Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes one of the capabilities of our automatic brain functioning as being able to match intensities between two completely irrelevant things. Lucky for me, the example that he uses is crime and punishment:

If crimes were colors, murder would be a deeper shade of red than theft. If crimes were expressed as music, mass murder would be played fortissimo while accumulating unpaid parking tickets would be a faint pianissimo. And of course you have similar feelings about the intensity of punishments. In classic experiments, people adjusted the loudness of a sound to the severity of crimes; other people adjusted loudness to the severity of legal punishments. If you heard two notes, one for the crime and one for the punishment, you would feel a sense of injustice if one tone was much louder than the other.

For those of you who have read Deuteronomy, this sounds an awful lot like an eye for an eye. We want the intensity of a crime to match the intensity of its punishment, but unfortunately, this thinking is automatic and wholly irrational. This is easy to see when you consider that a tonal range should in no way be responsible for the judicial bedrock of a civilization.

Further problems arise with this method of justice in other areas which Kahneman investigates. Automatic thinking is prone to extreme bias, and one of these biases is anchoring. Anchoring is an estimation being influenced by an offered baseline. For example, when estimating the price of a painting, and being shown on an irrelevant slip of paper the number 10, the estimation will be closer to the number 10 than if that irrelevant number was 100 (where the estimation would be higher). It’s why haggling salespeople will always start their initial offer extremely high as this baseline will strongly influence the buyer’s counteroffer. Relating this back to justice, if we assign the punishment of murder to being drawn, quartered, and mounted on a pike on the intensity scale, then it seems somewhat reasonable that a punishment for bank robbing might be getting one’s hands chopped off. If our baseline for murder was lower at say, 25 years to life in a modest correctional facility, then robbing banks might get 5 years or so in a similar institution. Our baseline scale of intensity will anchor how we determine what is an appropriate punishment for any given crime.

Another bias of our automatic thinking system is priming. A study Kahneman refers to shows that individuals who are exposed to words that signify being elderly, even without explicitly stating it, will actually cause them to physically slow down. The same is true with being exposed to symbols of money causing people to act more selfishly. Human beings are incredibly susceptible to subconscious influences, so if, for example, one person was exposed to the shooting of Philando Castile, while another was exposed to the subsequent shooting of the Dallas police officers, you can imagine the views they might have on the intensity of certain crimes and their reflective punishment.

Demanding an eye for an eye is thus entirely arbitrary, and therefore pointless to enforce, yet people clamour for it all the time. I don’t want to attribute this stupidity to visceral animality just yet, so let’s go back to Deuteronomy for a bit.

You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

I suppose that the eye for an eye is supposed to warn others to avoid following the criminal path. Nobody wants to lose an eye; it’s when things stop being fun and games, after all!  Except punishment has never been a deterrent. Harm actually perpetuates the opposite of justice, further destabilizing its already tenuous hold. Plato dismisses harm, even against one’s enemies, as plain preposterous. He compares it to harming a horse, as harming a horse reduces its capacity to be an excellent horse. Similarly, harming a person reduces their capacity to be an excellent person, and if we consider justice to be a form of human excellence, then punishment actually increases injustice. To show its true absurdity, I thus quote: “Will good men use their goodness to make others bad? It is not the function of heat to cool things, but of its opposite.” I’ve explained why punishment is barbaric on top of stupid before, for those seeking greater confirmation.

Plato offers another insight into the eye for an eye metaphor, asking us to consider justice as the settling of a debt. If something is taken, it must be returned in kind. This is a somewhat more civilized version, but it is just as quickly disregarded as Plato says that if someone lends you a weapon, and then falls into a murderous rage, it is not just to return to them their weapon. The context both of the initial contract, and the circumstances of its fruition, are both dependent on factors outside of the contract itself that make it just. A debt incurred out of necessity or coercion, for example, or a payment demanded at an inopportune moment are both insufficient to be declared a form of justice.

No matter how you look at it, eye for an eye justice is only ever an excuse to act out our sickest fantasies. It’s probably why Jesus Christ decided to get rid of it as a religious tenet:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

So unless you’re Jewish, any religious excuse is irrelevant. However, we still clamour for a providence of violent retribution. A perfect example is Vince Li, who brutally murdered and cannibalized the man sitting next to him on a Greyhound bus because he believed that God was telling him to do so. Li was declared not criminally responsible due to mental illness, and so the population expressed through various comment sections that Vince Li needed to die. I suppose they claim the same right to divinely ordained violence as Li, only they do not have a mental illness justifying their frothing wrath. People tend to place the responsibility for their sadism at the feet of the original victim and their family if not at the feet of God, as if granting them the right to schadenfreude is the perfect means for healing. Vengeance is no form of justice, no matter whose name it is done under.

What is justice, then? Well, I’ve already answered that one. Those of you who have read that earlier article can feel smug for knowing the answer this whole time.