Virtuous vengeance?

Publication Date

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so the saying goes. But what if it’s best not served at all? For most of us, it’s hard to decide.

We cheer when people get what they deserve. Consider the popularity of “Game of Thrones.” But at the same time, there’s something inside us that cringes at satisfaction derived from harming others.

Still, sometimes we might have a right to avenge ourselves. At least that’s what the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, thought.

Headshot of Prof Scheiter

But to understand when we’re potentially entitled to retribution, we need to under- stand why people hurt each other in the first place.

“Justified revenge is not just about showing someone that they cannot get away with wronging us,” said Krisanna Scheiter, who specializes in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. “The most common reason we harm people, I suspect, is to get something we want. But Aristotle claims that sometimes we wrong people even when it will bring no benefit to us because we think they have no worth.”

For Aristotle, there are two ways we assign worth to others. Intrinsic worth is assigned to those we value for their own sake, Scheiter explained. Instrumental worth is assigned to those who can hurt us or help us.

“Aristotle thinks that if someone wrongs us because they think we have no worth, neither intrinsic nor instrumental, then we might be justified in seeking revenge,” she added.

But a number of conditions must be met for Aristotle to consider revenge moral.

“For one, we have to be right that we have been wronged. This entails that we are right about how we ought to be treated and we are right that the wrongdoer intention- ally harmed us,” Scheiter said. “We are often wrong about what we deserve and we often misread other people’s intentions, so this alone makes determining when revenge is justified very difficult.”

“Suppose a person thinks she ought to get preferential treatment because she is white. When she does not receive preferential treatment, she thinks she has been wronged,” Scheiter continued. “If she were to seek revenge, her revenge would not be justified because she has not actually been wronged, even though she thinks she has.”

It’s these nuances that make revenge such a murky issue. It’s often difficult to know when revenge might be ethical, and even if it is, the ramifications of hurting another person ultimately may not be worth it.

If “Game of Thrones” teaches anything, it’s that vengeance can be a consuming, cyclical inclination passed down through generations—with seriously questionable benefits to anyone in the end.

“The aim of my research is to show that Aristotle picked up on something about the dynamics of revenge that has an important moral component. I think we lose something in our moral philosophy when we dismiss revenge as inherently immoral,” Scheiter explained. “Maybe in practice revenge is never a good idea, but I think Aristotle might be right that revenge is not wholly bad.”

Consider some modern day—non-fiction—ramifications of fighting back.

“The power dynamics Aristotle describes about wrongdoing, worth and revenge reflect many of the ways marginalized groups have been wronged throughout history and have pushed back against the majority,” Scheiter said. “Marginalized groups are often treated as if they have neither intrinsic nor instrumental worth, or that their worth is less than those in the majority.”

“In an ideal world, those who are wronged would be able to demonstrate their instrumental worth through purely positive means – by benefiting society. But in reality this is not always possible,” she added. “And so those who are marginalized push back by holding protests, demonstrations, strikes and rallies. In doing so they show—at the very least—they have instrumental worth. They show that they are capable of harming, or at least inconveniencing, society and that they are therefore an integral part of society.”

Scheiter’s research is supported by a Loeb Classical Library Foundation Fellowship.