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The Purposes of Punishment: Is “An Eye for an Eye” Appropriate?

by Yulina Goto about a year ago in incarceration

Examining the "an eye for an eye" philosophy from the perspective of modern criminal law

Do you think "an eye for an eye" is just?

What it our criminal justice system worked on “an eye for an eye” basis? That means that if someone burned down your house, the next morning you’d be on your way to their house with a bottle of gasoline in one hand and a lighter in the other. Sounds quite scary, doesn't it.

“An eye for an eye” is not a good basis for determining an appropriate punishment because it misses two crucial components of a punishment: restitution and rehabilitation.

The 5 Purposes of Punishment

The American criminal justice system states that the purposes of punishment are deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution and restitution.


Deterrence prevents crime by frightening the criminal and the public. When a criminal is punished, he/she is less likely to commit a crime again because of the fear of the punishment. Similarly, the public that is informed of the punished criminal is also less likely to commit a crime for fear of facing a similar consequence.


Incapacitation removes the criminal from society so that it is physically impossible to commit a crime. This can seen in the form of a prison sentence, house arrest, and in some cases, the death penalty.


Rehabilitation changes a criminal’s behavior so he/she doesn’t commit a crime again. Most criminals make poor choices due to their environment, such as alcohol and drugs, poverty, and absent parenting. Through educational and vocational programs and counseling, an offender can separate him/herself from such an environment, making it less likely for him/her to break the law again.


Retribution removes the victim’s desire for personal avengement. Since the victim sees that the criminal justice system has adequately punished the criminal, he/she can feel a sense of closure and have trust in the effectiveness of the system. This is done through long periods of incarceration, large fines, and the death penalty.


Lastly, restitution punishes the criminal through financial payment. The criminal pays the victim for damages, whether they are physical injuries or property damages. This is done to compensate the victim’s loss and repair him/her.

The Logic Behind “An Eye for an Eye”

The basis of “an eye for an eye” is equitable retribution. Because the punishment is exactly equal to the crime, it ensures that the offender suffers as much as the victim did. Sometimes, the torment from receiving the same punishment may serve the purpose of deterrence and therefore incarceration as well.

However, the major flaw in the “an eye for an eye” philosophy is that it completely overlooks restitution and rehabilitation, which are crucial functions of a punishment.

No Restitution

Instead of increasing the total amount of pain experienced by both victim and criminal, restitution seeks to repair the victim by financially compensating economic and psychological loss.

If a victim’s arm is injured, it is much more beneficial to him/her to get medical and treatment bills paid off for faster recovery, rather than having the offender’s arm slashed.

No Rehabilitation, Either

Rehabilitation attempts to educate offenders and alter their behavior in order not to create future victims. A punishment is not sufficient to prevent future misconduct because it does not remove the initial environmental factors that led to it in the first place. For example, if an offender suffers with alcohol dependence, it is likely that he/she will end up in prison again as impaired judgement and increase of aggressive behaviors lead to another crime.

Rehabilitation is also based on the belief of the inherent good of humanity, and gives offenders a second chance to become positive contributors of society. An offender may have made ignorant and impulsive decisions, and be capable of feeling remorse for their actions and changing their behavior hence. This decreases the number of repeat offenders and would ensure more safety for the community.


From the perspective of modern criminal law, a punishment has multiple purposes—not only to punish the criminal, but to help the victim recover from loss and protect the community from further harm.

“An eye for an eye” punishment may sound like a fair punishment in the sense that the criminal suffers what the victim went through. However, it is not a good basis for determining a punishment because it focuses all its attention on getting revenge and fails to consider restitution and rehabilitation.

(I admit, it is absurd to point out flaws of a criminal law 3,000 years later, after a whole system has been created around it. And because modern criminal law is built on older ideas, it's like of course the modern one is going to encompass more humanist ideas. But this analysis is for fun, so who cares?)

Room for Improvement

That said, there are still many changes that need to happen within the current criminal justice system. Because we don’t use the (very) straightforward “an eye for an eye” basis for deciding a sentence, we need to in turn ensure that criminals are administered punishments proportional to their crimes.

For example, the criminal justice system needs to respond more to rape victims and eliminate the racial discrimination that deeply permeates the system.

From the first laws carved into Hammurabi’s stone pillar to our current laws, our perceptions of justice have changed and so have the laws that cater to them. Throughout history, there has always existed a collective hope of building a society that serves justice for everybody, and the evolution of our laws reflect just that (pun intended).

Yulina Goto
Yulina Goto
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