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What is Retribution?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Retribution is a concept that can have many meanings. At its simplest, it is a penalty imposed for a crime that is designed to provide some form of compensation to the victim while also penalizing the offender. It can also potentially send a warning to people considering similar crimes, acting as a deterrence to future criminal activity by alerting members of society to the fact that if they commit crimes, they can face punishment.

The concept of responding to crimes with retribution is ancient, and many early human societies left behind documentation of the types of activities they classified as crimes and how they were punished. One aspect of punishment that was common historically was that authorities believed that it had to be equivalent to the crime in some way. The saying “an eye for an eye,” recorded in the Bible, reflects this widespread belief. Over time, attitudes toward justice shifted toward finding penalties that were not necessarily as brutal as the crime involved, but which did provide real consequences for criminal acts.

In some senses, this word is used to describe a punishment that is appropriate for a crime. This can include restitution to victims, jail time as a punishment for the criminal, and other penal measures. Retribution of this nature are intended to facilitate the orderly functioning of society by codifying crimes and providing mechanisms for punishing them. People who commit crimes do so with the awareness that they may be caught and punished.

People also use this word in a more retaliatory or vengeful way. In these case, the term may be a reflection of a desire not just for equity, but for satisfaction on the part of the victim. Vigilante justice committed by civilians taking the law into their own hands is sometimes framed under such terms. The participants argue that someone was not appropriately punished for a crime and that this forced them to take action on their own to address the matter.

Courts and the legal system must balance the understandable desire for vengeance with the need to treat all people, including criminals, fairly in legal settings. Some nations have laws against punishment that is deemed cruel and unusual in nature, for example, and many nations extend some important basic rights to prisoners and people accused of crimes. In these areas of the world, there are limits on acceptable forms of legal retribution, and individuals may be penalized for acting on their own if they feel that the law has not gone far enough.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon307216 — On Dec 04, 2012

The comments and ideas being tossed and passed around by adolescents are so nonchalant without understanding. Its true meaning is when judgment hasn't been placed on you may sound encouraging, but don't believe the hype. That which you're passing around while playing show and tell is like holding a shiny armed silencer with the safety off. The possibility it will go off is likely, and only then will you understand its true definition, as some of us have been judged by it. Not proven, just judged.

By miriam98 — On May 18, 2011

@nony - I think it’s both. When you ask “in the legal sense” do you mean legally sanctioned justice? In that sense, then of course it’s not. Vigilante acts by definition are above the law, and so the legal system would never sanction them as legitimate forms of retribution.

However, retribution just means punishment, and so within that larger definition a vigilante act does fit in the meaning of retribution. I don’t want to start splitting hairs, but I think any dictionary would back me up on that.

By nony — On May 17, 2011

@hamje32 - Yes, the notion of retribution justice does seem to imply that we’re dealing with “evil,” and not just criminal acts—so I agree that there are some theological overtones to the word.

The question I have is, is vigilante justice really retribution in the legal sense, or is it just vengeance?

By hamje32 — On May 15, 2011

The definition of retribution also encompasses the concept of “payback” in the afterlife, for people who do bad things in the Earth. That’s not the way the term is used in the legal system but that’s one of its historically theological nuances.

I think the word itself seems a little loaded with that suggestion, even when it’s used in a strictly legal sense. I think words like “penalty” and “punishment” are more appropriate for strictly legal discussions.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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