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Tag: lex talionis

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)

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Blood Feud and State Control: Differing Legal Institutions for the Remedy of Homicide During the Second and First Millennia B.C.E.

Scripture does not teach that the use of the sword to justly administer vengeance is reserved for “rulers.” Rome claimed it was (John 18:31)

Some notable excerpts from Blood Feud and State Control: Differing Legal Institutions for the Remedy of Homicide During the Second and First Millennia B.C.E.

Since the discovery of the Laws of Hammurapi in December 1901–January 1902 the dependence of biblical law upon Mesopotamian law has been hotly debated. Among the most contentious issues is the adjudication of homicide, and the discussion has focused on particular odd cases in biblical law, such as an ox that gored or assault on a preg-nant woman, that appear to have been borrowed from Mesopotamian law.

The more common occurrences of fatal assault and the procedures to remedy them, however, have been largely ignored. What institutions insured that homicide was punished in biblical law,and what relationship did they have to Mesopotamian legal process? I will argue that the institutions that insured that a homicide would be investigated and remedied in biblical law were vastly different from those in Mesopotamian law and that the difference originates in disparate conceptions of the organization of society. Mesopotamian texts reflect the extensive involvement of the state in the process of remedying homicide. The members of the victim’s family participated in the process insofar as they had the right to make a claim on the slayer, but there does not seem to be any apprehension generated by the possibility of a blood avenger waiting to strike down the killer. By contrast, blood feud operated in biblical law, and places of sanctuary were needed to protect the killer…

According to the Hebrew Bible, the victim’s family bore primary responsibility for initiating the remedy of a homicide.6 The “blood avenger,” μdh lag, a close male relative of the victim,7 had the right to effect a remedy by killing the slayer on sight. There were no specialized or official personnel charged by a central government with the duty to investigate offenses or to arrest and prosecute a suspect.8

[8 Even in the case when a victim’s family could not come forward because the victim could not be identified (and presumably his family had not come searching for him), a local body representing the local community, the elders of a town, not a state mechanism, came forward on an ad hoc basis to address the problem (Deut. 21:1–9).]

…Blood feud came into play in biblical law because the victim’s family had the primary responsibility to respond to the slaying of one of its members. By contrast, the members of the victim’s family did not have to assume that responsibility in Mesopotamian law. They had the right to make a claim on the slayer, but the slayer was not in mortal danger from a blood avenger waiting to strike him down.10 In some cases, the victim’s family might play a role in determining the penalty, but it must be emphasized that the members of the victim’s family were not otherwise involved in the remedy…

[In Mesopotamia] The role of the claimant from the victim’s family here is to decide on the penalty. In general, it appears, families had the right to either execution or compensation; the legal institutions of a particular society were required to preserve the rights of the family to choose. This is to be distinguished from the role of the avenger in feud, where the avenger has the right and responsibility to take the initiative and kill the murderer on sight…

[T]he role of the monarchy and central government is different in Mesopotamian texts and the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, their role is limited. Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, Numbers 35, and Deuteronomy 19 and 21 do not portray any involvement by the monarchy. The only reference to a central government is found in Deut. 17:8–10, where a local court could appeal to the levitical priests and the judge at the central sanc- tuary for clarification of the law in a difficult case: the facts of the case were then re- manded to a lower court. As to the role of the king himself, only the narrative of 2 Sam. 14:1–17 indicates that the king could overturn the law… In contrast, the crown and central authority played a major role in the rest of the ancient Near East. Once the legal process had been launched by a private individual, a central authority or monarchy assumed oversight of the situation…

The organization of society had a profound effect upon the concept of justice and the process of law in the Bible, and the treatment of homicide in biblical Israel was directly linked to the social structure of biblical Israel. Although the most influential culture of the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, left its mark on almost every chapter of the Bible, the Mesopotamian adjudication of homicide differed radically from that in biblical Israel be-cause of the profound differences in social organization between the two cultures. In Israel, kinship ties were strong, and the family acted as a mutual aid society, whereas in a heavily urban and centralized Mesopotamia, a bureaucracy had control. This is striking because biblical law was based upon Mesopotamian law and yet at the same time differed so greatly. The institutions that assured that a homicide would be investigated and remedied in biblical law were vastly different from those in Mesopotamian law. The difference originates in disparate conceptions of the organization of society. Blood feud operated in biblical law: a relative of the victim had the right to kill the slayer on sight with impunity, and the process by which homicide was adjudicated enabled the family to exercise its role while providing safeguards for the slayer. By contrast, in Mesopotamia, state institutions insured that homicide would be remedied. The victim’s family had the legal right to make a claim upon the killer, but the fear that a blood avenger was about to strike down the killer is simply not manifest in Mesopotamian law.

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