The terms revenge and justice often get muddled. And that’s hardly surprising, for in the course of history, they’ve frequently been used interchangeably. You may even be familiar with the phrase “just revenge.” Still, as meanings alter and evolve over time, the connotations of these two words have increasingly diverged. It’s now uncommon to see them used synonymously. And doubtless, revenge has borne the brunt of the various semantic changes that have transpired.

Yet certain overlaps between—and ambiguities within—the two terms do exist. So before delineating the chief distinctions that can usefully be made to separate them, let me at least hint at what some of these inconsistencies might be.

It would be convenient to advance the claim that justice is fair and revenge is not. But as the words “just revenge” suggest, revenge—depending on its underlying conditions, motivations, and execution—might be either just or unjust, fair or (frankly) outrageously out of proportion to the wrong originally done. There seems to be an equivocality tightly woven into the term that’s less perceptible in the related concept of justice. All the same, the well-known phrase “miscarriage of justice” warns us to be careful about distinguishing between concepts that, finally, must be understood as both relative and subjective.

Although I believe that the differences between revenge and justice enumerated below generally hold true, I’d emphasize that they are generalizations, so you’ll probably be able to think of some exceptions. There are instances when revenge can legitimately be understood as a type of justice, and justice a kind of revenge. Moreover, as discrete as I’ve tried to make each of the five categories below, a certain amount of resemblance and repetition has been unavoidable. That is, my “dividing lines” may at times seem a bit arbitrary. But in any case, here they are—each concluding with its own set of supporting quotations.

In fact, as a prelude to our discussion, let’s start with two quotes that affirm the idea that revenge and justice ought to be distinguished:

“Do not seek revenge and call it justice.” —Cassandra Clare

“It is essential that justice be done; it is equally vital that justice not be confused with revenge, for the two are wholly different.” ―Oscar Arias

1. Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational. Revenge is mostly about “acting out” (typically through violence) markedly negative emotions. At its worst, it expresses a hot, overwhelming desire for bloodshed. As perverse as it may seem, there’s actual pleasure experienced in causing others to suffer for the hurt they’ve caused the avenger, or self-perceived victim (cf. the less personal Schadenfreude).

Justice—as logically, legally, and ethically defined—isn’t really about “getting even” or experiencing a spiteful joy in retaliation. Instead, it’s about righting a wrong that most members of society (as opposed to simply the alleged victim) would agree is morally culpable. And the presumably unbiased (i.e., unemotional) moral rightness of such justice is based on cultural or community standards of fairness and equity. Whereas revenge has a certain selfish quality to it, “cool” justice is selfless in that it relies on non-self-interested, established law. At least obliquely, the two quotes below are suggestive:

“But men often mistake killing and revenge for justice. They seldom have the stomach for justice.” ―Robert Jordan

“Social justice cannot be attained by violence. Violence kills what it intends to create.” —Pope John Paul II

2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon. The driving impetus behind revenge is to get even, to carry out a private vendetta, or to achieve what, subjectively, might be described as personal justice. If successful, the party perceiving itself as gravely injured (though others might not necessarily agree) experiences considerable gratification: their retaliatory goal has been achieved—the other side vanquished, or brought to its knees. Just or not, the avenger feels justified. Their quest for revenge has “re-empowered” them and, from their biased viewpoint, it’s something they’re fully entitled to.

On the other hand, social justice is impersonal. It revolves around moral correction in situations where certain ethical and culturally vital principles have been violated. When justice is successfully meted out, the particular retribution benefits or protects both the individual and society—which can operate effectively only when certain acceptable behavioral guidelines are followed. So, consider:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more a man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.” —Francis Bacon

“Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

“All calls for justice require that victims feel avenged, and revenge is never just if it’s disproportionate.” — Thane Rosenbaum

“Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace.” —Martin Luther

3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication.

The intense effort to avenge oneself or others can easily become corrupting, morally reducing the avenger’s status to that of the perpetrator. Two wrongs do not make a right and (ethically speaking) never can. Degrading another only ends up further degrading oneself. Even if a kind of justice might be served through an act of revenge, it could still be argued that there’s nothing particularly admirable or evolved in retaliating against a wrong by committing a “like” wrong. Or (to put it more emphatically) to behave vengefully is, at best, to take the low road to justice.

In opposition, justice is grounded in assumptions, conventions, and doctrines having to do with honor, fairness, and virtue. Its purpose really isn’t vindictive. That is, blood thirstiness has no part—or should have no part—in precepts of justice, at least not in the way the term is presently employed. It’s based on established law, and its proceedings are designed to dispense to individuals precisely what is deserved: nothing more, and nothing less.

