Twenty years ago Rwanda was torn apart by violence. The Hutu majority slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors, killing approximately 70% of the Tutsi minority in the space of only four months. Once the killing finally stopped, a difficult question arose: how to right these monstrous wrongs without creating a cycle of revenge and retribution?
Such a cycle would be the epitome of the ancient “eye for an eye” notion of justice, in which punishment is commensurate with the crime, an approach taken even today by most modern legal systems (including the United States). The aim is simple—when someone is wronged, the goal of punishment is to hurt the perpetrator. Decades of research have examined this preference for punishment, demonstrating that people have strong proclivities to punish transgressions. While punishment serves other functions like deterrence, there is no doubt that retribution is a central goal. In fact, we as individuals, punish even when it costs us to do so: one study found that if treated sufficiently unfairly, some people are willing to forgo up to three month’s salary to punish the perpetrator.
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