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The term lex talionis does not always and only refer to literal eye-for-an-eye codes of justice see rather mirror punishment but applies to the broader class of legal systems that specify formulate penalties for specific crimes, which are thought to be fitting in their severity. Some propose that this was at least in part intended to prevent excessive punishment at the hands of either an avenging private party or the state.

Legal codes following the principle of lex talionis have one thing in common: prescribed 'fitting' counter punishment for a felony. In the famous legal code written by Hammurabi , the principle of exact reciprocity is very clearly used. For example, if a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death. The simplest example is the "eye for an eye" principle. In that case, the rule was that punishment must be exactly equal to the crime. Conversely, the Twelve Tables of Rome merely prescribed particular penalties for particular crimes.

The Anglo-Saxon legal code substituted payment of wergild for direct retribution: a particular person's life had a fixed value, derived from his social position; any homicide was compensated by paying the appropriate wergild, regardless of intent. Under the British Common Law, successful plaintiffs were entitled to repayment equal to their loss in monetary terms.

Bob Moses - Eye for an Eye (Official Audio)

In the modern tort law system, this has been extended to translate non-economic losses into money as well. The meaning of the principle Eye for an Eye is that a person who has been injured by another person returns the offending action to the originator in compensation, or that an authority does so on behalf of the injured person. The exact Latin lex talionis to English translation of this phrase is "The law of retaliation.

Various ideas regarding the origins of lex talionis exist, but a common one is that it developed as early civilizations grew and a less well-established system for retribution of wrongs, feuds and vendettas , threatened the social fabric. Despite having been replaced with newer modes of legal theory, lex talionis systems served a critical purpose in the development of social systems—the establishment of a body whose purpose was to enact the retaliation and ensure that this was the only punishment.

This body was the state in one of its earliest forms. The principle is found in Babylonian Law. The retribution might be worse than the crime, perhaps even death. Babylonian law put a limit on such actions, restricting the retribution to be no worse than the crime, as long as victim and offender occupied the same status in society.

Roman law moved toward monetary compensation as a substitute for vengeance. In cases of assault, fixed penalties were set for various injuries, although talio was still permitted if one person broke another's limb. The principle was first referenced in the Code of Hammurabi , which predates the Hebrew bible. In the Hebrew Law, the "eye for eye" was to restrict compensation to the value of the loss.

Eye For An Eye - Biblical Meaning and Significance

Thus, it might be better read 'only one eye for one eye'. Just as another person has received injury from him, so it will be given to him. Isaac Kalimi explains that the "lex talionis was humanized by the Rabbis who interpreted "an eye for an eye" to mean reasonable pecuniary compensation. As in the case of the Babylonian 'lex talionis', ethical Judaism and humane Jewish jurisprudence replaces the peshat literal meaning of the written Torah. The Talmud [13] interprets the verses referring to "an eye for an eye" and similar expressions as mandating monetary compensation in tort cases and argues against the interpretations by Sadducees that the Bible verses refer to physical retaliation in kind, using the argument that such an interpretation would be inapplicable to blind or eyeless offenders.

Since the Torah requires that penalties be universally applicable, the phrase cannot be interpreted in this manner. The Oral Law explains, based upon the biblical verses, that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for "Damages, Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish" — which underlies many modern legal codes.

Some rabbinic literature explains, moreover, that the expression, "An eye for an eye, etc. However, the Torah also discusses a form of direct reciprocal justice, where the phrase ayin tachat ayin makes another appearance. The Torah requires the court to "do to him as he had conspired to do to his brother". Otherwise, the offenders receive lashes. Since there is no form of punishment in the Torah that calls for the maiming of an offender punitary amputation there is no case where a conspiratorial false witness could possibly be punished by the court injuring to his eye, tooth, hand, or foot.

There is one case where the Torah states "…and you shall cut off her hand…" [19] The sages of the Talmud understood the literal meaning of this verse as referring to a case where the woman is attacking a man in potentially lethal manner. This verse teaches that, although one must intervene to save the victim, one may not kill a lethal attacker if it is possible to neutralize that attacker through non-lethal injury.

Numbers —30 discusses the only form of remotely reciprocal justice not carried out directly by the court, where, under very limited circumstances, someone found guilty of negligent manslaughter may be killed by a relative of the deceased who takes on the role of "redeemer of blood". In such cases, the court requires the guilty party to flee to a designated city of refuge. While the guilty party is there, the "redeemer of blood" may not kill him. If, however, the guilty party illegally forgoes his exile, the "redeemer of blood", as an accessory of the court, may kill the guilty party.

Nevertheless, the provision of the "redeemer of blood" does not serve as true reciprocal justice, because the redeemer only acts to penalize a negligent killer who forgoes his exile. Furthermore, intentional killing does not parallel negligent killing and thus cannot serve directly as a reciprocal punishment for manslaughter, but as a penalty for escaping punishment. The latter condition is also applicable for any capital punishment. These circumstances have not existed for approximately 2, years. The Talmud discusses the concept of justice as measure-for-measure retribution middah k'neged middah in the context of divinely implemented justice.

Regarding reciprocal justice by court, however, the Torah states that punishments serve to remove dangerous elements from society "…and you shall eliminate the evil from your midst" [16] and to deter potential criminals from violating the law "And the rest shall hear and be daunted, and they shall no longer commit anything like this evil deed in your midst" [24]. I am merely applying them for use in today's schools.

Author's note: Please realize that when I refer to religious texts in this series, I am not referring to them religiously. I am strictly referring to their wisdom. The eye for an eye principle, which is found three times in the Old Testament, is widely misunderstood. It is generally thought to be a barbaric prescription for personal revenge and is often contrasted with the more enlightened New Testament principle of turning the other cheek.

