Self-Defense & Violence Prevention Blog

news and commentary about security, self-defense, and topics like violent crime prevention and bullying

Vengeance, Payback, Revenge

I have made quite a few blogs about my support for abolishing prisons and of reforming violent offenders in more compassionate environments. I have explained both the fiscal benefits and the social benefits, namely that preventing crime and rehabilitating offenders helps protect potential victims.

However, after having discussed prison reform with people, and after receiving people’s replies to my post about executing child rapists, I realize the real issue to many people.

They seek vengeance.

Such people support the harshness of prison and the murderousness of execution not because they want to protect other people but because they want vengeance. They support vengeance in and of itself.

Regardless of whether vengeance will protect people or prevent violence, they want vengeance.

I can understand the feelings of anger and hate that can make a person want to get vengeance. We can also call it payback or revenge, but whatever we call it I understand the feeling. However, I have previously taken it for granted that other people realize the dangerousness of letting themselves act on the petty desire for vengeance. When emotions like anger overtake us, we often make stupid and even regrettable decisions because we lose control so to speak. But we generally know that. At the time, emotions can cloud our less-primitive judgment, but otherwise we know of the foolishness of acting out of those petty emotions. But some people do not seem to realize that point in regards to vengeance. Why? Why do so many people support vengeance–not only in times of severe anger but also in more typical states?

Why do these people think they have some “moral right” to vengeance? What does it even mean to have such a moral right?

Why does vengeance trump compassion for so many people? I am not a religious man, but I have accepted many of the secular teachings of Jesus, such as when he said love your neighbor and when he said let he who has not sinned cast the first stone. Whether because of Jesus or not, I figured most people supported those ideas.

By all means, I support protecting innocent people. I support the defensive use of violence and force, including forcing people to repay others to whom they have caused damages. But why do so many people support causing harm to people simply for the sake of vengeance? Why do they want to cause vengeful harm to people not to protect others but just to get payback or revenge?

More importantly, how can those of us who do not support vengeance convince those that do to stop? Like I said, I took it for granted that people had accepted compassion and rejected vengeance.

I do not know how to respond to people who believe they have some so-called “moral right” to vengeance. I do not know how to dissuade people from the “eye for an eye” code of conduct. I do not know how to convince people not to slap the man who has slapped them. I do not know how to convince people not to murder the man who has murdered one of their family members.

So I ask you in all seriousness: How do you dissuade people from vengeance? What do you see as the flaws in the philosophy of an eye for an eye? How can we convince people not to make policy choices based on vengeance? Do you have any statistics or research that shows the self-harmfulness of vengeance? If so, please post them! Do you have any quotes or advice from the world’s wisest teachers such as the ones I mentioned by Jesus? If so, please post them!

Even if you do not fully oppose vengeance, please post comments about what you see as the best arguments against vengeance. This blog will not succeed at preventing violence unless I can figure out how to prevent vengeful violence. In fact, I would venture to say that most people who commit offensive violence commit it out of a desire for vengeance. What do you think?

By | March 19th, 2008 | SHOW COMMENTS (5)


I am the creator of this website, which I use to post about self-defense and violence prevention. I have two children who I love so much. I want them to be proud of me, and I hope what I do here contributes to that. Please let me know what you think about my posts by leaving a comment below. I throw my opinions around pretty openly here, but I am totally open to opposing viewpoints and a productive discussion. So please post a comment. And follow me on Twitter: @scottmhughes

5 Responses

  1. Brian Lonsdale says

    I think vengeance is a product of feeling anger and pain. Betrayal and indignity stoke my fire. Cooling off and never forget to dig two graves when hunting.

  2. H. says

    Real quick, there is a marked difference concerning the idea, formulation, and description of vengeance. To make a quick argument about what vengeance is, I’m going to start with what it is not.

    Vengeance is not revenge.
    Revenge is something more of a knee-jerk reaction to a real or perceived wrong committed by a second party against the individual, either directly or indirectly. Revenge is primal (that is not to say whether or not it is good or bad, merely something base) as it is imminently concerned with causing harm to a second party as the result of a causal set of events set in motion by the action or inaction of said party. Here revenge can be understood as the notion of payback with harmful intent. Revenge as a knee-jerk reaction is reflexive and not rational.

