The Moral Psychology of Revenge

The Moral Psychology of Revenge - The Moral Psychology of...

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J OURNAL OF H UMAN V ALUES 11:1 (2005) Sage Publications New Delhi/Thousand Oaks/London DOI: 10.1177/097168580401100103 Great books often remind us of the most basic facts of life. These facts are so basic that they are rather easy to miss, such as the fact that one needs to breathe well in order to live well, or that death is not an uncommon misfortune that happens only to the unlucky few. The Yogasutra of Pantanjali is such an ancient great book. Early on in that text we are told that: ‘Future suffering must be eliminated’ ( heyam dukham anagatam ) (Hariharananda 2000: 149) The Moral Psychology of Revenge ARINDAM CHAKRABARTI The tendency and ability to take adequate revenge for an insult or injury inflicted in the past have been often glorified as part of a ‘just and honourable’ individual or communal character. This article argues against this old—and currently popular—belief that the act of revenge is justified and reasonable. The central flaw in the idea of revenge is that it is a futile attempt to remedy past suffering. The article shows how revenge cannot be defended as ‘teaching the aggressor a lesson’ or as ‘getting even with the aggressor’ or as ‘retributive punishment’, and why at the heart of the retaliator’s motivation structure there is a tragic self-frustrating contradiction. It also explains how and why revenge spirals escalate rather than bring closure to the violence and injury. The alternative suggested by the article is not ‘forgive and forget’, but ‘remember and resist’. In conclusion, a few powerful defences of revenge are discussed as objections to this generally anti-vengeance moral stand. By answering these objections, it is proved that the rage that feeds vengeance should be restrained and retrained in a positive direction, not because it is a negative emotion— some negative emotions may, depending upon the context, be healthy—but because it is an unjust, sick and self-conflicted emotion. Arindam Chakrabarti is Professor of Philosophy at University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA. E-mail: [email protected] The simple basic fact that this aphorism reminds us of is that nothing can be done about past suffering. Even though it has become a habit with us to create conditions for our own suffering and remain slaves to our own pasts, we need not as- sume fatalistically that in future we cannot break those habits. We can change our dispositions and reduce or even get complete freedom from our future suffering. But it is a waste of our energies to try to eliminate past suffering. No medicine can now cure last week’s stomach-ache. Most of
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32 l A RINDAM C HAKRABARTI us suffer from the memories of past hurts, injuries, insults and harbour old harms done to us by other people, individually and collectively. And the nat- ural human reaction is: anger . Aristotle defines anger as desire for revenge. I do not agree wholly with this definition, since I believe that it is possible to be angry (for example, with your own
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The Moral Psychology of Revenge - The Moral Psychology of...

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