Private revenge and its relation to punishment

Utilitas 21 (1):1-21 (2009)
In contrast to the vast literature on retributive theories of punishment, discussions of private revenge are rare in moral philosophy. This paper reviews some examples, from both classical and recent writers, finding uncertainty and equivocation over the ethical significance of acts of revenge, and in particular over their possible resemblances, in motive, purpose or justification, to acts of lawful punishment. A key problem for the coherence of our ethical conception of revenge is the consideration that certain acts of revenge may be just (at least in the minimal sense that the victim of revenge has no grounds for complaint against the revenger) and yet be generally agreed to be morally wrong. The challenge of explaining adequately why private revenge is morally wrong poses particular difficulty for purely retributive theories of punishment, since without invoking consequentialist reasons it does not seem possible adequately to motivate an objection to just and proportionate acts of revenge.
Keywords revenge  retribution  punishment  retributivism  consequentialism  reciprocity  provocation  resentment
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DOI 10.1017/S0953820808003336
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