It is strictly an instruction for courts of law, not for personal revenge.

In fact, the Bible instructs people not to take revenge. When we feel that someone has treated us unjustly and we cannot resolve the issue with them directly, we are instructed to turn to courts of law, not to take justice into our own hands. Turning the other cheek cannot be a policy for dealing with crime. That is not justice. Punishment has several goals. The following are three of the most important:. On the other hand, if the punishment is far more severe than the crime, it might deter crime, but is unfair to the criminal because we cause him far more damage than he caused his victim.

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Rather than feeling remorseful, the lawbreaker is likely to see himself as a victim of the legal system and will want revenge. As punishment, the court decreed that your hand is to be cut off. Lawmakers need to be very cautious in deciding to to impose excessively harsh punishments to act as deterrence against crimes, for they are likely to cause more harm than good. For example, that is what happened with laws against marijuana use. It has been widely recognized that the punishments have been far more severe than the crime, and thus have caused more harm than good.

Anti-marijuana laws are currently being relaxed or even repealed throughout much of the world. It is only when a punishment fits the crime that it meets the three criteria for morality and effectiveness. A common argument against an eye for an eye is that it does not make restitution to the victim. You get a temporary jolt of pleasure of revenge, but before long all we have is two bitter sight-impaired people. The rabbis of the Talmud, who interpreted the Bible, worked this problem out at least two thousand years ago.

They determined that an eye for an eye means monetary compensation. Instead of having my eye knocked out, I am ordered to pay you for your medical bills, lost wages, and physical and emotional suffering. Judging is a complex and consequential activity for which few of us are truly qualified. However, sometimes we have no choice.

Society—including school—has laws and rules, and violators need to be punished. Unfortunately, modern societies have abandoned some of the ancient wisdom regarding moral punishment. You may feel you have gotten some revenge, and you may feel safe from me as long as I am locked up. But not only have I made no restitution to you, taxpayers have to pay a small fortune to keep me locked up.

Eye for an eye

Furthermore, prison is often a university for crime, so I may come out being a cleverer, and thus more dangerous , criminal. In many cases jail time is far, far worse than the crime.


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For instance, you have been caught possessing a few ounces of marijuana and get sent to prison for several months or even years. Not very likely. All I did was smoke something that makes me feel good and look what they did to me! The harm they cause is largely subjective , meaning that it is up to me whether they hurt me. In most schools today the mandated punishment for bullying is suspension , and after a couple of suspensions, expulsion from school.

If you are not sure about this, consider the following: Would you rather have me insult you or get you suspended from school? While we should avoid playing judge, sometimes we have no choice. This requires rejecting suspension and expulsion. Stealing and vandalizing property are true crimes, and the moral punishment is obvious.

One must pay to repair or replace the property, with an extra reasonable fine for deterrence. For example, you called me a slut. If I believe that it is terrible to be called a slut, I will feel hurt. On the other hand, if I think you are trying to help me by informing me that I am too promiscuous, I will be grateful to you. Should you be punished when I hurt myself? We will discuss Freedom of Speech in greater detail in the next installment.

What Does An Eye for an Eye Mean?

For such matters we should deal with each other directly. But what should the school do if it is being required to punish a child for hurting another's feelings — the most common form of bullying? The following is a method by which the school can determine a moral punishment — one that fits the crime — while simultaneously enhancing children's resilience and self-regulation.

I will call you and Johnny to my office for a justice hearing. It might also be a good idea to have both sets of parents present. We establish the fact that you publicly insulted Johnny. I will conduct the following dialog. Me Principal to you: Are you are aware that you insulted Johnny in front of the whole class? Me: Good. You did, indeed, commit a truly terrible action against Johnny and you must be punished for it. We want to treat you fairly, so we will give you a punishment that fits the crime. Since you insulted Johnny in front of the class, Johnny will get to insult you in front of the class.

But since we also want to make sure that you never insult anyone again, we are going to make the punishment a little bit more severe than what you did to him. For good measure, Johnny will get to insult you not once, but twice. I understand that being insulted is an incredibly painful thing to endure. So we will give you an alternative to experiencing this terrible pain. Instead of having Johnny insult you, we will let you pay him money instead.

He will either insult you twice, or you will pay him a hundred dollars. Which do you choose? Me: Is a hundred dollars too much to pay to be spared the pain of being insulted? Me: Well, maybe a hundred dollars is too much. How about fifty dollars? Pay Johnny fifty dollars, or he will insult you twice. Me: Maybe fifty dollars is too much. How about twenty?

Pay Johnny twenty dollars, or he will get to insult you. Me: You mean you are not even willing to pay Johnny ten dollars to avoid the pain of being insulted by him twice? Me: You mean you would rather have Johnny insult you twice than pay him ten cents? Me: Okay. You leave me no choice. I will arrange to have Johnny insult you twice in front of the class.

When Johnny and the rest of the class see that the insults don't upset you, they too, will realize the foolishness of getting upset by insults. And they will also realize that their feelings are in their own control. And to think that schools have been forced to pay out tens of thousands — and even hundreds of thousands — of dollars to individual students who were insulted by another student!

Boy, I wish I could get such compensation for the insults that have been inflicted upon me by anti-bullying advocates!


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  • Principal Number Nine: Freedom of Speech. Ten Principles for Moral Discipline: Introduction. We welcome you to use it, and if you like it, recommend it to your school administration. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Are you saying you are a psychotic Bipolar?

    Or do you only recognize the bullies in other people? Your techniques will have no significant effect upon bullying. The school system isn't even trying to reduce bullying; they're just making noise. And as we all know, there's a sucker born every minute who'll fall for your pitch. This is kind of a good idea, for children and adults who are easily offended.