Skip to main content
Log in

The two faces of revenge: moral responsibility and the culture of honor

  • Published:
Biology & Philosophy Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Retributive emotions and behavior are thought to be adaptive for their role in improving social coordination. However, since retaliation is generally not in the short-term interests of the individual, rational self-interest erodes the motivational link between retributive emotions and the accompanying adaptive behavior. I argue that two different sets of norms have emerged to reinforce this link: (1) norms about honor and (2) norms about moral responsibility and desert. I observe that the primary difference between these types of retribution motivators lies in where the normative focus is placed after an offense. In the first form of retribution, the normative focus is on the offended party. In the second, it is on the offender. Next, I show how each class of norms is well tailored to the particular features of the environment in which these forms of retributive behavior emerge. Finally, I consider some philosophical implications of these observations. I suggest that my account, if correct, would pose tough challenges for contemporary philosophical theories of moral responsibility and punishment.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. See Knobe and Doris (forthcoming) for an excellent examination of the ways in which theories of moral responsibility are structured.

  2. Of course, these features are not exclusive to theories of moral responsibility. Nichols et al. (2003) show how premises in arguments for epistemological theories appeal to intuitions which may differ across cultures. Machery et al. (2004) make a similar point about theories of references. And Stich (1988) argues that the problem of cognitive diversity threatens the epistemological tradition in general. My tentative conclusions in this paper are in many ways analogous to those in Nichols et al. (2003). Indeed, elsewhere—Sommers (in preparation)—I refer to the position that results from my conclusion as “metaskepticism about moral responsibility.”

  3. See Elster (1990) for a careful discussion of the rationality of revenge. My point here is simply that it is often not in the individual’s short term self-interest to retaliate after an offense. It may not even be in the individual’s long term self-interest to retaliate (if we identify ‘self-interest’ as something other than ‘conducive to biological fitness’).

  4. See Sommers (2007b) for an elaboration of this argument.

  5. The term ‘norms’ in this paper refers broadly to social rules that regulate behavior within a group or culture. In addition, norms are intrinsically motivating (Sripada and Stich (2006), Kelly and Stich (forthcoming)), meaning that the motivation to comply with norms does not depend solely on the perceived consequences of failing to do so. I would like to remain neutral as possible on the kinds of cognitive architecture that might underlie norm acquisition (but see Kelly and Stich (forthcoming), Sripada and Stich (2006), and Nichols (2004) for excellent overviews), except to say that norms must involve more than brute emotional responses to behavior, and that norms may involve, or give rise to, beliefs about the kinds of behavior that are obligatory or impermissible.

  6. The label, though not ideal, tries to draw attention to the institutions in the economy that permit anonymous cooperative endeavors and institutions that provide some degree of protection from criminal behavior. (Thanks to Alexandra Plakias for suggesting the label).

  7. See Solomon (1976) for a classic defense of the cognitive theory of emotions.

  8. This slight thrill is in marked contrast to the ecstasy that individuals in honor cultures experience when they get revenge for a personal insult or attack. According to Djilas (1958, p. 107) vengeance was “our pastures and springs—more beautiful than anyone else’s—our family feasts and births. It was the glow in our eyes, the flame in our cheeks, the pounding in our temples…”

  9. See Elster (1990) for a discussion of the role of these types of norms.

  10. See Feinberg (1968, 1974) for classic analyses. See also the 2006 issue of Midwest Studies, the entire issue of which is devoted to collective responsibility.

  11. Daly and Wilson (1988).

  12. Sommers (in preparation) presents a more detailed analysis of the connection between honor killings and responsibility.

  13. According to one tribal leader, “a woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches a woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure” (Feldman 2001).

  14. See Bloch (2003) for an interesting discussion of the freier phenomenon.

  15. In 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu broke off talks with Albright and Dennis Ross, saying “we are not freiers—Israel cannot give and give and not get anything back in return.”

