The Right Coast

July 28, 2004
Guilt and Revenge
By Mike Rappaport

In the 1970s, people used to say that "guilt was a useless emotion." This is, of course, what you would expect from a society with a social fabric that was in decline. People more often recognize these days that guilt serves an important function: to discourage people from engaging in harmful behavior again in the future.

Now it seems another negative emotion -- the desire for revenge -- is being reevaluated. This article in the New York Times explores how the desire for revenge works to keep people conforming to moral rules. In fact, the desire for revenge can serve a social function, since without it, people might be inclined to let violations of moral rules go unpunished -- after all, without the desire for revenge, the victim does not usually benefit directly from punishing the rule violator. Evidence from the article suggests that the desire for revenge is programmed into us, with the desire operating on the brain in a similar manner to hunger or even sexual desire. Of course, none of this is to say that revenge does not have harmful aspects. It is just that it also in part serves a useful function.

The examples of guilt and revenge suggest that enforcing moral rules is a difficult enterprise. We seem to have evolved complicated mechanisms for doing so, but these mechanisms are costly. Sadly, there are no utopias in this world.