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Retribution and Revenge

Part of the Law and Philosophy Library book series (LAPS,volume 104)


It is almost universally accepted among retributivists that revenge and retributive punishment are fundamentally different, the first being immoral but the second moral. Robert Nozick’s influential argument presents numerous features on which they purportedly differ, including the idea that revenge is personal while retribution is impersonal, and that revenge aims at the suffering of the wrongdoer while retribution aims only at justice. However influential this argument, it can easily be seen to be flawed. Revenge and retribution are identical in their essential features: both involve the intention to inflict harm on a person in response to his prior wrongdoing. There is an important distinction between the two: revenge is a privately-administered system of punishment, whereas retribution involves a state-administered public system. This distinction is important, though it implies the essential continuity of the two practices, rather than their difference. Thus it will not do to insist that retribution is justified because it is different from revenge; we need an account that allows for the essential continuity of revenge and retribution.


  • Criminal Justice System
  • Strict Liability
  • Private Enforcement
  • Emotional Tone
  • Moral Wrong

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  1. 1.

    1974, 76, quoted in Boonin (2008, 152).

  2. 2.

    See Oldenquist (1986), Barton (1999), and Zaibert (2006), though even among these few dissenters there is more than a little hesitation. Zaibert for example concludves only that punishment and revenge “are not that different” (85) and “not at all easy to distinguish” (82).

  3. 3.

    For an attempt to make sense of it, see Ten (1987, 42–46). Ten argues that the “unfamiliar idioms” that Nozick uses in his theory in the end simply “conceal two familiar ideas”: that punishment reforms and deters the wrongdoer. If so, it would be a failure, since it would collapse into a utilitarian account.

  4. 4.

    Barton characterizes revenge and retribution as different “species,” which is not very helpful (1999, 56)

  5. 5.

    In Miller (2006), to be discussed in detail in the next chapter.

  6. 6.

    Kleinig (1973, 39), cited in Zaibert (2006, 94).

  7. 7.

    Compare Barton’s discussion of the “wider notion of responsibility” in primitive cultures (1999, 67).

  8. 8.

    This is particularly so given the frequent lack of a procedural mechanism amongst tribal societies for determining the level of individual responsibility for those in a different tribe.

  9. 9.

    Or even that very primitive revenge cultures are based on primitive superstitious notions such as the “pollution” that comes with murder. Thus Sommers uses as one of his sources Boehm’s claim that “vengeance symbolically replaced to the victim’s clan the blood that had been lost” (2005, 42). But this suggests that the real difference is not in the concept of revenge per se, but rather the difference between a superstitious culture and a modern rational one.

  10. 10.

    1999, 68. See also Corlett (2006), Chaps. 7 and 8, defending the idea of collective liability.

  11. 11.

    A useful comparison is the gradual shift from the idea of collective property (see, e.g., Boehm 1984, 166, 200) to the modern notion of individual property. It would seem absurd to present this as an example of radical and incommensurate practices. Indeed, we recognize collective property today, including state-owned property such as parks or commons, and property held in common by husband and wife.

  12. 12.

    See, e.g. Hogan (1979).

  13. 13.

    Oldenquist (1988, 474). (I have omitted condition (d), which involves Oldenquist’s rather quirky conception of the ritualistic justification of punishment).

  14. 14.

    In Katz (2000, 173).

  15. 15.

    Another oddity in Sommers’ argument is his insistence that revenge is fundamentally unlike retribution in that it permits punishing the innocent, based on both collective and strict liability. But he also insists that in our present system of punishment, the essential goal of “retributive” punishment is deterrence of the criminal “to deter him and others from cheating again” (id., 41). If so, then even the present system does countenance punishing the innocent, since as we demonstrated earlier, the deterrence theory does permit and even require punishing the innocent where necessary.

  16. 16.

    Jacoby (1983) gives a useful discussion of this phenomenon.

  17. 17.

    Those theories focusing on people other than the wrongdoer tend to be utilitarian theories, objectionable on that ground alone.


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Kaufman, W.R.P. (2012). Retribution and Revenge. In: Honor and Revenge: A Theory of Punishment. Law and Philosophy Library, vol 104. Springer, Dordrecht.

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