

It’s no different from the price the porcupine pays for its quills. But you can always sheathe your quills for those you want to engage with, and keep them up for those you don’t.