  16. Thanks to Joshua Knobe, John Doris, and Shaun Nichols for suggesting this possibility.

  17. Blumenfeld’s ultimate means of revenge does in part focus on the offender—she wants the shooter to recognize that her father was a human being and not merely an instrument for making a political statement (a notion that appears to be in line with Jean Hampton’s justification of the “retributive idea” (Murphy and Hampton 1998). When her mother mentions that she seems less interested in revenge, however, Blumenfeld replies: “I still want to stand up and say “don’t fuck with the Blumenfelds.” In the end, Blumenfeld appeals to an interesting (and rather rare) blend of both honor and desert-based norms in order to explain her behavior.

  18. This experiment would be complicated because of other factors that enter into decision-making in ultimatum games. In some cultures, individuals abhor being in another individual’s debt (for fear of being asked to reciprocate the favor) and so reject offers that exceed the fair.

  19. Thanks to James Woodward for suggesting this experiment.

  20. In an unpublished study, Haidt et al. (under revision) showed subjects scenes from movies designed to elicit retributive emotions and desires. The subjects were then asked to rate alternative endings for how satisfying they were. An experiment like this designed for cross-cultural analysis would also provide an excellent test for my hypothesis.

  21. See Duff (1996) for an overview of contemporary theories of punishment. Duff notes that the ‘retributivist revival’ in the 1970’s stemmed in part from the perceived moral failings of consequentialist justifications. Retributivist theories attempt to provide an ‘intrinsically appropriate’ response to crime—but the response can only be directed at the offender.

  22. Some necessary conditions that have been proposed in libertarian theories of responsibility are: (1) the agent must have a strong metaphysical ability to do otherwise and (2) the agent must have self-caused some part of his or her character. Some necessary conditions in compatibilist theories are: (1) the agent must have acted from a second order desire; and (2) the agent must be responsive to reasons. Of course, this list is not exhaustive.

  23. Van Inwagen himself admits that intuition plays a key role in justifying Beta: “I must confess that my belief in the validity of Beta has only two sources, one incommunicable and the other inconclusive. The former source is what philosophers are pleased to call “intuition”…. The latter source is the fact that I can think of no instances of Beta that have, or could possibly have, true premises and a false conclusion.” (Van Inwagen 1983, pp. 98–99). Van Inwagen here is referring to the beta rule regarding free will, but in his discussion of the ‘direct argument’ he explicitly applies it moral responsibility as well. Note that his two sources for believing beta to be valid are really quite similar, since someone with radically different intuitions about responsibility could presumably come up with counterexamples rather easily. Sommers (forthcoming) discusses the role of intuitions in the free will debate at greater length.

  24. Thanks to Don Loeb for making the analogy to Mackie’s argument explicit in personal communication. See Loeb (1998) and Doris and Plakias (forthcoming) for excellent discussions of the argument from disagreement in the metaethical debate.

  25. Retaliation and honor killings in honor cultures have similarities to a ‘strict liability’ theory of punishment, one where a control condition for responsibility is virtually absent. Non-honor cultures consider strict liability approaches fundamentally unfair, although it is invoked under certain occasions for consequentialist reasons. As Nagel (1979, p. 31) puts it: ‘strict liability may have its legal purposes, but seems irrational as a moral position.” But perhaps denying the control condition only “seems irrational” to people in certain kinds of cultures. Retaliation towards people who had nothing to do with the original offense appears to be completely justifiable (as opposed to ‘regrettable but necessary’) in the minds of individuals in honor cultures.

  26. I do not see this as a pessimistic conclusion. Sommers (2007a) argues that skepticism about moral responsibility would not adversely affect interpersonal relationships, moral worth, and ethical behavior.


  • Balikci A (1970) The Netsilik Eskimo. The Natural History Press

  • Bloch L (2003) Who’s afraid of being a freier: the analysis of communication through a key cultural frame. Commun Theory 13(2):125–159

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Blumenfeld L (2002) Revenge: a story of hope. Washington Square Press

  • Boehm C (1985) Blood revenge. University of Pennsylvania Press

  • Boyd R et al (2005) The evolution of altruistic punishment. In: Gintis H, Bowles S, Boyd R, Fehr E (eds) Moral Sentiments and material interests. MIT Press

