Retributive justice is a theory of justice that considers that punishment, if proportionate, is a morally acceptable response to crime, with an eye to the satisfaction and psychological benefits it can bestow to the aggrieved party, its intimates and society.
In ethics and law, "Let the punishment fit the crime" is the principle that the severity of penalty for a misdeed or wrongdoing should be reasonable and proportionate to the severity of the infraction. The concept is common to most cultures throughout the world. Its presence in the ancient Jewish culture is shown by its inclusion in the law of Moses, specifically in Deuteronomy 19:17-21, and Exodus 21:23-21:27, which includes the punishments of "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." That phrasing in turn resembles the older Code of Hammurabi. Many other documents reflect this value in the world's cultures. However, the judgment of whether a punishment is appropriately severe can vary greatly between cultures and individuals.
Proportionality requires that the level of punishment be scaled relative to the severity of the offending behavior. However, this does not mean that the punishment has to be equivalent to the crime. A retributive system must punish severe crime more harshly than minor crime, but retributivists differ about how harsh or soft the system should be overall.
Traditionally, philosophers of punishment have contrasted retributivism with utilitarianism. For utilitarians, punishment is forward-looking, justified by a purported ability to achieve future social benefits, such as crime reduction. For retributionists, punishment is backward-looking, and strictly for punishing crimes according to their severity.
Depending on the retributivist, the crime's level of severity might be determined by the amount of harm, unfair advantage or moral imbalance the crime caused.
In the early period of all systems of law the redress of wrongs takes precedence over the enforcement of contract rights, and a rough sense of justice demands the infliction of proportionate loss and pain on the aggressor as he has inflicted on his victim. Hence the prominence of the "lex talionis" in ancient law. The Bible is no exception: in its oldest form it included the "lex talionis," the law of "measure for measure" (this is only the literal translation of middah ke-neged middah).
In the 19th century, philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in The Metaphysical Elements of Justice of retribution as a legal principle: "Judicial punishment can never be used merely as a means to promote some other good for the criminal himself or for civil society, but instead it must in all cases be imposed on him only on the ground that he has committed a crime."
Immanuel Kant regards punishment as a matter of justice. He states that if the guilty are not punished, justice is not done.
There are two distinct types of retributive justice. The classical definition embraces the idea that the amount of punishment must be proportionate to the amount of harm caused by the offense. A more recent version advocated by the philosopher Michael Davis dismisses this idea and replaces it with the idea that the amount of punishment must be proportionate to the amount of unfair advantage gained by the wrongdoer. Davis introduced this version of retributive justice in the early 1980s, at a time when retributive justice was making a resurgence within the philosophy of law community, perhaps due to the practical failings of reform theory in the previous decades.
According to some theories of ethics, punishment (or proportionate punishment) is self-contradictory in the sense that "Two wrongs don't make a right".
Some hold that the motive behind the Christian sanction for interpersonal relations ("turn the other cheek" before seeking retribution for a wrong), and the motive behind the sanctions for social magistrates (which include the application of retributive justice, e.g., "just stonings"), conflict. On the other hand, the motives for the social sanctions can be attributed to other justifications beyond simple retaliation.
Many more jurisdictions following the retributive philosophy, especially in the United States, follow a set tariff, where judges impose a penalty for a crime within the range set by the tariff. As a result, some argue that judges do not have enough discretion to allow for mitigating factors, leading to unjust decisions under certain circumstances. In the case of fines, the financial position of an offender is not taken into account, leading to situations where an unemployed man and a millionaire could be forced to pay the same fine, creating an unjust situation; either the fine would be too punitive for the unemployed offender, or not large enough to punish the millionaire.
Alternatives to retributive measures include psychiatric imprisonment, restorative justice and transformative justice. A general overview of criminal justice puts each of these ideals in context.
One libertarian approach to this issue argues that full restitution (in the broad, rather than technical legal, sense) is compatible with both retributivism and a utilitarian degree of deterrence.