The puzzle of delegated revenge

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In the United States, as is the case in virtually every developed society, the State has a monopoly on criminal punishment. This monopoly enjoys such widespread popular support that it is rarely questioned, or even systematically explained. But why should people ever be satisfied when a third party punishes in their name as opposed to having the opportunity to exact revenge personally? When theories of delegated revenge are offered at all, they explain why a well-ordered society needs centralized punishment as a matter of practicality. But while this approach can explain why people would begrudgingly accede to delegating their revenge, I will show that it doesn't adequately explain why they actually prefer it and why they accept some delegated agents more readily than others. Moreover, these theories do not have a good explanation for why or when delegated revenge will fail to satisfy victims, nor for when the State will relax its punishment monopoly, as it often does. In this Article, 1 offer a different explanation for the phenomenon of delegated revenge; one grounded in a more psychologically sophisticated understanding of the harms of crime and the functions of punishment. Namely, I argue that victims regard punishment as an important device for restoring the losses to their self-worth and social status they suffered as a direct result of their victimization, which in turn explains and guides the (usual) preference for delegating revenge. I also argue that understanding the status-underpinnings of punishment allows us to predict when victims will reject delegation and instead choose to exact their revenge directly, as well as when the body politic will endorse their behavior. Finally, I use this theory of delegated revenge to propose ways in which we can solve failures of delegated revenge; that is, how we can reestablish the government's monopoly on punishment when individuals, or even whole communities, balk at the notion of the State as an appropriate agent of their revenge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1059-1112
Number of pages54
JournalBoston University Law Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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