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Justice or Public Utility?

“[T]hough many things are copied from the law of Moses into the laws of the modern nations, yet so far as I know none of them have introduced the lex talionis in the case of injuries, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, &c. and yet perhaps there are many instances in which it would be very proper.” (Jurisprudence, John Witherspoon, Scottish-American Presbyterian minister and a Founding Father of the United States)

It’s worth reflecting on that a bit and asking yourself why. Is it because justice is not the true function of modern states? Lex talionis is a principle of retributive justice. Just one page earlier, Witherspoon himself argues:

Therefore the punishment in general must consist of two parts, (i) reparation to the sufferer. (2) the vindicta publica, which has sometimes two ends in view, to be an example to others, and to reclaim and reform the offenders, as in corporal punishment less than death. Sometimes but one, the good of others in the example, as in capital punishments, and banishment.

The kind of punishment and the degree, is left wholly to different lawgivers, and the spirit of different constitutions. Public utility is the rule. Punishment is not always proportioned to the atrociousness of the crime in point of morals, but to the frequency of it, and the danger of its prevailing.

Witherspoon continues the opening quote about lex talionis by noting “The equity of the punishment would be quite manifest, and probably it would be as effectual a restraint from the commission of injury as any that could be chosen.” He then closes his lecture by insisting “Let the laws be just and the magistrate inflexible.”

First, he already said that the magistrate is given entire flexibility as to “the kind of punishment and the degree.” Second, if “public utility is the rule” then justice is not.

Note Machen:

What then is the remedy for the threatened disruption of society and for the rapidly progressing decay of liberty?

There is really only one remedy. It is the rediscovery of the law of God.

If we want to restore respect for human laws, we shall have to get rid of this notion that judges and juries exist only for the utilitarian purpose of the protection of society, and shall have to restore the notion that they exist for the purposes of justice. They are only very imperfect exponents of justice, it is true. There are vast departments of life with which they should have nothing whatever to do. They are exceeding their God-given function when they seek to enforce inward purity or purity of the individual life, since theirs is the business only of enforcing – and that in necessarily imperfect fashion – that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man. But they are instruments of righteousness all the same, and when that is not recognized, disaster follows for the state. Society will never be preserved by attaching savage penalties to trifling offences because the utilitarian interests of society demand it; it will never be preserved by the vicious practice (followed by some judges) of making ‘examples’ of people is spasmodic and unjust fashion because such examples are thought to have a salutary effect as a deterrent from future crime. No, we say, let justice never be lost from view – abstract, holy, transcendent justice – no matter what the immediate consequences may be thought to be. Only so will the ermine of the judge again be respected and the ravages of decadence be checked.

-The Christian View of Man p. 193

See also Punishment and Proportionality (Rothbard)

Published in Brandon Adams