25 Nov 2018

The Law vs. Personal Morality

Religious 27 Comments

In his commentary on Deuteronomy 19, David Guzik writes:

c. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth: In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus quoted this passage in His teaching on the true interpretation of the law. He does not say that the eye for eye principle is wrong; rather, He simply condemns the use of it to make it an obligation to exact revenge against someone who has personally offended me.

i. Many Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that the eye for eye law meant you were obligated to avenge yourself of a personal insult or attack brought against you. Jesus rightly disallowed the application of this law in our personal relationships; it was a law intended to guide the judges in the law courts of Israel, not to guide our personal relationships.

ii. “Jesus’ criticism of this law (Mt. 5:38f.) arose from its use to regulate conduct between individuals. He did not reject it as a principle of justice which should operate in the courts of the land. For private relationships He proposed the ideal of brotherhood, a strong principle throughout the book of Deuteronomy. To extend the lex talionis to this interpersonal domain was to destroy the law of God.” (Thompson)

I thought this was very interesting as it dovetails with my own views regarding libertarianism and (Christian) morality. I think “armchair reasoning” as well as market-driven case law precedent would mean that the surviving heirs of a murder victim would have the legal right to capital punishment. However, I think in practice an advanced society would quickly move away from such a tradition, and that most murder convicts would simply pay a (large) fine as compensation to the heirs. (Perhaps a third party insurer or fraternal organization would pay the heirs, and then the criminal would pay back the third party in order to get back on better terms with them.)

Or for another example, I think the legal code in a libertarian society would allow you to shoot a home invader, but I personally as a Christian would feel awful if I had to cause lasting physical harm on someone. Just like, if your literal brother for some reason was breaking into your house at night, and you ended up killing him, you’d feel sheepish around your parents and would be wondering, “Could I have handled that better?” Likewise, we are all God’s children and should do everything we can to defuse situations before they escalate into violence against our spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ.

27 Responses to “The Law vs. Personal Morality”

  1. Major_Freedom says:

    Has anyone wanting to practise “eye for an eye” really done so out of an “obligation” though?

    • McGanahan Skejellyfetti says:

      Yes, they have, and we can tell that it is so, because rabbis had to exhort people about their obligation to fulfill that law.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        I can see how that would be someone telling another that they have an obligation, but for those who want to do it themselves…

  2. trent steele says:

    I understand “eye for an eye” to be a LIMITING principle, not something that was created to put an obligation on people to up their revenge game.

    If you cut out my eye I might want to end your life; if I end your life your family might want to end my family; if you end my family my clan might want to wipe out your clan…

    Eye for an eye limits the retribution. Just like if you kill my daughter then I get to kill your daughter, but no more.

    • Matt M says:

      Yes, this is my understanding as well.

      In biblical times, the prevailing alternative to “eye for an eye” wasn’t “small fine for an eye” but rather “your life for an eye.” People of those times did not have to be cajoled into using lethal force as retributive justice…

    • Tel says:

      Just like if you kill my daughter then I get to kill your daughter, but no more.

      That sounds fair … but what did my daughter do to deserve this treatment?

      • trent steele says:

        Tel, it’s in my comment. Life isn’t fair. Grow up?

        • Harold says:

          It seems much more sensible to kill the perpetrator. After all your daughter could be someones mother, aunt, niece, sister. How would it be decided which relationship is the one that counts? Do you get to kill the perps. daughter, or does your grandchild get to kill the perps. mother etc?

          • trent steele says:

            Harold, I’ll take both of your points at once: It would have been obvious at the time that, “If your daughter kills my daughter, I get to kill your daughter.”

            Both you and Tel are somehow missing the point that this is a limiting device for traditional revenge based justice. Tit for tat creates society, but it can get out of control.

            They weren’t advocating for punishment where traditionally people would have just said, “Meh, you killed my daughter and gouged out my eye, but I can’t really be bothered to react.”

            They were trying to limit the instinct to kill all the men in the family, rape the women, and enslave the children, all the while gouging out all of their eyes.

            That’s the point, so your comments are non sequitur.

        • Tel says:

          Sure, so the daughter shoots first, because hey you can’t be too careful with all this revenge going around, best bet is get in ahead of the competition. It’s not like anyone can tell the difference between a good outcome and a bad outcome, therefore do unto others before they do unto you.

          But at that point you do start to wonder why bother having a law to begin with. Presumably, someone somewhere thought it would reduce overall violence … I guess.

          • trent steele says:

            This is a repost. My comment got eaten? I’ll try again, but it will be shorter.

            Harold: It’s about proportionality and symmetry.

            Tel: This isn’t about the Golden Rule. That should be obvious.

            Are you two really unable to get it? It OBVIOUSLY reduces violence; that is the whole point. I explained it above, but you can lead a horse to water…

            • Tel says:

              If the guiding principle of your legal system comes down to “Life isn’t fair. Grow up” then that’s essentially the law of the jungle, which requires no codification, and operates as the perpetual fallback when the other guy says, “Gosh if life isn’t fair I guess there’s no particular reason for me to refrain from violence either”.

              We can demonstrate that a law of the jungle doesn’t reduce violence, just take a look at Chicago or Detroit. Come to think of it, the Middle East doesn’t have such a good reputation for peace and tolerance either.

              • trent steele says:


                Are you reading me to be advocating this system for today? There was no Detroit in Hammurabi’s time, right?

                What on earth is going on in your head?

