This is an installment in a series called "Ten Principles for Moral Discipline." They are meant to form the basis of a moral, effective school bullying policy. These ideas are thousands of years old. I am merely applying them for use in today's schools.)
The eye for an eye principle, which is found three times in the Old Testament, is widely misunderstood. It is generally thought to be a barbaric prescription for personal revenge and is often contrasted with the more enlightened New Testament principle of turning the other cheek.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life…” is located in the sections of the Bible that instruct judges how to punish criminals. It is strictly an instruction for courts of law, not for personal revenge. In fact, the Bible instructs people not to take revenge. When we feel that someone has treated us unjustly and we cannot resolve the issue with them directly, we are instructed to turn to courts of law, not to take justice into our own hands.
An eye for an eye means that the punishment should fit the crime. If it doesn’t, it is immoral and is therefore likely to cause more harm than good. Turning the other cheek cannot be a policy for dealing with crime. Let’s say someone robbed or raped you. Would you want to go to a court of law where the judge’s policy is to let them rob or rape you again? That is not justice.
Punishment has several goals. The following are three of the most important:
If a punishment is less severe than the crime, it accomplishes none of the above.
On the other hand, if the punishment is far more severe than the crime, it might deter crime, but is unfair to the criminal because we cause him far more damage than he caused his victim. Rather than feeling remorseful, the lawbreaker is likely to see himself as a victim of the legal system and will want revenge.
Let’s say you were hungry, so you stole a loaf of bread. As punishment, the court decreed that your hand is to be cut off.
Lawmakers need to be very cautious in deciding to to impose excessively harsh punishments to act as deterrence against crimes, for they are likely to cause more harm than good. For example, that is what happened with laws against marijuana use. It has been widely recognized that the punishments have been far more severe than the crime, and thus have caused more harm than good. Anti-marijuana laws are currently (2013) being relaxed or even repealed throughout much of the world.
It is only when a punishment fits the crime that it meets the three criteria for morality and effectiveness.
How to apply an eye for an eye
A common argument against an eye for an eye is that it does not make restitution to the victim. Let’s say I take out your eye, and now the court takes out mine. You get a temporary jolt of pleasure of revenge, but before long all we have is two bitter sight-impaired people.
The rabbis of the Talmud, who interpreted the Bible, worked this problem out at least two thousand years ago. They determined that an eye for an eye means monetary compensation. Instead of having my eye knocked out, I am ordered to pay you for your medical bills, lost wages, and physical and emotional suffering.
The immorality of some modern punishments
As explained in Principal Number Seven, we should do our utmost to avoid judging other people’s disputes. Judging is a complex and consequential activity for which few of us are truly qualified. However, sometimes we have no choice. Society–including school–has laws and rules, and violators need to be punished.
Unfortunately, modern societies have abandoned some of the ancient wisdom regarding moral punishment. For instance, in our own country, punishment has often come to mean “time in prison,” and this is considered “paying my debt to society.” Prison time usually has no relationship to the crime. Let’s say I rape you, and I am sentenced to several years in prison. You may feel you have gotten some revenge, and you may feel safe from me as long as I am locked up. But not only have I made no restitution to you, taxpayers have to pay a small fortune to keep me locked up. Furthermore, prison is often a university for crime, so I may come out being a cleverer, and thus more dangerous, criminal.
In many cases jail time is far, far worse than the crime. For instance, you have been caught possessing a few ounces of marijuana and get sent to prison for several months or even years. Will you come out thinking, “Oh, I realize now how terrible marijuana is. I had better tell everyone I know that it is wrong to use it”? Not very likely. You will think, “This corrupt, evil country! All I did was smoke something that makes me feel good and look what they did to me!” You will come out of prison hating your country and being cynical about its government.
Punishments meted out by schools, especially for the acts called “bullying,” are usually no more moral or effective than prison time. The great majority of acts of bullying are things that hurt people’s feelings, such as insults, rumors, social exclusion and hitting/pushing that don’t cause physical injury. The harm they cause is largely subjective, meaning that it is up to me whether they hurt me.
