Against revenge

“The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door,” says the character Rust Cohle in the American crime-series, True Detectives. I thought of this sentence when I read Agnes Callard’s opening essay in the book On Anger (Boston Review Forum, 2020), which ends with the words: “We can’t be good in a bad world.” 

The underlying premise of her argument is that the world is bad. And it’s because the world is bad—tattered, for example, by inequality, racism, sexism, greedy capitalism, abuse of power, hunger, fatigue, etc.—that there is moral value in anger. Social movements such as #Metoo and Black Lives Matter emphasize this point. 

Perhaps more controversially, Callard claims that “once you have reason to be angry, you have reason to be angry forever. This is the Argument for Grudges.” Resentment of this type is often seen as being impotent, as Nietzsche claimed, and yet Callard present us with “the Argument for Revenge” where she tries to make a person’s desire for revenge something rational: she says, “revenge is how we hold one another morally responsible.” 

But before I go any further, let me pause to present the writer: Callard is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago; she is also a columnist for The Point Magazine and The New York Times

Returning to her essay On Anger: Callard develops her postulation further when she writes that doing wrong—through revenge—doesn’t make you a worse person than when you were being wronged. In other words: “the victims of injustice are not as innocent as we would like to believe.” 

Thus, if I am wronged and I get angry, it is my moral responsibility to act on that anger and to seek revenge. Callard doesn’t present us with what would be an appropriate form of revenge. One reason for this is that she doesn’t operate with a clear moral guideline as to what is right and wrong. Instead, she seems to base such normative judgments on the individual’s feelings. “Anger,” she writes, “feels exactly as you would expect, if it were true that my moral accountability was a matter of you seeing what’s good for you in terms of what’s bad for me.”

Unlike a moral philosopher such as Iris Murdoch, Callard doesn’t aim to overcome “the big fat ego” that Murdoch believed to be the problem in moral improvement. In contrast, Callard centers on the person’s feelings, despite the fact that most people have been seduced or manipulated to “feel” inappropriate things. It is quite possible that a person will become angry due to a mistake, a misunderstanding, or even due to pure ignorance. 

Callard’s essay is followed by nine responses. Some of these merely repeat her argument, although others demonstrate the extent to which a true philosophical discussion is a mixture of humility and courage: while I acknowledge that I may be wrong, I nevertheless have the courage to present my ideas despite the risk of being wrong and having to think it all through again. 

Among the more significant responses is that of Elizabeth Bruenig, who argues in favor of forgiveness, saying that “it may be a necessary ingredient for peace as we know it.” Bruenig goes on to stress that forgiveness is not “something one does for oneself, as pop psychologists and wellness coaches often [would have it].” Although it may bring healing, forgiving is also painful because you’re “being asked to sacrifice for some higher good: peace or egalitarian order.” This approach tries to overcome Callard’s more individual moral evaluation from a transcendent perspective. 

Continuing with this theme, Misha Cherry argues, with the support of James Baldwin, about the need “to examine the context that gave birth to them [the crimes].” Here, Cherry is redirecting our attention away from a focus on the person, the egocentric individual, which is so typical in US political debate. One only has to think how convenient it was to be angry at Donald Trump and to ignore the culture or context that brought a person with such ideas and values to power. It is because we tend to focus on egos that we often ignore the context. 

Rachel Achs challenges Callard’s argument that “anyone who is wronged does have some reason to retaliate.” On reading this, I found myself thinking about the mafia and drug cartels who have their own reasons for being angry—which problematizes the claim that all anger is morally reasonable. While paying tax might make some people in Denmark angry, taking revenge by not paying tax while still benefiting from the welfare system, would not only be an example of unreasonable anger but also of plain stupidity. 

Oded Naáman asks whether revenge is the best option for moral improvement. Instead of revenge, an angry person or society might strive to change people’s mindsets and practical norms through new laws (e.g. to secure consent before sexual interaction), or through a better educational system that brings equality, justice and freedom to all—regardless of gender (including nonbinary persons and trans-persons), race, ethnicity, or sexual preference. 

The small book ends with a comment to the responses from Callard where she writes: “we need help to become the people we want to be—we are not already, ‘best’.” While it’s obvious that we need others because they can help us understand who we are and who we might become, it’s less obvious whether revenge is helpful. For example, does the other help due to his or her altruistic interest or just well-camouflaged selfishness? Also, I am skeptical about whether all people really know whom they want to be, that is, if what they want is truly their own desire, or whether they are being subtly seduced by political narratives or social media. 

After reading Callard’s essay and the responses, I am still left with the question: Why the need for revenge? I can easily understand and sympathize with the anger, but not with the need for revenge. I think one possible answer is that revenge is fueled by our own anger towards something we can’t let go of. It’s easy to get stuck in the past instead of “just” learning from it and then trying to overcome it. There is a need to make sure that it will not repeat itself, and this may be achieved through social experiments, education, new norms and values, etc.  

Thus, while anger can be productive and morally beneficial, it is only so, I believe, when it doesn’t lead to never-ending bitterness, self-righteousness and revenge. For example, Callard claims that once you have reason to be angry, you have reason to be angry forever, but I do not find her argument and examples convincing, and I also believe she is wrong.

Overcoming problems doesn’t necessarily require revenge; it calls rather, for a more creative approach that starts to build foundations for a future where people can experience equality, justice, and peace, while freely experimenting with different ways of living. 

With Nietzsche, I see revenge as resignation or resentment, which contrasts with trying to create new values, for example, through critical and innovative thinking. Critical thinking is a constructive example of the value of anger: a critique is actually something joyous because it has the potential to make us a little bit wiser, provided it is based on facts and convincing argument rather than on feelings and opinions. 

In her final reply to all the responses, Callard writes that anger is not only in one’s own self-interest. For example, I can be angry when other people suffer. And yet, despite this claim, it appears to me that the revenge she speaks of is always personal. Even when she proposes that “Love is a kind of attachment,” as in loving people who embody justice or equality, I fear that this too can easily lead to an attachment to one’s personal feelings about what constitutes equality and justice. Vanity, egoism, and narcissism are close by. 

Another way to define love could be by relating it to freedom—that is by being unattached and open to the continual process of becoming someone else. Søren Kierkegaard once wrote in a letter that “freedom is the element of love.” A simplistic interpretation of this could be that it is only unfree people who seek revenge. This is because it is only free people who are ready to set their egos aside and go where the truth takes them. 

I have dealt mostly with Callard’s essay, but the real strength of this book comes not only from her essay but also from all the responses. On Anger is an example of how rich and beneficial it can be to participate in a philosophical discussion—even if you, like me, are sitting on a bench in a park. 

Finn Janning, PhD, a writer and a philosopher. 

First published in Metapsychology, Vol. 25, No. 32