Reparation, Retribution, and Revenge: Key Distinctions

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised date: September 30, 2003

Reparation, also known as compensation or restitution, is a response to a situation in which one party, or something under the care of the party, has injured another. The party responsible for the injury normally has the duty to restore to the injured party, if possible, that which the injured party lost or something of equivalent value.

The basic idea of reparation is that something good has been lost as a result of injury and in performing one's duty of reparation, one is transferring something good to the victim (or, in the case of the victim's death, to the small social unit of which the victim was a part).

The basic idea of retribution, in the context of punishment, is that the state or political authority "returns" to the offender, the person who has broken some rule, a negative experience proportional to his offense.

Thus "return" is common to both reparation and to retribution but there are two differences: (1) in the case of reparation what is "returned" is something of positive value, in the case of retribution something of negative value. (2) The agent of retribution or retributive punishment is the state while the primary agent of reparation is the party who did the injury. The agent of reparation is the state only in those cases in which the state itself is the party responsible for injury to the victim.

Now, consider revenge. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines "revenge" (noun) as (1) "an act or instance of retaliating in order to get even" and (3) "an opportunity for getting satisfaction." Clearly, the "satisfaction" lies in seeing the "enemy" suffer. It is primarily the individual person who seeks and sometimes gets revenge.

Comparisons and Contrasts

Like both reparation and retribution, revenge involves a sort of return, something done in response to something else.

Like retribution in punishment, revenge involves the imposition of something unpleasant upon a party perceived as having overstepped its proper bounds.

Unlike retribution in punishment, however, revenge does not necessarily follow publicly established procedures. One individual may revenge herself upon another.

Like reparation, revenge can occur outside the formal contexts of a legal system. Unlike reparation, the agent or performer of which is the party responsible for injury, the agent or performer of revenge is the party that perceives itself as injured.

Puzzles about Revenge

Unlike reparation, so most moral philosophers hold, revenge causes harm to the party upon which the revenge is taken but achieves nothing really worth having for the party initially victimized by the party upon whom revenge is taken.

That, however, is called into question by the fact that revenge is seen as a chance for the victimized party to receive "satisfaction," i.e., a kind of pleasure.

Yet it is beyond a doubt that moral philosophers like W. D. Ross do not include revenge-taking when they speak of reparation. It is also beyond a doubt that when some of our contemporaries call for reparations to African Americans for centuries of slavery and discrimination they do not see this as an act of revenge or counter-injury. They see it rather as similar to a duty to pay a debt (although the victim of the original injury did not voluntarily make a loan).

Even if it once was regarded as morally acceptable, revenge has long been regarded as morally unacceptable by most moral thinkers.

Rise of the Retributive State and Opposition to Revenge

Opposition to revenge is very old. The inventors of the retributive approach to punishment in the ancient world -- the idea that punishment, administered by the state, should be proportional to or fit the crime (See the Code of Hammurabi ca. 1750 B.C.) -- intended to move society beyond the revenge culture that typified the period prior to the rise of the state. They recognized that revenge-taking typically seems excessive to the party against which revenge is taken, and this perception leads to counter-revenge, often to an ongoing cycle of violence and mutual destruction. The state, in taking the task of retribution on itself, seeks to rise above this cycle and put an end to this cycle. From this point in history on, moral thinkers in their great majority condemn revenge, even if many still defend the retributive approach to punishment.

The retributive approach remains somewhat problematic insofar as it resembles revenge in seeking to impose suffering on an offender. The example of state retribution may appear to endorse individual retribution, i.e., revenge-taking. But the two are nevertheless distinct, and it is not a conclusive argument against, say, the death penalty, to say that it resembles revenge in imposing suffering upon someone who is perceived as having crossed an important social boundary.

Since Socrates, moral philosophers (with some exceptions) have condemned the desire for revenge (while distinguishing it from the desire for justice). They do not wish harm to anyone, even offenders, but defend punishment because it is called for by justice itself, or because it is likely to deter wrongdoing, or because it might produce reform in the offenders, or for still other reasons--but not because of the pleasure it might bring to people who seek revenge. The "satisfactions" of revenge, they would say, are submoral if not immoral pleasures it is advisable to outgrow.