In most schools today the mandated punishment for bullying is suspension, and after a couple of suspensions, expulsion from school. Suspension and expulsion usually have no relationship to the “crime.” They don’t make restitution to the victim, and they tend to be much harsher than the crime. If you are not sure about this, consider the following: Would you rather have me insult you or get you suspended from school? Rather than leading the convicted bullies to feel remorse for upsetting their victims, the punishments turn them into bigger victims, and victims don’t feel remorse. Victims want revenge – both against the kids that got them punished and the school that punished them.
What is the moral punishment for bullying?
While we should avoid playing judge, sometimes we have no choice. But when we do judge children’s bullying, we should make the punishment fit the crime. This requires rejecting suspension and expulsion.
Stealing and vandalizing property are true crimes, and the moral punishment is obvious. One must pay to repair or replace the property, with an extra reasonable fine for deterrence. For causing physical injury to a person’s body, one must pay for medical costs as well as compensation for pain and loss of productivity.
Determining punishment for acts that hurt people’s feelings is far more difficult. That’s because our feelings are in our own control. If you did something that I don’t like and my feelings are hurt, I really hurt myself. For example, you called me a slut. If I believe that it is terrible to be called a slut, I will feel hurt. On the other hand, if I think you are trying to help me by informing me that I am too promiscuous, I will be grateful to you. Should you be punished when I hurt myself? That’s why we have Freedom of Speech – to prevent us from getting punished for saying things other people may not like to hear. (We will discuss Freedom of Speech in greater detail in the next installment.) For such matters we should deal with each other directly. Imagine what life would be like if we were to take each other to court whenever we hurt each other’s feelings!
But what should the school do if it is being required to punish a child for hurting another's feelings – the most common form of bullying?
Let’s say I am the school principal and Johnny complains that you insulted him in front of the whole class. Johnny’s parents insist that I punish you.
I will call you and Johnny to my office for a justice hearing. (It might also be a good idea to have both sets of parents present.) We establish the fact that you publicly insulted Johnny. I will conduct the following dialog.
Me (Principal) to you: Are you are aware that you insulted Johnny in front of the whole class?
Me: Have you been taught how terribly hurtful it is to insult people?
Me: Good. You did, indeed, commit a truly terrible action against Johnny and you must be punished for it. We don’t want to be cruel to you. We want to treat you fairly, so we will give you a punishment that fits the crime. Since you insulted Johnny in front of the class, Johnny will get to insult you in front of the class. But since we also want to make sure that you never insult anyone again, we are going to make the punishment a little bit more severe than what you did to him. For good measure, Johnny will get to insult you not once, but twice.
I understand that being insulted is an incredibly painful thing to endure. So we will give you an alternative to experiencing this terrible pain. Instead of having Johnny insult you, we will let you pay him money instead. He will either insult you twice, or you will pay him a hundred dollars. Which do you choose?
You: The insults.
Me: Is a hundred dollars too much to pay to be spared the pain of being insulted?
Me: Well, maybe a hundred dollars is too much. How about fifty dollars? Pay Johnny fifty dollars, or he will insult you twice. Which do you choose?
You: The insults.
Me: Maybe fifty dollars is too much. How about twenty? Pay Johnny twenty dollars, or he will get to insult you. Which do you choose?
You: The insults.
Me: How about ten?
Me: You mean you are not even willing to pay Johnny ten dollars to avoid the pain of being insulted by him twice?
Me: How about five dollars?
Me: How about one dollar?
Me: Not even one dollar? How about ten cents?
Me: You mean you would rather have Johnny insult you twice than pay him ten cents?
Me: Okay. You leave me no choice. I will arrange to have Johnny insult you twice in front of the class.
And that’s precisely what I’ll proceed to do. When Johnny and the rest of the class see that the insults don't upset you, they too, will realize the foolishness of getting upset by insults. And they will also realize that their feelings are in their own control.
This process can be done to determine the objective monetary value of any “bullying crime.” That value will usually be zero!
And to think that schools have been forced to pay out tens of thousands – and even hundreds of thousands – of dollars to individual students who were insulted by another student! Boy, I wish I could get such compensation for the insults that have been inflicted upon me by anti-bullying advocates!
Read next installment in this series:
Read previous installments in this series:
We have also created a proposal for a moral, effective school bullying policy based on the Golden Rule. We welcome you to use it, and if you like it, recommend it to your school administration.
Author's Policies Regarding Comments: 1. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. 2. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.