The Puzzle of Delegated Revenge

55 Pages Posted: 20 Oct 2007 Last revised: 6 May 2011

See all articles by Kenworthey Bilz

Kenworthey Bilz

University of Illinois College of Law

Date Written: August 8, 2008


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 this doesn't adequately explain why the public actually prefers it, and why they accept some forms of delegated agents more than others. Moreover, these theories do not have a good explanation for why or when delegated revenge will fail to satisfy victims, nor when the state will indulge this preference, as it often does. In this article, I offer a novel explanation for the phenomenon of delegated revenge. 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. This approach not only explains why victims delegate their revenge, but also predicts when they won't. Finally, I use this theory to propose ways we can reestablish the government's monopoly on punishment when individuals or even whole communities balk at notion of the state as an appropriate agent of their revenge.

Keywords: psychology, crime, punishment, retribution, revenge, economics

JEL Classification: A12, K14

Suggested Citation

Bilz, Kenworthey, The Puzzle of Delegated Revenge (August 8, 2008). Boston University Law Review, Vol. 87, p. 1059, 2007; Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 08-04; Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 08-01. Available at SSRN:

Kenworthey Bilz (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

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