But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Exodus 21: 23-25
Living by the “eye for an eye” principle is often seen as the most pragmatic way to live morally. Updated for the present day, people often repeat the saying, “If you’re good to me, I’ll be good to you. If you’re bad to me, I’ll be bad to you.” Or they make a vague reference to Karma as some sort of law of revenge. The theory goes that by being cruel to those people that are cruel to you, you will show them the error of their ways and cause them to change their behaviour. Now this may be based on a misunderstanding of the principles of reinforcement and punishment but, on the face of it at least, living by the “eye for an eye” principle is a logical way of enacting positive change on the behaviour of other people. However, the problem with this belief is that it completely ignores the important role observational learning plays in shaping behaviour.
Observational learning basically does what it says on the tin, it is learning that occurs as a result of observing the behaviour of others. Along with “direct” learning processes, operant and classical conditioning, it forms the basis of how humans learn behaviour. This ability to learn vicariously means that, when being reinforced or punished, people will not only learn the lesson but will also learn the method through which the lesson is taught. So, when a child is praised for helping someone not only will they learn that helping that person results in praise but they will also learn to praise people for helping them.
We can see this function of observational learning manifest itself in the intergenerational cycle of violence. The intergenerational cycle of violence is the theory that children that have been abused by their parents or guardians are more likely to be abusive towards their own children. The role observational learning would play in this cycle is clear. When the child is abused, they learn that the appropriate way to “discipline” others is through the use of violence. Indeed, if being abused results in the child behaving in a way the adult deems appropriate, this will likely be seen by the child as more reason to abuse others themselves because it caused the desired change in behaviour. Now, of course this doesn’t mean abused children will definitely go on to abuse their own children, the outcome of an abusive childhood is determined by a number of factors, for one, the abusive parent is not the only source of reinforcement or subject of observation for the child. However, it’s clear that observational learning does play a role in the occurrence of this phenomena.
Bringing this understanding of observational learning and how it shapes human behaviour back to the “eye for an eye” principle, we can see how using this principle as a basis for how we behave could lead to the opposite effect of the one desired. Treating people badly when they hurt you in some way or annoy you will only serve to teach that person that treating people badly is indeed how they should act when they are angry or hurt. By employing this tactic of “eye for an eye,” you are endorsing the idea that treating people badly can be justified but very rarely do people think they’re in the wrong, so they’ll always think their mistreatment of others is justified. The only way in which “eye for an eye” could reasonably work is if the person had absolutely no self-serving biases and the moral compass of a saint and the people they were interacting with were able to understand and take into account, when making subsequent changes to their behaviour, even the most complex nuances of the person’s every action. And even in this scenario I highly doubt living by the “eye for an eye” principle would have the desired effect.
The theory that adopting the “eye for an eye” principle will change the world for the better is undermined as soon as the principle is adopted as the immediate effect is to make the person now living by the principle more likely to treat others badly. And if being treated badly just makes you more likely to treat others badly then why should others react any differently to your mistreatment of them? You may feel justified in your actions but so does everyone else when they’re mistreating other people.
Now, I don’t want anyone reading this to think I’m advocating being a doormat. I support loving yourself as well as others which means you should protect yourself from harm but protecting yourself does not require mistreating others. To protect yourself, you need only remove yourself from the situation that is damaging you in some way. The justification for then going beyond protecting yourself and hurting the other person is in the idea that it will change that person’s behaviour for the better. However, this doesn’t actually happen. Instead, replicating the behaviour of the misbehaving person will only serve to teach the person that their actions are appropriate to use when they’re angry.
This is why I believe in being kind to others in spite of their behaviour. The “eye for an eye” principle supports a race to the bottom in moral behaviour and will only ever continue the cycle of people mistreating others. Only by people beginning to love unconditionally can this cycle be broken. It will take a while and it might never happen but it’s the only course of action that has any hope of working. And there is hope that the world can be a better place. The study of observational learning has led to the theory of diffusion chains, which is the idea that if one individual acts a certain way then this behaviour can be learned by those around them and then others can learn the behaviour from those that learned from the original, and so on and so on, and in this way a certain behaviour can spread throughout a society. So, as long as there is just one person in the world that treats people with unconditional kindness then there is hope because people can learn the behaviour from them and people can learn the behaviour from those people, and so on and so forth, and before you know it the world could be completely different.