    The idea of rationality will play a role later on, when and if I get around the describing what vengeance actually is.

    Vengeance is not an eye for an eye.
    The moral precept of an eye for an eye has been so utterly debunked as an idea and principle that it can be assigned to the ash pile of history. To see how absurd this code is, here is an example that will shed light on the issue:
    Let’s take your example of a child abuser, let’s he is male and that this male is an adult. What does the doctrine of the eye for an eye demand of us?
    To do the exact same thing to perpetrator as that which was done to the victim. How do we go about this? This abuser is not a child, so immediately we run into a big issue. Abuse of an adult is not the same as the abuse of a child. Thus there is no true eye for an eye, as the abuse of the child does not equal the abuse of the adult, nor does its inverse prove equal to the original abuse.
    Moreover, who does the committing of the punishment? The child?
    That is to poorly ask, who is responsible for carrying out the prescribed punishment for the crime of child abuse?
    If it is to be a third party (that of a jailor or of some formulation of a punishment authority) what then happens to this third party? If there was a justifiable sentence that was carried out, would this not open up the person or persons responsible for the execution of the punishment to the same form of punishment? They are after all still committing an act that is harmful, and as such should have harm visited upon them. Or so says this notion. Here there is a never ending spiral of harm being perpetrated. Clearly this goes against the entire idea.

    Vengeance is not unjust.
    Vengeance, that is also to say, is not careless. It is not the infliction of pain or harm purely for the purpose of inflicting pain and/or harm. Careless actions have little to no concern (if any) for consequence.

    Vengeance is not always violent.
    There are many different forms that vengeance can assume, fit into and act as, that this idea of vengeance does not necessitate violence.

    Vengeance is not an isolated idea.
    As you said earlier, the idea of vengeance is wide-held and old. It is not indicative of any one time, society, or culture.

    Vengeance is not neither easy nor hard.
    (More on this later).

    Okay, I’ve got to run. By now there should be an understanding if not about what vengeance itself, but rather what vengeance is not.

  3. Mo Reese says

    The justifications for vengeance, revenge, etc., in my opinion, are just excuses for people to act out their repent frustrations. Many of us can’t deal with those things that frustrate us whether personal, work related or other. We justify punching someone in the face if we think they flipped us off. Some will deny such reactions but maybe in a more subtle way. Do you speed up if someone is trying to cut in front of you on the hiway?

  4. Godi Gutierrez says

    Hi Scott… I have a blog that actually talks exactly about the subject matters as in this blog. I just changed its title from “Vengeance, Violence and Nonviolence” to “Free Interpretation Redux” to coincide with the book that is now being formatted for publication. You might find the blog interesting as it reflects most of your concerns and philosophy. To give you an idea about the blog, I am including below the introduction to the blog/book.


    Is violence really part of human nature? If they are, are we doomed as a species, to endless pain and suffering, to endless violence, endless retributions and endless wars? How about the other forms of violence, like economic, sexual, generational, religious, racial, psychological, etc.? And what about discrimination?

    Isn’t there a sort of violence somewhere, when one billion children are going hungry everyday – when 40,000 of them die each day from hunger? Isn’t there violence present when women are being treated as second class citizens in almost all societies? Isn’t there violence somewhere when young people are tried as adults under laws that they did not have the privilege of voting for? Isn’t there violence somewhere when beliefs and “irrefutable” truths are imposed on others? Isn’t there some violence somewhere when one is discriminated against, because of one’s race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation? Isn’t there violence somewhere when whole peoples are threatened and terrorized with nuclear annihilation?

    What drives people to take revenge? Why is it that up to now, some “advanced” societies still have institutionalized vengeance in the form of harsh punishments – like the death penalty? Why is it that there are more than two million people – most of them minorities – in American prisons? That is just a little less than the total populations of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose combined!

    So, are these issues problems that could be resolved? Or are they intrinsic to human nature?

    Or, could it be possible that nonviolence is what is inherent in the human being? Have you seen a violent toddler lately?

    Best regards…


  5. Kath says

    I think people turn to vengeance because it’s an easy emotion to deal with. It’s not pleasant, but it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s hot.

    I think forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, even love are harder for most people to experience, to allow themselves to pass through. So they go to vengeance, hatred, anger and fear because they come much easier.

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