Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Vengeance

The essence of vengeance is to inflict pain on another human being.

This infliction of pain is curiously pleasurable. Why?

"I am hurt" is felt as a justification for hurting others. Why?

"They must be taught a lesson."

"They must not go scot-free."

"I must have justice."

There are two kinds of damage: actual and felt. Examples of actual damage are to pick somebody's pocket, or to kill or maim someone. Examples of felt damage are to feel insulted, to feel unloved, to feel devalued, to feel uncared for, etc.

Actual damages need to be remedied by addressing the circumstance. Felt damages can be remedied only by addressing oneself.

However, humans being what they are, confuse the two damages as similar. As "I", as a psychic entity, am hurt, so I believe that I, as this flesh and blood body, am hurt.

And in confusion, a human being usually tries to address a circumstance in order to cure a felt hurt. To address the causes of a felt hurt in oneself is a very, very hard undertaking. It is much simpler to try and find the needle where the light is, no matter where it was lost.

Remedial action can be ill-addressed, but vengeance is even sillier. It goes further than remedial action in intending to inflict a felt or actual damage on the person who is believed to be the cause of one's pain.

However, the vitality of vengeful feelings must not be underestimated. Silliness knows no sense. One is willing to go through years of misery just so that one has a chance of hurting the other person.

So what is the kind of pleasure involved in inflicting pain on another? Why is vengeance pleasurable? Can perversity be rationally explained?

This is the "justice" instinct in operation, for lack of a better term. It can be easily observed that humans almost universally suffer from this instinct. If there be no justice on this earth, people are only too willing to believe in divine justice, the day of judgment, the hell that awaits the other person in the next life, and so on. The belief in an other-worldly record-keeper is almost endemic in the human condition.

To be vengeful is to become that other-worldly entity. One becomes a God of Justice, or its undertaker. The power and potency of the feelings of vengeance come from this identification.

What are the evolutionary roots of this instinct?

(By "humans" below I mean the genetic patterns of humanity)

Firstly, those humans have thrived in nature who did not have any compunction, or felt any guilt, in being malicious, or in being righteously angry. Those who didn't feel a righteous rage simply went extinct because rage was part of the survival package.

Secondly, in helplessness, one could find solace, and still feel powerful, by believing in the divine entities who would punish the other. This must have been such a strong psychological salve that those who did not believe in such an entity felt despondent, hopeless, existentially lonely, depressed and became extinct.

Thirdly, a strong counter to altruism is required if there be a psychological protection from the horrors of violence. During a violent crisis, pacifism born of altruism can make one give up one's own life for the aggressor's sake, but such altruism is obviously suicidal. And so, to resist the opposing instinct of altruism and pacifism when one is required to battle, it is important to imbue violence with a sense of deep meaning (cf the Bhagwad Gita, where Arjuna is asked to fulfill his Dharma, or Hitler's Lebensraum). I am not debating whether the violence is in self-defense or not, the point is that humans have opposing tendencies when asked to fight against their fellow human beings: aggression as well as altruism. Only he would win who can comfortably straddle the two. Others would simply go mad.

Fourthly, intentionality circuits kick into operation. To inflict pain is felt as "teaching" the other. It is part of our communal and parental passions.


And so, vengeance is a primeval force. It makes us gravely agitated, stressed and unable to focus on anything else, but then, blind nature is not concerned about our happiness, it is only concerned about the fight for survival.

Vengeance is natural. Are you willing to be unnatural? Are you willing to give up your humanity to be free of these debilitating feelings?


A few words about forgiveness. A human being who is afflicted with vengeful feelings can counter them with feelings of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a counter-affect. If there be no feeling of pain and hence of vengeance, what is the need for forgiveness?

And therefore one needs to carefully attend to Christ's last words. He was human when he said that.


Anonymous said...

The term intentionality is often simplistically summarized as "aboutness". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is "the distinguishing property of mental phenomena of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary".[1] Originally intentionality was a concept from scholastic philosophy. The concept of intentionality was reintroduced in 19th-century contemporary philosophy by the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano in his work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874). Brentano defined intentionality as one characteristic of "mental phenomena", by which they could be distinguished from "physical phenomena" (physische Phänomene), using such phrases as "reference to a content", the "direction towards an object" and "the immanent objectivity".