                Yes, it’s “not fair” that at a time in history there was need (at least in the eyes (!) of those actually alive at the time) for a code of law that seems barbaric to us. Hell, it’s “not fair” that today some crimes go unpunished, or that supreme justice doesn’t rule the universe.

                But you’re making me feel like I’m talking to my ten year old. So, yeah, grow up. “Eye for an eye” was a move AWAY from law of the jungle.

                At this point your either trolling me or you’re just not savvy enough to get this point. Either way… Cheers, mate.

              • steve says:


                I have to say that you were not exactly clear about your intentions in your original comment. You referred to yourself as killing someone’s daughter as if it was in the present time, and not in the distant past. A little more charity toward Tel and Harold might be appropriate.

              • Harold says:

                No charity needed for me – if I say something wrong then it deserves to be challenged. However, there is nothing wrong with my comment whatever time or culture we are talking about.

                Limiting retribution to one life for one life can limit the scale of violence compared to some systems of retribution.

                If my daughter is killed, the one life taken in retribution should not be the killer’s daughter but the killer.

                You say symmetry, but there is also symmetry between the killers mother and the victims mother, the killers aunt and the victims aunt. The killers friend and the victims friend. I could say “you killed my best friend so I get to kill your best friend,” which is equally proportionate and equally symmetrical as your daughter case.

                It is also much fairer as we are not picking on an innocent person to pay the price and there is greater deterrent effect.

              • steve says:

                Harold, I agree that there was nothing wrong with your comments. Or any of Tel’s comments.Trent should have not been so obnoxious in his replies. He could have just made his intentions clearer than they were originally made.

              • Harold says:

                Have a nice weekend!

              • trent steele says:

                @Tel, Harold, Steve

                You guys are reading my initial comment as advocating that system for today?

                That says a lot more about you guys than it says about me or my initial comment.

                The OP was about “in Jesus’ day,” and “eye for an eye” is from before that.

                Tel, I thought more of you. Harold, I expected nothing less (because you are, if not a troll on this blog, intentionally obtuse in order to nit-pick). Steve, ntmu.

                And keep in mind that, not only did I use the past-tense in subsequent comments, but the first reply from Matt M specified biblical times (just like the OP).

                So, really? You guys were REALLY arguing with me based on believing that I was advocating for a modern Hammurabi’s code? lol

                And Harold, there is symmetry because IN BIBLICAL TIMES the patriarch was the point of reference. So there is no confusion. You might thing that’s not fair. But, as mama said, life isn’t fair.

                You guys are really silly.

              • Harold says:

                “You guys are reading my initial comment as advocating that system for today?”

                Nothing I said could reasonably be interpreted that way. I said it seems more sensible to kill the killer than the killer’s relative.

                You responded that it was about symmetry and proportionality.

                I pointed out that that does not make sense as it is equally proportional and symmetrical to do it dozens of different ways, so it can’t be about symmetry and proportionality.

                You respond that it is about patriarchy.

                To which I will respond – it seems more sensible to arrange things so the killer is the one who suffers the retribution rather than someone else. This patriarchy thing is a shitty way to arrange things.

              • trent steele says:


                You’ve convinced me. There was never a need for incremental improvements in society; they should have just had a pre-crime system, DNA analysis, GPS mapping and monitoring, and… heck, omnipotent and benevolent leaders and people who would either always find the real criminal (I’m looking at you, OJ!) and punish them with exact proportion, or never commit the crime in the first place!

                I see now that you totally get that we were talking about ancient times when man was moving from absolute barbarism into a semblance of society, but that you are WAY SMARTER than any man who ever lived, because you understand that we should have just skipped all the intermediate steps between us and utopia.

                HECK, we should actually hold chimps and single-celled organisms to the same standard! Why go through the annoying process of developing legal norms and civilization when you can just write a comment on a blog!

                Harold, you are either a fairly competent troll or…

              • Harold says:

                Final conclusion: an eye for an eye is a way to limit violence and prevent escalation – yes, that can be true.

                A daughter for a daughter is unfair and based on patriarchy not symmetry and proportionality.

                It may seem a trivial point to you but it does not to me.

              • trent steele says:

                Reply to final analysis:

                Harold: “A daughter for a daughter is unfair and based on patriarchy not symmetry and proportionality.”

                Your use of “unfair” in this sentence is just question begging.

                Next, it’s based on a POV, and the societies were generally patriarchal. In the “Amazon” tribes, perhaps the reference point would have been the matriarch. Children were property, so it it proportional. Don’t like it? Travel back in time and convince them to change. But that’s now what this thread is about…

                As for “symmetry and proportionality,” once you’ve grasped the above, the symmetry and proportionality are obvious.

                I think, Harold, that… gosh darnit!… the world just didn’t get perfect fast enough for you.

                But beyond that, you’ve proved amazingly resistant to getting the point of the thread, so I’ll leave you alone now. Cheers

              • Harold says:

                Cheers Trent.

  3. Josiah says:

    “I think in practice an advanced society would quickly move away from such a tradition, and that most murder convicts would simply pay a (large) fine as compensation to the heirs.”

    What if they don’t have the money to pay the fine?

    • Harold says:

      If you don’t have the dime, don’t do the crime.

    • Jan Masek says:

      Maybe like auto insurance. Your own insurance company will pay your heirs and ideally they will then get reimbursed by the perpetrator or by his insurance company. If he is not insured, then your insurance company is out of luck but your heirs are still made whole.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Josiah, what if doctors don’t have the money to pay a malpractice lawsuit? Do we stone them in the public square?

      Incidentally, I deal with that objection in Chaos Theory.

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