Few human motivations are more derided in the modern Western world than revenge. We are inundated with fictional examples of vengefulness gone horribly wrong. Amid all these precautionary tales, it is hard to find examples of a positive portrayal of revenge; even if the hero successfully takes revenge, either the price is too high or the hero is left feeling unsatisfied and emotionally hollow. It is yet rarer to find stories in which being insufficiently vengeful is portrayed in a negative light.
The case against revenge is simple. To be vengeful is to be willing to bear substantial costs to harm someone who you believe has wronged you. So there is a straightforward economic argument against taking revenge: Whatever harm the other person has done to you, vengeance won’t improve your situation, but instead make it worse because you spend resources on harming your adversary which instead could better be spent improving your own situation. In addition, your adversary and his family and friends may in turn take revenge on you, or at least view you less favourably.
This straightforward case for the irrationality of revenge is true as far as it goes, but it ignores intertemporal aspects. Vengefulness is a commitment strategy: If you are known as the kind of person who is likely to avenge wrongs done to him, most people won’t want to mess with you. If, on the other hand, you do not take revenge when someone wrongs you, others are likely to abuse your weakness in the future.
The easiest way to see the value of vindictiveness is to look at societies without a functioning legal system. If you are known as a vengeful person, others will expect that if they kill one of your family members, you will try to kill them or someone from their family. Since they don’t want that, they are likely to leave your family alone. If you are known as not being vengeful, your family can be killed with impunity. Vengefulness is basically an implied threat. As with all threats, you do not actually want to carry it out (if you wanted to carry it out, you wouldn’t threaten, you’d just do it)—the value of a threat lies in deterring undesired behaviour. However, you may sometimes have to actually carry out your threats – i.e. take revenge – for your threats to remain credible.
In a society with a functioning legal system, the need for personal revenge has, at least in part, been superseeded by the justice system, which can be thought of as revenge carried out by the government on behalf of crime victims. However, even in an advanced modern society, personal revenge still plays an important role in situations where you are wronged in ways that are not illegal or that are not serious enough to warrant getting involved in an expensive and lengthy law suit. Vengefulness also plays a major role in international relations since there is no world government.
None of this is to say that there are no problems with revenge. Obviously, one can err on the side of being too vengeful, and it’s important to consider that danger. However, the discourse about revenge in contemporary Western culture on revenge has become far too one-sided. We do need to recognise the benefits of revenge and watch out that we don’t err on the side of not being vengeful enough.