An Eye for an Eye Doesn’t Work

We’ve seen people try the eye-for-an-eye approach to justice — literally.

But it doesn’t work, says a new study from Bonn and Maastricht Universities in Germany and the Netherlands.

… vindictiveness is not a maxim to be recommended. Anyone who prefers to act according to the Old Testament motto of “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” has on average less friends — and is clearly less than satisfied with his or her life.

Which book was it that recommended we “turn the other cheek”?

(Thanks to L111 for the link!)

  • Brian Westley

    I thought game theory generally says tit-for-tat works best, but if misunderstandings are possible, tit-for-tat with occasional forgiveness works best, because it avoids endless feuds.

    As an aside, here’s a really strange deconversion story:
    http://www.bythefault.com/2009/03/24/how-to-become-an-atheist-talk-to-the-piraha/

  • godfrey

    …another lesson from reality that found its way into that old book. The buy-bull does contain truisms, irrespective of the god-slant of the text. Generally speaking, a little tolerance for bad behavior is OK. Up to a limit (which is arbitrarily and unequally enforced- depending on you or possibly your employer). Some people just have bad days. If they have enough bad ones, ace ‘em as friends (or employees). Nobody needs a lot of grief in his life.

  • Ryan

    Brian, game theory, at least for the prisoner’s dilemma and all situations like it, with options of cooperation and non-cooperation, says that 2 tits for a tat is the best set up. That is to say, give the other party a chance to shape up before you retaliate.

  • llewelly

    Which book was it that recommended we “turn the other cheek”?

    I’m pretty sure that came out of the homosexual agenda.

  • Shane

    Maybe. I’m not really convinced. Maybe someone who lost their job, is less satisfied with life, and has fewer friends is just more likely to respond negatively or vindictively to the survey. How well can people really gauge how their actual reciprocation patterns are? Maybe their life circumstances has an effect on their self-perception of positive/negative reciprocation. I would have a hard time remembering enough incidences to actually judge how I tend to act. I would probably make some educated guess highly influenced by my current mood. I think I tend to reciprocate positive actions and just have nothing to do with people who piss me off, but I can’t really be sure.

    I don’t trust things based on surveys in general. People self-reporting can rarely provide accurate and objective responses.

    Of course, I didn’t read the whole published paper so they must address these things in it somewhere.

  • Brian C Posey

    “Vindictive people also have less friends and are less satisfied with their lives.”

    Man, I was just reading about this same idea in my issue of Duh Quarterly. I hope occasionally sarcastic people don’t have less friends.

  • Miko

    It’s worth mentioning that the eye-for-an-eye recommendation was initially used to specify a maximum amount of retribution (since prior to its introduction something like “put out my eye and I’ll kill you” was more prominent). It’s not worth mentioning that they should have said “fewer friends,” not “less friends” since the word ‘less’ should only be used in contexts referring to an amount rather than a quantity or referring to money (since English is a crazy language full of exceptions). But I mentioned it anyway.

    Brian, Ryan:

    As far as I know, the problem does not have an explicit game theoretic solution (and even if it did, slight variations might have different solutions). Indeed, the problem is, in a sense, indeterminate, since the best strategy for one player to follow would depend on what strategy their opponent is following. For example, if you know that your opponent is following a strategy of cooperating no matter what behavior you exhibit, the ideal strategy for you would be noncooperation every round. (In empirical tests, it’s been demonstrated along these lines that two programs designed to work together to allow one of them to win big at the expense of the other losing big can outperform tit-for-tat, although this is obviously a unrealistic scenario.) And all empirical data I’ve seen suggests that tit-for-tat will typically outperform two-tits-for-a-tat as well. Empirically, tit-for-tat is the best known strategy (or was, last time I checked).

  • Jason Peper

    Just nitpicking: Maastricht is not in Germany, it is a city in the Netherlands. While it is close to Germany, it is way closer to Belgium

  • RebeccaF

    Maastricht is in Germany now? Quick, someone needs to tell the Dutch!

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Just nitpicking: Maastricht is not in Germany, it is a city in the Netherlands. While it is close to Germany, it is way closer to Belgium

    Thanks! Fixed.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Which book was it that recommended we “turn the other cheek”?

    Well, that would be the New Testament, from the teachings of Jesus.

