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Kant’s View on the Lex Talionis Principle

Lex talionis is a famous concept in Western ethics and jurisdiction. This word comes from the Latin language, describing the principle of equal retaliation. It was commonly used in the jurisdiction and other spheres to set human behavior limitations. Lex talionis can be regarded as a helpful tool to exercise the fairness concept in practice. Various outstanding personalities used this concept in their judicial works. This ancient phenomenon bothered the minds of such philosophers as Kant. From the philosopher’s perspective, lex talionis is the main principle in the punishment theory.

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Generally, this ancient principle can be compared with the famous proverb “an eye for an eye.” This phenomenon was implemented basin on Plato’s concept of justice. True fairness can be founded only when the two opposite sides cross. Some philosophers believed that lex talionis is a regulative instrument that can be used to prevent blood feuds. As a result, this principle can be the main point in exercising true equality within society. From Kant’s perspective, the righteous punishment for the crime that was committed intentionally pursuing malicious aims includes this principle. The penalty should be equal to the damage caused to the property, victims, or the whole state.

Kant implements the lex talionis principle when discussing the death penalty for criminals who murder other people. The philosopher considers the opportunity for the ruler to show mercy for such criminals only when they are isolated from the nation and cannot harm citizens. Kant sees lex talionis as the only possible way to equalize the responsibility for the murder. From the philosopher’s point of view, there are two particular exceptions to the death penalty. The first one is considered to be the dueling killing, and the second is when the mother kills the newborn extramarital baby.

These two situations comply with the ethics and have no malicious intentions intended in the murder. Kant believes that these crimes are motivated by pure justice. Such murders are the essential responsibilities of the comrades and mothers. The murders in these two cases are also should be punished. However, the death penalty cannot be applied here and is considered to be illegal. The governing bodies can implement less severe punishment to prosecute criminals.

Murder is an absolute crime that the court should treat according to the lex talionis principle. The absolute character is conditioned by the idea that the human life is the most significant value that only another life cannot replace. By implementing the death penalty based on the mentioned principle, the government strengthens the judicial system. Moreover, it allows the political bodies to control the aggression among the people through the most powerful emotion – fear. Another idea in Kant’s philosophy of the death penalty is that the basis for criminal responsibility should be wrongful acts. The main factor in estimating guilt is the conscious behavior of pursuing malicious aims.

Thus, the lex talionis principle is an ancient juridical strategy of social regulation. The main point of this principle is equal punishment for the murders realized through capital punishment. Today this principle is not relevant in jurisdictional systems of different countries. Moreover, only a few juridical systems have the death penalty in action. This shift in the equality discussion means that violence is not highlighted today. Many countries consider the murder of criminals a felony or grave crime.


De Ville, Jacques.“Confession On Crime and Punishment: Derrida Reading Kant.” Law and Critique 31 (2019): 93-111. Web.

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Grace, Emma.“ Lex talionis in the twenty-first century: revenge ideation and terrorism.” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 10, no. 3 (2017): 249-263. Web.

Nwoye, Leonard, Mfonobong, David, and Ushie, Abel.“ Kantian and Utilitarian Ethics on Capital Punishment.” Budapest International Research and Critics Institute 7 (2018): 28-35. Web.

Thomason, Krista.“The Symbol of Justice: Bloodguilt in Kant.” Law and Critique 26, no. 1 (2021): 79-97. Web.

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