Retributive justice

Retributive justice is a theory of justice that considers that proportionate punishment is a morally acceptable response to crime, with an eye to the satisfaction and psychological benefits it can bestow to the aggrieved party and its intimates.


In ethics and law "Let the punishment fit the crime" is the principle that the severity of penalty for a misdeed or wrongdoing should be reasonable and proportional to the severity of the infraction. The concept is common to most cultures throughout the world. Its presence in the ancient Jewish culture is shown by its inclusion in the law of Moses, specifically in Deuteronomy 19:17-21, which includes the punishments of "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." Many other documents reflect this value in the world's cultures. However, the judgment of whether a punishment is appropriately severe can vary greatly between cultures and individuals.

Proportionality requires that the level of punishment be scaled relative to the severity of the offending behaviour. However, this does not mean that the punishment has to be "equivalent" to the crime. A retributive system must punish severe crime more harshly than minor crime, but retributivists differ about how harsh or soft the system should be overall.

Traditionally, philosophers of punishment have contrasted retributivism with utilitarianism. For utilitarians, punishment is forward-looking, justified by a purported ability to achieve future social benefits, such as crime reduction. For retributionists, punishment is backward-looking, and strictly for punishing crimes according to their severity.Cavadino, M & Dignan, J. (1997). "The Penal System: An Introduction" (2nd ed.), p. 39. London: Sage.]

Depending on the retributivist, the crime's level of severity might be determined by the amount of harm, unfair advantage or moral imbalance the crime caused.


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 proportionate 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").

In the 19th century, philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in "The Metaphysical Elements of Justice" of retribution as a legal principle: "Judicial punishment can never be used merely as a means to promote some other good for the criminal himself or for civil society, but instead it must in all cases be imposed on him only on the ground that he has committed a crime."Martin, Jacqueline (2005). "The English Legal System" (4th ed.), p. 174. London: Hodder Arnold. ISBN 0-340-89991-3.]

Immanuel Kant regards punishment as a matter of justice. He states that if the guilty are not punished, justice is not done.(Rachels, James 2007) "The Elements of Moral Philosophy".


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 by the offence. A more recent version, advocated by Mr. ShehanFact|date=November 2007, 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.


According to some theories of ethics, punishment (or proportional punishment) is evidently self-contradictory. Retributive punishment is unethical, these theories claim,"two wrongs do not make a right."

Some hold that the motive behind the Christian sanction for interpersonal relations ("turn the other cheek" before seeking retribution for a wrong), and the motive behind the sanctions for social magistrates (which include the application of retributive justice, e.g., "just stonings"), conflict. On the other hand, the motives for the social sanctions can be attributed to other justifications beyond simple retaliation.

Many more jurisdictions following the retributive philosophy, especially in the United States, follow a set tariff, where judges impose a penalty for a crime within the range set by the tariff. As a result, some argue that judges do not have enough discretion to allow for mitigating factors, leading to unjust decisions under certain circumstances. In the case of fines, the financial position of an offender is not taken into account, leading to situations where an unemployed man and a millionaire could be forced to pay the same fine, creating an unjust situation; either the fine would be too punitive for the unemployed offender, or not large enough to punish the millionaire. [Martin, pp. 174–175.]


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

One libertarian approach to this issue argues that full restitution (in the broad, rather than technical legal, sense) is compatible with both retributivism and a utilitarian degree of deterrence. [cite web |url= |title=Why Libertarian Restitution Beats State-Retribution and State-Leniency| author=J. C. LESTER |accessdate=2008-01-13 |format=HTML ]


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • retributive justice — index condemnation (punishment), conviction (finding of guilt), correction (punishment), discipline (punishmen …   Law dictionary

  • RETRIBUTIVE JUSTICE —    justice which rewards good deeds, and inflicts punishment on offenders …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • retributive justice — See justice, retributive …   Philosophy dictionary

  • retributive justice — /rətrɪbjətɪv ˈdʒʌstəs/ (say ruhtribyuhtiv justuhs) noun justice which seeks to inflict punishment on a wrongdoer in proportion to the severity of the crime, regardless of whether this produces any social benefits. Compare restorative justice,… …   Australian English dictionary

  • retributive justice — See justice, social …   Dictionary of sociology

  • retributive justice — noun : justice concerned with punishing or rewarding an individual …   Useful english dictionary

  • RETRIBUTIVE JUSTICE —    Retribution and revenge are essential parts of the unofficial code of the West. The seeking of revenge is a noble pursuit, unquestioned in classic Westerns: “For nearly a century the Western has celebrated the man hunt and the man hunter. The… …   Westerns in Cinema

  • retributive justice —  Карающая справедливость …   Вестминстерский словарь теологических терминов

  • deal retributive justice — index castigate, condemn (punish), discipline (punish) Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • Justice — is the concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, fairness and equity. A conception of justice is one of the key features of society. Theories of justice vary greatly, but there is evidence that everyday views of… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.