The Situation of Revenge
Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2008
Michael McCullough has a fascinating and important new book: “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” Here’s a summary.
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For centuries, people have held several misconceptions about the nature of humanity’s desire for revenge and the human potential for forgiveness. First, from the earliest Greek tragedies to the modern mental health professions, revenge has been depicted as a disease or a poison that takes control of human minds and then plunges people into personal ruin and social chaos. Second, the capacity to forgive has been depicted as an “invention” that was deliberately created as a solution to the “problem” of revenge. Third, people have been led to believe that the key to making the world a more forgiving place is to help individual people to think, feel, and act differently than they currently do about the person, or people, who have harmed them—a view that fits very well with the modern emphasis on professional therapy and self-help as the solutions to people’s problems. Beyond Revenge takes these three assumptions to task because they are scientifically incorrect and because they prevent us from doing all we can to make the world a better place.
Using research from the social and biological sciences, interpreted through the lens of evolutionary theory, Beyond Revenge explains how modern humans’ propensity for revenge resulted from millions of years of evolution in which the capacity for revenge actually functioned as a solution to many of the social dilemmas that faced humans’ evolutionary ancestors, such as the problem of self-protection in the face of violence and the problem of encouraging cooperation among groups of unrelated individuals. As an evolutionary adaptation, the desire for revenge is a cross-cultural universal and it is responsive to a small set of social conditions. From the point of view of natural selection, revenge is only a problem for humans today because it was such an effective solution for our ancestors. Indeed, biologists have shown that humans are far from the only animals that use revenge to solve their social problems.
Second, Beyond Revenge demonstrates that humans’ capacity to forgive was not an invention or a discovery that people deliberately developed to control a runaway propensity for revenge, but rather, that it is an evolved feature of human nature that arose through the force of natural selection because it helped ancestral humans to solve certain adaptive social problems they encountered: conflicts of interest with their genetic relatives and with unrelated cooperation partners. Forgiveness, like revenge, is ubiquitous among the world’s human societies, and it appears to be a psychological process that we share in common with many other members of the animal kingdom. Recent scientific breakthroughs illustrate the factors that activate the “forgiveness instinct” in the minds of human beings, as well as in our closest living primate relatives.
Third, Beyond Revenge shows how these insights into the evolution and modern workings of the desire for revenge and the forgiveness instinct can be used to control human violence and destructiveness and to promote a more peaceful world. Rather than arguing that individual people must be changed in order to make the world a more forgiving place, Beyond Revenge argues that when people encounter the right sorts of social conditions, their tendencies to forgive are automatically activated. When people encounter offenders who are apologetic and contrite, and who attempt to make reparations for the damage they have caused, people are naturally inclined to forgive them. Likewise, when people live in societies in which their rights are protected, in which they are relatively safe from crime and victimization, and in which offenders are given incentives to apologize and compensate their victims, the desire for revenge is slaked and the forgiveness instinct is automatically activated. Beyond Revenge explains why. In an important chapter on religion, Beyond Revenge also explains exactly why religions have the capacity to encourage inspiring acts of forgiveness as well as shockingly destructive acts of vengeance.
Integrating insights from psychology, evolutionary biology, primatology, economics, and neuroscience, amply illustrated with examples from history, current events, popular culture, and everyday life, Beyond Revenge provides a balanced and realistic portrait of human nature, and it shows what people can do to make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place.
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For some related Situationist posts, see “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “March Madness,” “Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” and “With God on Our Side . . ..”
The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.