From a phenomenonological or philological perspective, is this what you mean by intentionality? And is anger not a kind of unintended overflow rather than calculated?

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Anonymous, my usage of "intentionality" is simply the conscious or unconscious /motivations/ of a human being's acts.

E.g. when we ask: "what did he intend by saying hello" or "what is the intention behind this offering a drink"

In essence, motivation.

In hurting others for their mistakes (e.g. in corporal punishment, a simple example of justice in the human condition), we strive to program others' motivations through punishment.

Harmanjit Singh said...

A relevant excerpt:

"As a matter of related interest ... one of the most persistent forms of anger is indignation (or righteous anger/justifiable anger): it can be eradicated rather simply by the realisation that its raison d’être – a guardian against injustice, unjustness, unfairness, inequality (partiality, discrimination, and so on) – is as much a human invention as those concepts it defends ... justice, justness, fairness, equality (impartiality, indiscrimination, and so on)."

Anonymous said...

What is wrong with human inventions?

Harmanjit Singh said...

There is nothing wrong with something being a human invention, but indignation/righteous-anger considers injustice as a flaw in the fabric of the universe itself.

Anonymous said...

Human beings are tool making animals, reality is the raw material on which humans work just as an artist works on his canvas. Human beings are not passive agents, spectators. Emotions, of which anger is one , is the fuel which drives us. Perfect or imperfect, the universe is the canvas on which our lives paint pictures. Pleasure and pain are the salt of life, which we should accept, rather than try to escape. The universe is neither perfect or imperfect----it just is.

Anonymous said...

(...) Pleasure and pain are the salt of life, which we should accept, rather than try to escape.

What if one does not adhere to this Spiritual belief of acceptance? Welcome to the third alternative!

RESPONDENT: But, for some time I’ve simply accepted the occasional appearance of suffering as a part of being alive.

RICHARD: Ahh ... ‘accepted’, eh? Thereby hangs a tale: the word ‘acceptance’ has a lot of currency these days and popular usage has given it somewhat the same meaning as ‘allow’ or ‘permit’ or ‘tolerate’ ... as I have remarked in an earlier E-Mail, nineteen years ago ‘I’, the persona that I was, looked at the physical world and just knew that this enormous construct called the universe was not ‘set up’ for us humans to be forever forlorn in with only scant moments of reprieve. ‘I’ the persona realised there and then that it was not and could not ever be some ‘sick cosmic joke’ that humans all had to endure and ‘make the best of’. ‘I’ the persona felt foolish that ‘I’ had believed for thirty two years that the wisdom of the ‘real-world’ that ‘I’ had inherited – the world that ‘I’ was born into – was set in stone. I ceased accepting, allowing, permitting or tolerating suffering there and then. Which is why I say to people to ‘embrace death’ (as in unreservedly saying !YES! to being alive as this flesh and blood body) as a full-blooded approval and endorsement. Those peoples who say that they ‘accept’ ... um ... a rapist, for just one example, never for one moment are approving and endorsing ... let alone unreservedly saying !YES! to the rapist.

So much for ‘acceptance’ as a viable modus operandi.

Anonymous said...

Acceptance means to accept injustice (eg murder, rape, war etc} as injustice....not whether it is an imperfection or perfection but as a reality which it is our role to change....a human being is an agent of regards blissful felicity, life is more palatable as a battle ,as a series of challenges to be surmounted, than a bubolic pasture or a rose-bed...

Harmanjit Singh said...

Another recent article about this:

Harmanjit Singh said...

An interesting, and referenced, article on Revenge:

One of the references in this article is this essay:

An excerpt:

"When someone hurts you, you experience maximum suffering. But the offender often doesn't know this and underestimates the impact of their actions in their own mind. So when you plan an act of revenge, you pay back harder than the person who hurt you believes they deserve and that's how vendettas begin and escalate."