WHAT DO REVENGE FANTASIES TELL US ABOUT ETHICS?

I am not going to claim that all of us play host to revenge fantasies, because then I couldn’t deny – which I categorically do – that I certainly do. So everything I say here is prefixed by an I-hear-tell, or an I-have-a-friend-who. When I slip into the first person, plural or singular, or into all-talk rather than some, it’ll be for stylistic purposes only.

I’m with Descartes, who thought that no one ever does something he knows to be wrong. That is, whatever we do, it seemed like a good idea at the time. And if what we do has moral implications, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. So it would be odd if things were different in our fantasy lives. If I’m wondering what it would be like to do something wrong, I’m really just imagining someone doing something I think is wrong but he doesn’t. That’s why I can’t fantasize about rape. And fantasizing about someone else committing rape –I have no trouble doing that! – just isn’t sexy to me.

So when I fantasize about taking revenge – not that I do, remember – it’s always, at least in my mind, justified revenge. Put another way, if in my mind it wouldn’t be justified then I don’t fantasize about it. And so inducing a pattern in what I’m responding to in my revenge fantasies is a window into my particular moral theory, one I might otherwise never be able to articulate. Or if “moral theory” is too pretentious – and it probably is – then how ‘bout, as virtue ethicist would put it, what kind of person I’d like to be? Why the latter over the former? Because “Let your behavior be guided by your theory of the right!” is a two-step process, whereas “Act as the person you’d like to be!” is unmediated, not to mention probably more reliable.

This is not to say that attending to our revenge fantasies can exhaust our moral self-understanding. Revenge is a response to perceived injustice. But there’s nothing unjust about falling to supererogate. Compassion, courage, forbearance … None of these are implicated in revenge.

Nor am I suggesting that all our intuitions about justice are implicated in revenge. I might think – and I do – that justice dictates that polygamy should be decriminalized, but there’s no one I fantasize killing over it. Some things are just inadvertently unjust. And inadvertent injustice does not warrant taking revenge over it.

In fact even what I just said tells me something about what I must think about justice and injustice. It tells me that I think only injustice need be intentional. And now I can think about why I think that. For example, now I have to reconcile this view of injustice with my claim that no one ever does what he believes to be wrong. So it must mean I find it perfectly coherent and acceptable to wreak vengeance on someone who believes he was doing what’s right.

Can I ratify that implication? Yes I can. But someone else might discover that he can’t. He might find that he insists that the miscreant acknowledge his malfeasance, and that if he doesn’t then any attempt at revenge will misfire.

And from this disagreement, his and mine, I think we can abduce something about who’s the Hobbesian here – I am – and who’s the Kantian – he is. So though nothing in this navel-gazing, into mine and into his, tells us who’s right between Hobbes and Kant, it does help us see what hangs on it. The Kantian needs the heretic to confess the error of his ways before being burned at the stake. The Hobbesian is happy just to put a bullet in the back of his head on his way to the exercise yard.

But I can’t entirely maintain this either-or-ness. Even if mine are weaker than his, we all have Kantian intuitions. And that explains why I don’t want the miscreant to acknowledge that what he did was wrong. Because if he does, now the revenge is robbed of its pleasure for me. What I do want, however, is that he knows why I’m taking revenge on him. If he accepts this comeuppance, and yet sticks to his convictions, then he’s a martyr, and once again there’s no pleasure in taking revenge on a martyr. So what I need is that he knows I have my reasons, he knows what’s coming to him, but he doesn’t know he has it coming to him. That is, for him there are no moral dimensions to what’s about to occur, but he is terrified just like his victims were terrified without their attaching any moral dimensions to their terror or suffering. For that’s just the thing about suffering, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t have to. And if it does, it’s something else. It’s penance. But if it’s penance it’s contrition. And if it’s contrition we’re back to his acknowledging that what he did was wrong.

As I say, this is my dialectic, but I’m sure there are others. My point is only that our revenge fantasies are layered, they’re subtle, and they’re supple. We work them, like a fine piece of copper tooling. We’re never quite satisfied. That’s why we keep kneeding them, always trying to find that whatever-it-is we know is missing, if only we could find it. They’re like those floaters in our peripheral vision we can never look at directly. They are the gargoyles, at the same time hideous and sublime, without which our cathedral looks incomplete.

But they’re something else too. They’re the mark of things are not all right. Sometimes, we go weeks or months without any revenge fantasies And it’s only when we stop and notice this that we realize how things have been pretty all right of late. Can we go too long without them? How would I know? How would anyone?

Some people find the having of them so unpleasant that they seek a religion that promises to rid them of them. I find such people sad, and their religions a tad cowardly. I don’t know why I say this. Maybe my revenge fantasies make me feel ‘in it’. Not in the sense of being alive, but in the sense of being a player. If I’ve never been wronged I’ve never lost. If I’ve never lost I’ve never really played.

Maybe it’s something like that. But just as likely it’s that our revenge fantasies are there to help us monitor our moral maturation. They evolve over a lifetime. And how they evolve, I think, tells us something.

Here, I think, is the ultimate test for one’s moral imagination. What would revenge against God look like? Peter Shaffer made a stab at it in Amadeus. But Salieri essayed his revenge through one beloved of God, not on God Himself. I want to know how to make God Himself suffer for the suffering He’s inflicted. Turning the Christ story on its head to capture this wouldn’t. Jesus is no more the son of God than is that toaster. I know plenty of people – not me, remember – who’d flock to a religion that could turn “Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord,” on its head. “No,” the congregation would answer in unison, “vengeance is ours!”

I think that’s what those gargoyles are doing on the rooves of those cathedrals. I think they’re a promise of a Judgment Day to come, and it’s not after us they’ll be coming.

Of course I don’t believe any of this. I’m just reporting what a friend of mine thinks.

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