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“An Eye for an Eye” is Outdated and Needs Modernization

The idea that justice consist of exacting proportional revenge is outdated and barbaric, thus we should end capital punishment.

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By Cassandra Twining | United States

Capital punishment, commonly known as the death penalty, is one of the most contentious topics of our time. There are many nuanced positions the thinkers of our society take. One of the most popular arguments in favor of the death penalty is the idea of retribution: an eye for an eye. This is not any new concept, it has been around for hundreds of years. This, however, doesn’t mean it’s right or a perfect argument.

Louis Pojman, Oxford graduate and author of A Defense of the Death Penalty, argues in his paper that we should enact capital punishment when it is necessary and deserved. He believes that is the case when someone takes the life of someone else pointlessly and intentionally. Pojman argues that when someone consciously takes the life of an innocent human they inherently forfeit their right to life, and therefore can be put to death without breaking basic moral codes.

Pojman’s basic ideology can be described best as a retributive theory. Retributivists fundamentally believe 3 basic things:

  1. All that are guilty deserve to be punished.
  2. Only the guilty deserve to be punished.
  3. The guilty deserved to be punished in proportion to the severity of the crime.

Pojman, along with others like Immanuel Kant, a world-renowned German philosopher and American University Philosophy professor Jeffrey Reiman, adheres to these beliefs and uses them as justification for use of the state to chastise the large mass of murders by way of capital punishment, under guidelines they deem “fair.”

There are a lot of issues with the idea of retribution. The strongest argument against the idea of retribution comes from Stephen Nathanson in his paper An Eye for an Eye? In this paper, Nathanson evaluates the lapses in logic that appear when you analyze the idea of retributive justice more closely.

Nathanson argues that to enact equal punishment upon those who committed various crimes would not only be impossible in some circumstances but also barbaric. For example, in an instance in which someone had murdered thirty people how would one enact an equal punishment? Kill and resurrect them thirty times? It’s impossible and therefore no punishment would truly be “equal,” like the retributionists want. It is also an incredibly barbaric idea. We have not used the premise of an eye for an eye with any other crimes for decades. The idea of raping a rapist or burning an arsonist is seen as morally unjust and not permissible. Nathanson believes that capital punishment should be no different: “In order to justify using the ‘eye for an eye’ principle to answer our question about murder and the death penalty, we would first have to show that it worked for a whole range of cases.”

In the end, Jeffrey Reiman, the aforementioned Philosophy professor, actually ends up agreeing with Nathanson’s views that capital punishment is a barbaric feature of our society. Reiman does believe that it is morally permissible, just unnecessary. As he says on page 331: “I take it that the abolition of the death penalty, though it is a just punishment for murder, is part of the civilizing mission of the modern states.”

The abolition of the death penalty is a major way that we could make progress in society, leaving heinous acts behind us. It is also a way to try to ensure that throughout our judicial system we are enacting a morally permissible and relatively equal punishment amongst all perpetrators.


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