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The Immorality Of Private Revenge Pt. 1

Written by Timothy Brophy the Younger


Early on the morning of October 26, 2001, Chante Mallard was driving along Interstate 820 on the way to her home near Fort Worth, Texas.  The twenty-five-year-old was driving drunk and high after a night of partying.  The effects of the alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy in her bloodstream, along with her fatigue, caused Mallard’s reaction time and judgment to be greatly impaired.  As a result, she drove her car into a man named Gregory Biggs, who had been walking along the road.  Biggs was thrown onto the hood of Mallard’s car, with his head and upper body smashing through the windshield and his legs sticking out of the glass.  Mallard’s brain was so addled that she didn’t immediately realize there was a man immobilized in her windshield, and she drove straight home.  When she got to her house, Mallard dragged Biggs’s body into her garage and closed the garage door behind her.  Gregory Biggs, who was only thirty-seven-years old, bled to death on the garage floor after begging Mallard to help him.  Mallard, a nurse’s aide, let Biggs die because she claimed it was too late to save him.  However, medical examiners found that Biggs would have survived if he had received immediate medical attention.  Chante Mallard was convicted of murder and sentenced to fifty years in prison.  Greg’s teenage son Brandon was present at the trial.[1]

How was Brandon Biggs supposed to react to his father’s murder?  Anyone would say that Mallard should be brought to justice, but what if Brandon had not been satisfied with the sentence she received?  Would Brandon have been morally justified in taking revenge on Chante Mallard by punishing her beyond her legal sentence?  There are many points of dispute that arise when considering if vengeance is morally justifiable.  For example, how is revenge any different from justice and punishment?  Also, who has the authority to administer justice?  Some modern thinkers believe that revenge taken by individuals acting outside of the law can aid justice.  However, it is extremely important to question the morality of revenge, because revenge is an important motive behind many murders, acts of terrorism, and wars.[2]  Brandon Biggs, whose father was allowed to bleed to death by another human being, did not choose to take revenge.  Instead, Brandon publicly forgave Mallard.[3]  It is crucial for everyone to recognize the differences between justice and revenge, so that societies will not confuse righteous actions with destructive ones.


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, revenge can be defined as “an act or instance of retaliating in order to get even.”  In its verbal form, revenge means “to avenge (oneself or another) usually by retaliating in kind or degree.”  As it is used in this thesis, revenge refers specifically to victims acting outside of the law in order to harm their aggressors and take retribution.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that retribution is “punishment imposed (as on a convicted criminal) for purposes of repayment or revenge for the wrong committed.” However, private revenge is not an acceptable form of just punishment.

According to American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, punishment ought to be carried out by legal authorities, not individuals.  In his introduction to Punishment, which was published in 1952 as part of his collection of essays entitled The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Adler says,

“Punishment seems to be annexed to law, as indispensable for its enforcement, so that whoever has the authority to set rules of conduct for another also has the authority to impose penalties for their violation.”[4] 

In addition, revenge is carried out for retributive purposes.  However, Adler cites Protagoras by arguing that punishment ought to be carried out for preventative, not retributive purposes.  Adler says,

“Protagoras insists that ‘He who desires to inflict rational punishment does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone.  He has regard to the future and is desirous that the man who is punished may be deterred from doing wrong again.  He punishes for the sake of prevention.’”[5] 

These things demonstrate that revenge is not an acceptable form of just punishment, because it is carried out by an individual acting outside of the law for the purpose of retribution.  However, justice is administered by legal authorities for the purpose of prevention.

