Is revenge ethical? The status of revenge seems to depend closely on how we define what is ethical, on the weight we place on results in comparison to how and why they were brought about. And, perhaps more importantly, it highlights the tension between what we think of a just versus what we thing of as right. However, with the proper approach revenge can be suitably handled by ethics; what our confusion about it reveals is a problem with our ethical intuitions.
The group most likely to categorically deny that revenge can ever be ethical are those who define ethics in terms of what the virtuous person would do. And they would argue that the virtuous person would not act from feelings of anger, and thus would not seek personal revenge, but at best an impartial judgment against a wrongdoer by a third party. But this account of ethics is missing something, specifically a justification as to why the virtuous person should never take revenge. Why does the virtuous person prefer impartial judgment? Clearly not because that course of action is the right thing to do; we have just defined that in terms of how the virtuous person should act. So all this definition of ethics has done is exercise our intuitions about what a good person is like, but it hasn’t placed ethics on a solid foundation, and hence isn’t the best starting point for ethical deliberation.
In contrast consequentialists, those who think that the results are what matters when determining whether something is ethical, are more open to the possibility that revenge may be ethically acceptable on occasion. Of course even consequentialists are going to deny that revenge is the ethical option most of the time. Revenge is basically flawed; because the person seeking revenge has a personal interest in the matter they are unlikely to take only the vengeance they should, and are likely to go overboard. Thus the best results, in most cases, are achieved by allowing wrongdoers to be tried by an impartial system (assuming that punishment is itself justified). However, the consequentialist may accept revenge as the ethical alternative when such an impartial system is missing or ineffective, reasoning that over-punishment of wrongdoers is a better alternative than no punishment whatsoever.
So here the consequentialist position seems to be a one that places more emphasis on justice, because revenge may occasionally be the option that is most just, or perhaps because the person seeking revenge has proper self-control. On the other hand this is opposed by our intuitions that mercy and goodwill towards others are essential to ethics, as revenge has little to do with either of those. Really this division goes back to our fundamental reasons to act ethically, namely that ethics is for the benefit of the community as a whole. And most of the time this involves being nice to the other members of the community, and lending them a helping hand from time to time. And hence most of our ethical intuitions are centered around being nice, respecting their property, ect. But sometimes what is best for the community involves harming one of its members, in order to discourage others from acting unethically. And this is where our intuitions about justice come from, they reflect the need to discourage people from benefiting unethically at the expense of the community.
So really the conflict is only in our intuitions, since our intuitions about justice and goodness are usually developed separately. Since they arise from the same fundamental source there can be no real conflict between them. In fact in more primitive societies revenge might have very well been the best option for dealing with wrongdoers, given that there was no official justice system, and something has to be done to discourage unethical behavior. And in such societies revenge was usually considered ethically acceptable. In fact I suspect that our strong intuitions against revenge are really a reaction to that fact, because when a society adopts an impartial justice system revenge is no longer preferable. And to get people to stop seeking revenge, since revenge is naturally more satisfying than impartial judgment, it was necessary to teach people that revenge was wrong. And this was taught as a universal truth (revenge is always wrong) simply because that was the easier lesson to get across.
It is possible then that our intuitions against revenge are too strong, that they are an overreaction to the previous social systems and to our natural inclinations. While we can all agree that revenge is less than optimal when wrongdoing can be handled by the justice system there are plenty of cases that the law can’t deal with. There are many “conventions” that cannot be enforced by law, such as that you are obligated to pay back even small sums of money that you borrow, that you must pick up your own trash, ect. It seems reasonable that revenge may be an appropriate reaction to small infractions such as these, assuming the revenge is kept small as well. But because we have such strong intuitions against revenge there is little incentive not to act unethically, and take advantage of people who do act ethically, on a small scale. And the fact of the matter is that people do tend to abuse ethics on a small scale; while people obey the larger laws a fair percentage of the population tends to treat people outside their circle of friends relatively poorly. And I think it is fair to say that the fact that ethics has a weaker hold on people when it comes to these smaller matters is because there is no enforcement mechanism, even though we have as much reason to act ethically with respect to these minor matters as we do to act ethically in the situations that the law does consider. Thus I think it is reasonable to say that we should be more open to revenge, at least some of the time.