Is an eye for an eye a legal remedy in the 21st century?

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Nikki Logan

Is an eye for an eye a legal remedy in the 21st century?

        This paper deals with the notion of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ and the effect this has on society in its most violent form, this notion manifests itself in a nations law as the death penalty for serious crimes.

        I will discuss both the pro and contra arguments in support and abolition of the death penalty. These arguments are based in literature sourced from, papers, case studies, determinations, legislation and public comment. The result of this paper is an analysis of the interrelationship between law, justice and society and the changing nature of law as it relates to capital punishment.


Capital Punishment; is killing the murderer in itself an act of murder, breaching the most valuable of human rights, the right to life? Should it be seen that the death penalty is considered as a legal obligation that should be enforced in our modern day society? The abolishment of the Death Penalty in many countries has proved the answers to these questions to be against the death penalty. However there is still a concerned eighty-three countries world wide that have not abolished this form of punishment.

The 20th century was a period where human rights were recognised more widely, and a time of attempting to protect these rights that were being breached. The death penalty is considered the most sever abuse of Human Rights.

In addition to Human Rights the individual has civil rights afforded them by their citizenship.

Civil rights is used to imply that the state has a positive role in ensuring all citizens equal protection under law and equal opportunity to exercise the privileges of citizenship and otherwise to participate fully in national life, regardless of race, religion, sex, or other characteristics unrelated to the worth of the individual.’

It is fundamental that every individual has Civil Rights and to ensure these there are many avenues of protection, such as a bill of rights in the US and UK, or as we have in Australia, under our constitution.

How is it that a society can legislate to follow the eye for an eye rule? Perhaps it’s that revenge has been stated wrongly since biblical times. As the bible quotes ‘Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe’, many citizens believe that if it is stated in the bible then it must be ok to seek revenge. However what they tend to forget is the changing of laws to suit society of the 21st century. The bible was written thousands of years ago!

Contradicting to the phrase ‘an eye for an eye’ is another bible quote ‘Do not repay injury with injury’.  The notion that revenge should not be sought upon wrongdoers has been around for many centuries. “To me it is an absurdity that the law, which expresses the common will and detests and punishes homicide, should itself commit one and, in order to keep citizens from committing murder, order a public one committed.” Still today in the 21st century revenge is still wanted and many wish for the harshest punishment to be imposed upon the felon. Notably America has one of the highest criminal and death rates in the world, which makes many citizens scared and disgusted. Unfortunately people find protection in the death penalty as many believe it is a deterrent and many find themselves secure with the fact that criminals are being punished with revenge. Even though the unmoral act of punishment provides a sense of security in their country scientific study has show that it is not a deterrent to crime.

Due to the differing statements quoted in the same book, the bible provides abolitionist and retentionist to use the bible to their advantage in the measures of punishment.

Punishment is defined as a penalty imposed by the state on an offender who has committed a crime. The main aims of punishment are retribution, deterrence and reform and these have been so since Hammurabi’s time. Death has been a form of punishment since the earliest times and evidence provides that it was the first form of punishment used. This evidence is remarkably engraved in the Paleolithic caves of Addaura in Sicily. The engraved is an image of several standing human figures grouped around a crouching man, who appears to be tied up so that he would strangle himself if he tried to stand. Penalties where such punishment were imposed were acts such as, ‘If fire break out in a house, and someone who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.’  The fact that capital punishment has been around since biblical times does not warrant the continuation of such tortuous punishment due to the changing nature of society, justice and law.

Civilization and society as a whole has changed since biblical times and the law has been changed to suit these new advancements in life.  Human rights have become more recognized among the people, the government, in legislation and in the cases where people are victims of the death penalty. Socially people have changed and many do not view the death penalty as a punishment that should be imposed.

The United Nations was set up in 1948 after WWII with the essential aim of protecting the Human Rights of every man, women and child. The UN is a form of the community of states governed by international law with effective organization by the states. However due to non-compliance and disagreement by States it is difficult to call the UN an effective organization on all issues.  The Declaration of Human rights states:

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Every one has the right to life, liberty and security of person and that No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  

The imposition of the death penalty would clearly violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The death penalty even breaches America’s own rights under the Bill of Rights-the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “Cruel and unusual punishment”.

Powers of governments are most of the times underestimated. With such discretion, governments are able to take away the rights of an individual in a warranted situation, such as the ...

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