Retributive justice

From Academic Kids

Retributive justice is a theory of criminal justice wherein punishments are justified on the grounds that the criminal has created an imbalance in the social order that must be addressed by action against the criminal. The theory is often associated with harsh punishment, and the phrase an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' is a commonly heard justification for this theory. However, proponents of the theory point out that the retribution should be proportional to the crime, and that minor crimes should have mild punishments while major crimes should have harsh punishment. The theory is sometimes justified by the belief that punishment is expected to act as a deterrent.



In the early period of all systems of law the redress of wrongs takes precedence over the enforcement of contract rights, and a rough sense of justice demands the infliction of the same loss and pain on the aggressor as he has inflicted on his victim. Hence the prominence of the "lex talionis" in ancient law. The Bible is no exception: in its oldest form it included the "lex talionis," the law of "measure for measure" (this is only the literal translation of "middah ke-neged middah").

The subject in modern times

In practice, punishment has this effect. Many long-term studies in many countries, including People's Republic of China, U.S.A., and in the Islamic World and South Africa, have shown that, what the researcher wished it to show, namely: for instance, death penalty measures do not deter murder. Furthermore, longer sentences do not deter crime nor reduce recidivism, other than a brief respite while the offenders are actually imprisoned. Some exploit this limited idea of success to argue for tough justice measures, e.g. "three strikes you're out", which often deal out very long prison sentences in an attempt to keep the offenders off the street longer, and thus to reduce the long term crime rate. Critics charge this can lead to a form of carceral state where huge numbers of people are imprisoned or, at best, on parole.

However, this too seems not to reduce crime, as the crowded prison conditions and desocialization of inmates seem to make it all but impossible for any education, training or rehabilitation to occur, so that the inmate could find productive work in society after release. California presently is attempting to solve the problem by simply keeping all three-time repeat offenders in prison until they die. What affect this has on crime is highly disputed.

At the same time, some have argued that a zero tolerance policy toward minor crimes creates a social atmosphere of order, which prevents more serious crime from occurring.

Furthermore, there are many who advocate harsh measures against criminals regardless of the presence or absence of a deterrent effect. The belief underlying this view is that the need for a criminal to be punished is a requirement that comes from basic fairness and justice and not necessarily as a result of deterrence.

Alternatives to retributive measures include psychiatric imprisonment, restorative justice and transformative justice. They are discussed more in those articles. A general overview of criminal justice puts each of these ideals in context.

Retributive justice can be contrasted to restorative justice. It is a way to see crime as a violation of the state. It is defined by lawbreaking and establishment of guilt. It determines blame and administers punishment in a contest between the offender and the state.

See also: sociology of crime


There are two distinct "flavors" of retributive justice. The classical definition embraces the idea that the amount of punishment must be proportional to the amount of harm caused. A more recent version, advocated by Michael Davis, dismisses this idea and replaces it with the idea that the amount of punishment must be proportional to the amount of unfair advantage gained by the wrongdoer. Davis introduced this version of retributive justice in the early 1980s, at a time when retributive justice was making a resurgence within the philosophy of law community, perhaps due to the practical failings of reform theory in the previous decades. This was to many a breath of fresh air into a theory that had been all but abandoned decades prior, particularly in the United States. There currently appears to be a greater amount of discussion about the difference between these two flavors of retribution than between retribution itself and the other theories of punishment.


"Punishment: the supposed justifications" - Ted Honderich


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