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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Professor Sonia Kruks: 'Eye for Eye': Why do we humans seek revenge, and should we?

4th November 2008, 17:30, Lecture Room 21, Pemberton Building, Palace Green

IAS/St Cuthbert's Society Public Lecture

“Eye for Eye” is the Biblical injunction to take revenge for an injury by inflicting an equivalent injury on the wrong-doer. It is also the title of an essay by the French existentialist thinker, Simone de Beauvoir, concerning the punishment of those who had collaborated with Nazi atrocities in France during the Second World War. Beauvoir’s essay raises questions about why we often desire to punish the perpetrators of atrocities, even when doing so cannot provide adequate restitution to their victims. What purposes does revenge serve in such cases?

Using Beauvoir’s essay as a focal point, the lecture will address such questions as whether or not the desire for revenge is a “natural” emotion, why we seek revenge even when we are not the injured party, what might be the relationship between revenge and justice, and whether or not revenge is morally justifiable. Beauvoir suggests that the moral status of acts of revenge is always ambiguous, for even though they may help to reaffirm the humanity of those injured they will also dehumanize those punished. Beauvoir’s concerns remain highly relevant today, in a world of recent and continuing mass atrocities (from Serbia to Sudan), and her essay invites us to reflect on the purposes of such institutions as War Crimes Tribunals and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.

Sonia Kruks is a political philosopher at Oberlin College, Ohio, and is best known for her scholarly work on the political and social ideas of the French existentialists. She has also published extensively on feminist theory. She is currently at Fellow at the Durham Institute of Advanced Study and St Cuthbert's Society (October-December 2008) where she is participating in the Institute’s ‘Being Human’ theme. While at Durham she will be addressing the theme of ‘being human’ by considering questions of personhood and dynamics of depersonalisation through the lenses of Beauvoir’s work.


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