  • Luther Weeks

    Not to mention that an eye for an eye only works if both value the same way.

    For instance if I, a crotchety old man, kept a young rape victim from having a desired abortion, what value would there be in keeping me from having an abortion?

    Or if a couple of young men get married and I say it offends my marriage — should I be required to marry another man so that somehow it will harm their marriage?

  • http://www.whitening--teeth.com/ Luther Weeks

    Not to mention that an eye for an eye only works if both value the same way.

    For instance if I, a crotchety old man, kept a young rape victim from having a desired abortion, what value would there be in keeping me from having an abortion?

    Or if a couple of young men get married and I say it offends my marriage — should I be required to marry another man so that somehow it will harm their marriage?
    BTW I love your blog!

  • Larry Huffman

    I would have to say that a “turn the other cheek” philosophy being taught and practiced would have originated with the Buddha…as well as the Golden Rule…at least as far as recorded. Certainly before the chrisitans adopted them (as if they were Jesus’ original ideas).

    True, buddhism does not state either of these principles in the exact same wording as the bible…however, the bible makes very small points of these (there is far more in the bible about how to treat filthy menstruating women). Buddhism is built on a compassion base…and so turn the other cheek is an integral concept, and can be found throughout its teacings.

    Not a plug for buddhism at all…just saying that there was an ideology built on these principles back when the jews were still mired in ‘eye for an eye’.

    A conclusion can be formed based in this that says that the buddhists knew more about how life worked than the god of the old testament…and it would seem the new testament would support that.

  • http://rubyleigh.blogspot.com Ruby Leigh

    “Turn the other cheek” is found in two places in the bible, both in the gospels of the New Testemant. You can read them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turning_the_other_cheek

    It’s true a vindictive attitude isn’t the recipe for happieness, but to reiterate what Miko has said “eye for an eye” is an often misconstrued phrase in the bible. Our modern justice system is difficult to compare to such a historic and poetic sounding phrase…. but lets think about a few scenarios. What happens if joe schmo steals a couple hundred dollars from a liquor store: he gets fined, put in jail, a note on his permanent record, that’s just the beginning. What if he just had to pay back the person he stole from? What happens when a big cheese from a Fortune 500 company collects million dollar bonuses while other employees lose their jobs? The government gives him a astronomical amount of money to fix his “mistakes”? What if “big cheese” had to account for the losses or at least his share of them for and NOT the taxpayers?

    What are we taught to do if someone has slaped us across the face, slap them back? or do them one better? I am guessing most of us don’t just let them slap the other cheek. What if you accidently get wronged (spill some hot coffee, an accidentally offensive comment)… you sue the organization or the person for all they are worth.
    Before we start exploiting the bible by parsing and sifting out phrases… please: let’s think about what it’s really saying.

  • http://rubyleigh.blogspot.com Ruby Leigh

    Added Note: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=exodus+21:23-21:27&version=nrsvae

    If you read the entire passage you can see it is also about protecting rights of slaves, which no one was really into doing during this time.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    I’m pretty sure the “eye for an eye” system was based on value of said eye – and the idea was to actually limit the amount of damage that could be claimed.

    For example, if someone took your eye, then you would be entitled to sue them for the value of that eye and not go for all out revenge mafia style. E.g. sue them for an ‘arm’ and a ‘leg’ so to speak.

    Actually, seems like a much fairer system than Western civil courts now where people are taken to court FOR EXAMPLE by organisations such as the RIAA and sued millions for downloading a few songs.

    Sounds like a pretty fair and just system to me.

    In fact when Jesus came along, he was instructing people who would choose to follow him to even give up their “rights” to sue for appropriate damages. Which is a difficult challenge for anyone.

  • http://www.logosfera.ro/ Logosfera

    I am not convinced either. Of course people who will kiss the ass of those that wronged him will, on average be better because he has more opportunities from those that where “forgiven”. 2 tits for a tat in some cases can be too much, the other party can get too much “advantage”. The wrongdoer shouldn’t get another chance unless he shapes up.
    We have to remember that many heroes of humanity were pretty avengefull (ex: spartans).
    Would you give the CEO of AIG another chance? Was it good that Bush Jr. got another chance of being the president of US?
    What’s that saying? If you have a counter example, the theory is not valid.


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