The Survival of Retributivism in our Modern Knowledge-based World

Author:Jaan Ginter

The article discusses the development of theories of punishment in modern, more and more knowledge-based society. Are any changes foreseeable in how we rationalise expending scarce public resources on inflicting grievances on those fellow members of our society who have behaved in a manner not approved by general society? Adherents to retributivism strive to justify criminal punishment by simply... (see full summary)

Jaan Ginter
Professor of Criminology
University of Tartu
The Survival of Retributivism
in our Modern
Knowledge-based World
In retributivism, one strives to justify criminal punishment simply by referring to the punishment as the
consequence that the criminal plainly deserves and arguing that there is no need to present any utilitarian
justi cations for applying punishments. At present, more and more research results are mounting up that
suggest various objective circumstances as causes for predisposition of certain persons to commit crimes,
and some research suggests that there are several treatments that may in some cases be more suitably
employed instead of criminal punishments. With this paper, I undertake to appraise whether these novel
approaches leave any room for retributivist ideas.
1. The long and venerable history
of retributivist thinking
As long as societies have held that certain actions by members of society should be averted and have pun-
ished their members for these actions, societies also have tried to nd means of rationalising the accordant
intentional causing of psychological, physical, and material losses to members thereof. For example, the
Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to the eighteenth century BC, o ers a fundamentally retributivist
196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.
197. If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.*1
We can nd many references to retributivism in the Torah and the Old Testament. For example, in the Old
Testament, the third book of the Pentateuch, Leviticus, states that ‘[w]hoever takes a human life shall surely
be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neigh-
bor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury
he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills
a person shall be put to death’ (24: 17–21).*2 And the second book of the Pentateuch, Exodus, states: ‘But if
Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. Translation of the Code of Hammurabi, available at
hamframe.asp (most recently accessed on ..).
Leviticus , English Standard Version, available at.htm (most recently accessed
on ..).

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