Moral controversy surrounding revenge has caused it to be contemplated by philosophers and psychologists from many different time periods.  In 1625, English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon’s essay Of Revenge was published as part of the third edition of his book entitled Essays.  Bacon illustrates the differences between private revenge and justice in this essay.  He says:

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior…This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate…But in private revenges it is not so. Nay, rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they unfortunate.[6]

This shows that Bacon condemned private revenge because it oversteps the authority of the law, prevents healing, and ends badly.  More recently, psychologists and professors like Michael E. McCullough and Thane Rosenbaum have written books about the nature of revenge.  In his 2008 book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, American psychologist Michael E. McCullough argues that forgiveness is preferable to revenge.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, forgiveness is the act of “ceasing to feel resentment against an offender.”  This is a stark contrast to revenge, which both holds on to and acts upon feelings of resentment against an offender.  Forgiveness leads to restoration, but revenge prevents it.  Restoration most nearly means, “the act of returning to a normal or healthy condition,” as found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

When someone suffers wrong, they can either harbor resentment towards the offender, which leads to vengeance, or they can forgive the offender, which leads to restoration.  Lastly, American novelist and professor Thane Rosenbaum in his 2013 book Payback: The Case for Revenge, contends that private revenge can aid justice.  Along with some other modern thinkers, Rosenbaum argues that an avenger is obligated to carry out vengeance if there is an injustice that goes unpunished by legal authorities.  These are just a few examples of the scholars who have addressed the topic of revenge.

Revenge has also played a major role in Western literature.  Themes of revenge are present starting with the classical Greek revenge tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  Shakespeare’s early 17th century famous revenge plays Hamlet and Othello are a major part of this tradition and relate to Greek revenge tragedies like Medea.  The theme of revenge is central to French author Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the protagonist becomes consumed by vengeance and spends all his time and energy ruining the lives of those who wronged him.  Revenge is also featured in works of American literature like The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby.  In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, the primary antagonist, Roger Chillingworth, swears to take retribution on the man that committed adultery with his wife and loses his humanity because of it.  In Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, the infamous Captain Ahab is obsessed with taking revenge on the white whale that took his leg, which leads to his death and the deaths of most of his crew.

Finally, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, George B. Wilson avenges his wife’s death by murdering Jay Gatsby, whom he believes to have killed his wife in a car accident.  Wilson clearly loses his mind because of his grief and thirst for revenge, which leads to his suicide.  American author Susan Jacoby provides an explanation for the popularity of the theme of revenge in literature in her book Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge, by saying that,

“Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Kyd, Shakespeare, Webster, Milton, and Racine were not drawn to the theme of revenge because it was a socially acceptable, albeit bloody, commonplace of their times but because it was a source of intense, deeply felt moral and social controversy.”[7] 

This age-old controversy concerning the relationship between justice and revenge has fueled the popularity of revenge themes in Western literature and still captures our attention today.[8]


Although some believe that private revenge can aid justice, private revenge is immoral because it does not satisfy avengers’ needs for restoration, damages their minds and souls, and leads to evil, as evidenced by biblical principles, modern psychology, and Western literature.  First, according to the established moral code of the Bible, it is morally wrong to deny a legitimate human need or to damage the human mind and soul.  Revenge breaks the established moral code of the Bible, because it denies the legitimate human need for restoration and damages both the human mind and soul.  Second, modern psychology shows that revenge prevents the avenger from returning to a healthy condition and negatively impacts their happiness.  The desire for revenge can consume a person’s thoughts, so that they only focus on past wrongs done to them and how they can get payback.  Third, the protagonists in both Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, were not justified in taking revenge on their enemies.  Their vengeance did not fulfill their need for restoration, damaged their minds and souls, and led to evil.  Finally, forgiveness is the proper response to suffering wrong.  Unlike revenge, forgiveness helps the human mind and soul to heal from the wrong suffered and attain restoration.


Part 2 Will Be Available Tuesday September 4th 

[1] Michael E. McCullough, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), xiii-xiv.

[2] McCullough, Beyond Revenge, 29-39.

[3] McCullough, Beyond Revenge, xiv.

[4] Mortimer J. Adler, “Punishment,” The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 2(1952): 495.

[5] Adler, “Punishment,” 492.

[6] James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, ed., The Works of Francis Bacon, new ed. (London: Houghton Mifflin, 1890), VI, 384-85.

[7] Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983), 19.

[8] Jacoby, Wild Justice, 38.

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