The Myth of Retributive Justice

In Wesley Cragg (ed.), Retributivism and Its Critics. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag. pp. 27-34 (1992)
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Abstract
In fairy tales, villains usually come to a bad end, snared in a trap of their own making, or visited with a disaster nicely suited to their particular villainy. Read a story of this kind to children and you will be struck by the profound satisfaction with which this predictable of events is greeted. Yet, if children cheer when the villain is done in, they are just as satisfied when the hero manages to get the villain by the throat but takes pity and spares him. These tales of retribution and mercy, even reduced to their barest bones, seem to have an intrinsic significance; they strike some inner chord, resonate with something fundamental in our inarticulate understanding of the world, reveal something about the basic make-up of the world. This is not to suggest that they are 'realistic' in the ordinary sense. They do not tell us what 'really happens' in the world of experience, where the villain all too often flourishes and the innocent are trampled underfoot. Rather, fairy tales reveal to us the injustice of the human world by testifying to the true nature of justice. If we did not know that villains ought to get their comeuppance, we would have no reason to think it wrong that they often escape to enjoy their spoils. Tales of retribution and mercy speak of the reality of a world beyond the world of everyday experience; so doing, they show the world of experience in its true light. In the best sense of the word, they are 'myths': stories that, even when told in their simplest form, carry a profound inner significance.
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