Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Must a Punishment be Like the Crime in order to Fit the Crime?

I think this is a popular confusion. Retribution theory, as I understand it, requires that we deprive the criminal of happiness, as commensurably as we can reasonably make it, to the degree that the crime was wrong. It doesn't mean that the suffering the perpetrator is supposed to receive is to be similar in nature to that which he inflicted on his victim.

This is often implied in "eye for an eye" arguments. I realize in the eye for an eye case, there is a similarity of crime and punishment. But I do not see this elevated to the level of principle, even in the Old Testament.


Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:
I've always thought that nearly everyone was getting "an eye for an eye" completely wrong when they used it as a justification for retributive punishment. I believe the phrase must be considered in the context in which it was written. It is actually a mandate for mercy, not punishment. It was common at the time of writing to respond to a relatively small crime with a far greater punishment. "An eye for an eye" sets an upper limit to punishment - not a mandated level. Thus, if a person were to put out your eye, you must not respond by cutting off his head (or putting out both eyes).

Victor Reppert said...


I have the idea that "an eye for an eye" was designed to proscribe things like this, from Genesis 4. This is a seventh-generation descendant of Cain, Lamech:

The Lamech said to his wives:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
Wives of Lamech, listen to my speech!
For I have killed a man for wounding me,
Even a young man for hurting me.
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
—Genesis 4:19-24 (NKJV)

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:
Victor, exactly right.
It's like a speed limit sign. You may go up to that, but not over it. But not one is REQUIRED to drive 55 in a 55 mile per hour zone - you can legally go 52 (but not 65). Unfortunately, many people ingorantly use the concept as a justification for things like capital punishment, which it is most definitely not.