  • Busquet J (1920) Le droit de vendetta et les pacii corse. Pedone

  • Daly M, Wilson M (1988) Homicide. Aldine de Gruyter

  • Djilas M (1958) Land without justice: an autobiography of his youth. Methuen, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Doris JM, Plakias A (forthcoming) How to argue about disagreement: evaluative diversity and moral realism. In: Sinnot-Armstrong W (ed) The biology and psychology of morality. Oxford University Press, New York

  • Duff RA (1996) Penal communications: recent work in the philosophy of punishment. Crime Justice 20:1–97

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Elster J (1990) Norms of revenge. Ethics 100:862–895

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fehr E, Gachter S (2000) Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments. Am Econ Rev 90:980–994

    Google Scholar 

  • Fehr E, Gachter S (2002) Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415:137–140

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Feinberg J (1968) Collective responsibility. J Philos 674–688

  • Feinberg J (1974) Doing and deserving. Princeton University Press

  • Feldman I (2001) All in the family. The Review. January

  • Frank R (1988) Passions within reason. Norton

  • Haidt J, Sabini J, Worthington E (n.d). What exactly makes revenge sweet? (Manuscript under revision)

  • Hasluck M (1954) The unwritten law in Albania. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 231–232

    Google Scholar 

  • Henrich J et al (2004) Foundations of human sociality. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Kant I (1996) The metaphysics of morals. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Kelly D, Stich S (forthcoming) Two theories about the cognitive architecture underlying morality. In: Carruthers P, Laurence S, Stich S (eds) The innate mind, vol III. Foundations and the Future

  • Knobe J, Doris J (forthcoming) Strawsonian variations: folk morality and the search for a unified theory. In: Doris J et al (eds) The handbook of moral psychology. Oxford University Press, Oxford

  • Loeb D (1998) Moral realism and the argument from disagreement. Philos Stud 90:281–303

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Machery E et al (2004) Semantics, cross-cultural style. Cognition 92(3):B1–B12

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mackie JL (1977) Ethics: inventing right and wrong. Penguin

  • McCallister WS (2005) The Iraq insurgency: anatomy of a tribal rebellion. First Monday 10:3

    Google Scholar 

  • Merida K (2006) In or out of the game? Washington Post. December 31

  • Murphy J, Hampton J (1998) Forgiveness and mercy. Cambridge University Press

  • Nagel T (1979) “Moral luck” in mortal questions. Cambridge University Press

  • Nichols S (2004) Sentimental rules. Cambridge University Press

  • Nichols S, Stich S, Weinberg J (2003) Metaskepticism: meditations in ethno-epistemology. In: Luper S (ed) The skeptics. Ashgate, Burlington, VT, pp 227–247

    Google Scholar 

  • Nisbett R, Cohen D (1996) Culture of honor. Westview Press

  • Richerson P, Boyd R (2005) Not by genes alone. University of Chicago Press

  • Singer et al (2006) Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature 439:466–469

  • Solomon R (1976) The passions. Anchor/Doubleday

  • Sommers T (2007a) The objective attitude. Philos Q 57(228):321–342

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sommers T (2007b) The illusion of freedom evolves. In: Spurrett D, Kincaid H, Ross D, Stephens L (eds) Distributed cognition and the will. MIT Press

  • Sommers T (forthcoming) More work for hard incompatibilism. Philos Phenomenol Res

  • Sommers T (in preparation, under contract). Relative justice. Book manuscript. Princeton University Press

  • Sripada C, Stich S (2006) A framework for the psychology of norms. In: Carruthers P, Laurence S, Stich S (eds) The innate mind: culture and cognition. Oxford University Press, pp 280–301

  • Stich S (1988) Reflective equilibrium, analytic epistemology and the problem of cognitive diversity. Synthese 74:391–413

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Trivers R (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q Rev Biol 46:35–56

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Van Inwagen P (1983) An essay on free will. Clarenden Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I am grateful to John Doris, Joshua Knobe, Don Loeb, Shaun Nichols, Manuel Vargas, and an anonymous referee at Biology and Philosophy for their comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tamler Sommers.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Sommers, T. The two faces of revenge: moral responsibility and the culture of honor. Biol Philos 24, 35–50 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: