Dialogue from a hundred interchangeable Law and Order episodes:

  • “You didn’t want justice. You wanted revenge!”
  • “The law says ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ not ‘Thou shalt not kill nice people!'”

Each time, I’m thinking:

  • “Maybe justice required revenge? Ever think of that?”
  • “He didn’t kill the guy because he ‘wasn’t nice.’ He killed him because he murdered an innocent child – the very thing the state of New York itself might legally kill the ‘victim’ for.”

My point: Bring up revenge, and most people get upset and speak in platitudes. I’d like to know: What’s wrong with revenge?

To be more specific: Suppose X is the most severe morally acceptable punishment for act Y committed by person Z. Suppose that the government fails to do anything about Y. What’s wrong if a person personally affected by act Y does X to Z?

I won’t accept “No one has the right to take the law into his own hands” as an answer. I want to hear some reasons why no one has this right. A few possibilities:

1. “Maybe Z didn’t really do Y.” This is an argument against misguided revenge, not revenge per se.

2. “The person might inflict more than X on Z for doing Y.” Again, this is an argument against excessive revenge, not revenge per se.

3. “Revenge leads to chaos and/or multiple rounds of reprisal.” This seems unduly alarmist. Most people are cowards, and punishing heinous acts is a public good. Even if “justified revenge” were an affirmative legal defense, few people would take advantange of it. Indeed, if anything, the market under-supplies revenge.

4. “X, the most severe morally acceptable punishment, is zero.” Besides being crazy, this is an argument against any system of criminal justice, not just revenge. Ever seen the bumper sticker “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong?” You could just as easily have a bumper sticker saying “Why do we imprison people who imprison people to show that imprisoning is wrong?”

There are other anti-revenge arguments, but I doubt they’ll fare much better. (Feel free to disagree in the comments…) What’s interesting to me is that while most people officially condemn all acts of revenge, 80% of all action movies depict revenge as not only morally acceptable, but morally required. Sin City is an extreme case, but its stance is mainstream. In the latest Die Hard sequel (thumbs down, BTW), for example, Bruce Willis keeps saying that he’s going to find the bad guys and “Kill them” – not “Kill them if I must do so in self-defense.”

My interpretation is that action movies rely on our strong moral intuition about the righteousness of “making the bad guys pay.” Like a lot of art, action movies work by bypassing sanctimonious propaganda and showing (not saying!) important truths that, on some level, we already know. Truths like: Someone who kills the murderer of an innocent child deserves a medal, not a jail sentence.