Punishment, Vengeance and concepts of justice

When I screw something up most spectacularly, my inclination is to feel that I should be punished, often disproportionately, and in any case not constructively. I have been led to understand that this relates to a common traumatic reaction: once persecuted, an individual becomes fixed in that role (typically in childhood) seeking out a new persecutor, and/or adopting the role of persecutor themselves in order to (re-en)act-out the same pattern again and again.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s a screwed up behaviour in a case like this, but it leads me to thinking about the impulse to punish in a broader sense: Where does revenge come from? What does homo erectus stand to gain by hurting those who he perceives as having hurt him? It’s easy to rationalise that punishment is all about providing a deterrent, or about negative reinforcement and conditioning, but is that really what motivates us?

In the case of an animal, the obvious reason for seeking revenge is the prevention of further harm, i.e. that snake has killed one of my young, therefore I will kill it to prevent it from killing any more of my young. This is a good clear example, but it makes less sense in most cases: Unless the snake that ate your young seems likely to return, why seek vengeance on it specifically? Surely a better chance for survival is to be had in running away, or defending the remaining young against that and other potential snakes. If your aim is to eliminate the threat, why pick on that particular snake and not on its entire species?

Angry Cat, from http://flickr.com/photos/see/I have seen cats take revenge, quite unmistakably. You wash the cat, then a little while later the perfectly house-trained cat soils your bedroom. You put the cat outside and refuse to let it back in, so the cat shreds (unerringly) your favourite plant.
The cat gains nothing from these behaviours, yet I strongly doubt that the cat is systematically eliminating the ongoing human threat to the dry fur and freedoms of all felines, either. Clearly, the cat is punishing us. Why?

7 thoughts on “Punishment, Vengeance and concepts of justice

  1. Ok, I dont know bout the whole revenge thing, but cats usually piss in unwanted places or shred plants in order to comfort themselves. These are both actions which mark territory for a cat. As cats are very routine oriented, if u do something that throws them off (like bathing an animal that instinctivly hates water?), they are gonna do something to reassure themselves.
    Sorry, I just had to be nit-picky bout that 🙂

  2. They bit about repeating childhood treatment (in the above case, being persecuted), it iswell documented and proven that childhood habits and interaction are often repeated in adulthood. These seem to stem from 2 things.
    Firstly, most people look back on childhood with memories of simpler times in life, when things were new and fun. This means that recreating an element of childhood makes us feel secure. An example being a child who always listens to a walkman, taking it almost everywhere, often listening to it just for some background sound. When adult they often find it has a calming and reassuring effect.
    Second, if a child interacts with someone close, usually a parent, in a certain way, the child with often associate this behavior with attention and social interaction. Then, once grown up, this instinctivly becomes the way the person seeks attention/love/interaction. Many children who are regularly restrained and/or beaten by their parents end up exploring S&M and B&D.
    Ok, I’ll get down off my Freud box now 😛

  3. I think one motivation for revenge is an effort to impose empathy for oneself on another: “Here – take that – now you know have I felt when you did that to me – how do you like that now?” I think revenge is a very dodgy thing to have enter into practices of justice and law but it does seem a very entrenched feeling. BTW love the peeved cat face.

  4. I had noticed the irony 🙂

    It’s the fifth time someone has used my pictures, but only once when someone at least took the time to mention it, or at least acknowlege it on the flickr page. That’s what the ‘comment’ option is there for. As I mention on the photo page, little airplane took my photos, and left comments – I have no problems with that. I do feel strongly about it.

    There are no hard feelings. I appreciate comments on my flickr site justas you value the comments here.

    I am sure you will get better pictures available throughout the internet. If you want to use any of mine, ask.


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