The following quotes allude to some of the dimensions of this core difference:

“There can be no greater motivator for evil than a huge sense of injustice!” ―Bill Ward

“Only remember this: to seek justice is a good and noble thing, to seek revenge out of hatred is something that will devour your very soul.” ―James Mace

“In human history, the desire for revenge and the desire for loot have often been closely associated.” —John McCarthy

4. Revenge is about cycles; justice about closure.

Revenge has a way of relentlessly repeating itself (as in interminable feuds, such as the Hatfields and McCoys)—and ever more maliciously at that. Revenge typically begets more revenge. Whether it’s an individual or an entire nation, it takes place within a closed system that seems able to feed on itself indefinitely. Unlike tic-tac-toe, tit for tat is a game without end. One side gets satisfaction, then the other is driven to get its satisfaction, and then… theoretically, ad infinitum. There can be no resolution, no compromise. For each faction (say, Israel and Palestine) has—clan-like—its own agenda, its own sense of right and wrong. And the righteous rigidity of each side usually demands that some trusted outsider intervene if matters are ever to be settled.

Justice, in contrast, is designed (by individuals or officials generally not linked to the two opposing camps) to offer a resolution far more likely to eventuate in closure—especially if, in fact, it is just (i.e., equitable). And when justice is done (and I use that word advisedly) so is the conflict that led up to it. Beyond that, punishments for wrongdoing carry an agreed-upon authority lacking in personal vengeful acts, which are calculated solely to “get back” at the assumed perpetrator. Technically speaking, so-called “vigilante justice” isn’t really justice, or social justice, at all—though at times it may appear to be.Taking matters into one’s own hands may sometimes seem justified, but it hardly meets the more rigorous criteria for consensual, or community, justice.

Here are some quotes that focus on the problematic lack of closure commonly associated with revenge:

“But if revenge is called justice, then that justice breeds yet more revenge… and then becomes a chain of hatred.” —Pein Naruto

“It is unfortunate that in most cases when the sins of the father fall on the son it is because… people refuse to forgive and forget and heap past wrongs upon innocent generations” [which, I'd  add, is anything but just]. ―E.A. Bucchianeri

“Those who wish to punish the current and future generations for the inequities of a generation long gone, and who equate justice with revenge, are the most dangerous people in the world.” —Dean Koontz

5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice about restoring balance. The motive of revenge has mostly to do with expressing rage, hatred, or spite. It’s a protest, or payback, and its foremost intent is to harm. In and of itself, it’s not primarily about justice but about victims’ affirming their inborn (but non-legal) right to retaliate against some wrong done to them.

And because it’s so impassioned, it’s typically disproportionate to the original injury—meaning that it usually can’t be viewed as just. The punishment may fit the crime, but it’s often an exaggerated response to another’s perceived offense. (And I use the qualifier “perceived” purposely here. For take the Florida case of George Zimmerman’s fatal 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. Not only does such an instance exemplify the wrongheadedness sometimes linked to vigilante justice but, as many (if not most) people would agree, Zimmerman’s ultimate acquittal represented a serious miscarriage of justice—especially in light of the gunman’s anti-social conduct and legal infractions subsequent to the case.)

On the contrary, justice is concerned with dispassionately restoring balance through bringing about equality—or better, equity. It centers on proportion as it equates to fairness. Not driven by emotion, restorative justice—meted out by a court of law—seeks to be as objective and evenhanded as possible. It’s not, as is so much of revenge, about doing the other side “one better” but about equitably—or properly—punishing wrongdoing. In fact, the ancient “law of the ‘talion’” (an ethical standard originating in Babylonian law and present as well in the Bible and early Roman law) focuses on what is commonly known (but, hopefully, only metaphorically!) as the “eye for an eye” conception of justice. In brief, the kind or magnitude of justice meted out is contrived to “correspond” as exactly as possible to the gravity of the original injury. And the group of quotes below should further illustrate this final distinction between revenge and justice:

“Christian ethics demand that you should not take revenge. The paradox is, naturally, that Christians worship a God who is the greatest avenger of them all. Defy him and you burn in eternal hell, an act of revenge which is completely out of proportion to the crime.” —Jo Nesbø

“God was never what we would call a proportionalist. God goes postal a lot, which is what human societies won’t let their people do.” —William Ian Miller

“Someone wrongs us, we rarely (if ever) want to do the same thing back. Why? Because we want to do something more harmful. Likewise, when someone insults us, our instinct is to search for words that will be more insulting. Revenge always escalates.” ―Rob Bell

[And lastly] “A society built upon a foundation of vengeance is a society doomed to destroy itself.” —Richelle E. Goodrich

NOTE 1: This post was designed to complement, or complete, my earlier post, "5 Biggest Problems with Revenge—and Its 3 Best Remedies."

NOTE 2: If you found this piece interesting, or illuminating, I hope you’ll consider sharing its link with others. If you’d like to check out additional posts I’ve done for Psychology Today—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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