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Institute of Advanced Study

Why Do We Humans Seek Revenge, and Should We?

Abstract

‘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. Using Beauvoir's essay as a focal point, and concentrating on revenge as a response to politically motivated atrocities, this paper addresses the following issues: whether or not the desire for revenge is a ‘natural' emotion; why we often seek revenge even when we are not the injured party; what might be the relationship between revenge and justice; and whether or not projects of reconciliation (exemplified by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission) may offer a preferable strategy to revengeful punishment of perpetrators.

Insights Paper