Retributive Justice

There is a time when even justice brings harm.

— Sophocles

I think a lot of us have been taught to confuse retributive justice with fairness.  But fairness is a somewhat different concept, isn’t it?  For one thing, retributive justice seems to rest on a notion that punishment is remedy.  But is punishment always remedy?

Fairness, on the other hand, seems to imply a broader range of possible remedies than punishment alone. If Johnny steals your apple, and all you want is retributive justice, then all you want is for Johnny to be punished for stealing your apple. But if Johnny steals your apple, and you want fairness, then you might want either the apple back or another in its place.

As a hypothetical: If you had to choose, and you could not choose both, would you prefer to live in a fair society or a just society?

15 thoughts on “Retributive Justice

  1. What I want is for Little Johnny not to steal any more apples. I am not interested in punishing him for the sake of punishing. If getting my apple back does nothing to deter Little Johnny from stealing someone else’s apple then nothing is really gained their either. In times long past Little Johnny would have been hanged or deported, which certainly made sure Little Johnny didn’t steal any more apples but does nothing for Little Jimmy unless we get at and solve the root cause of apple stealing, as CD suggested.

    My cousin is a lawyer. The FIRST thing she was told in Law School was if she was interested in justice, she was in the wrong place. Lawyers deal with the law, not with justice. She is now a Justice on the Supreme Court of British Columbia where she CAN deal in justice as much as the law allows. I will ask her opinion on this.

    • Perhaps Little Johnny is beyond help. Adding to the hypothetical, perhaps Little Johnny has stolen many apples in recent years, and has no desire to stop. In that case, punishing Little Johnny, appropriately and publicly, we can prevent Littler Johnny from following in Little Johnny’s footsteps.

      I would choose a just society, because there is very little we can do in a free society to create universal fairness.

    • I agree something should be done to prevent Little Johnny from stealing the apple in the first place, from serving as a role model who inspires others to steal apples, and from stealing again if he has already stolen. But I know of no conclusive body of evidence that supports the notion punishment is an effective deterrent. Is there one?

      • I would go with common sense here. Instead of looking at it as “if we punish Little Johnny for stealing an apple, Littler Johnny will be deterred from also stealing an apple,” we should ask, “if we fail to punish Little Johnny for stealing an apple and Littler Johnny sees this, what message do we send to Littler Johnny?”

        Common sense tells me that Littler Johnny learns that it is acceptable to steal an apple and there are no negative consequences for doing so.

      • I’m afraid I mistrust common sense, HR. It seems to be all too frequently wrong. In my experience, it’s best to go with the hardest facts you can find as established by science.

  2. Is there such a thing as remedial justice?
    I agree with BF that getting Johnny not to steal anymore is ultimately more important than returning the apple. If that can be done by making sure Johnny has enough to eat, great. But, what if he has FAS or some other difficulty in understanding consequences? Punishment may or may not work.
    If he steals for the thrill of it, risk of consequences would heighten the excitement. If he steals from boredom or peer pressure, consequences might deter him.
    Retributive justice would cut off Johnny’s hand. He may be less likely to steal, but maybe not. I would guess things would be even more unfair in a society like that and Johnny’s little brother would be worse off.

    So, what is the goal? Protecting property? Economic and social equity? These are questions that determine how you deal with issues.

  3. Was it justice or fairness when God replaced everything he had taken from Job– including his seven sons and seven daughters with seven new sons and seven new daughters? Sure, Job may have come to love his 14 replacement youngsters, but could anything have salved his grief other than having his original 14 kids brought back from the dead?

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