Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

6. Guiding Moral Principles: From Proportional Revenge to Lovingkindness



Proportional revenge: the level of punishment is scaled relative to the severity of the crime or harm done. Many assume the punishment does not have to be exactly equivalent to the crime, but retributivists differ on what measure of revenge is required to achieve justice.

Lovingkindness: the extension of kindness and compassion toward all living beings based on one’s moral duty as a human to do so.

The Moral Principle Underlying Punitive Justice: Proportional Revenge

In the United States, we use common phrases, like “the punishment fits the crime,” “I want to get even,” or “it’s tit for tat,” often without realizing that these terms are describing the moral principle that underpins the punitive model of justice, namely proportional revenge. The “justice” in proportional revenge lies in balancing one harm against another; the harm we do in retribution for the harm done to us is to be proportional, as in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” 

Our system blindness around justice tends to keep us from recognizing that our criminal courts are a system of proportional revenge. The set of scales is an appropriate symbol for this retributive model of justice, a system in which harm answers harm in equal measure. We also generally fail to recognize that blessing retributive harm as moral, so long as the retribution imposed is equal in measure to the harm being redressed, means our morality is measured by the immorality of our enemies. Morality becomes relative.

For the moral principle of proportional revenge to work, it requires two standards by which we measure whether the test of morality has been met—one for “us” and one for “them.” This double moral standard—unacknowledged by those in the system—permits us to claim the harm done by us, the “good” people, is moral, while condemning the harm done by those whom we deem to be “evil” or “immoral,” even when both are doing essentially the same thing! This flawed moral compass tends to produce morally flawed results. 

When both sides view the other as evil, as is often the case, they both justify each attack and counterattack as self-defense, while claiming self-righteous innocence. It is as though each side declares, “Our killing is moral; yours is not,” imagining themselves to be innocent by projecting blame for their own intentional acts on those whom they harm. The killing becomes endless, while each death affirms the adversary’s negative narrative about the side that caused it. At the same time, those doing the killing often see each death of an adversary as a “victory,” an occasion for celebration.

Tragically, in our system blindness we fail to recognize that retributive justice fuels cycles of violence in which victims become offenders and offenders become victims. The survivor/victim cycle flows into the enemy/aggressor cycle, and back again, as one harm is answered with another.

In a retributive system, proportional revenge reverberates throughout the system. For example, to avoid getting caught in the punitive system, an anti-snitching subculture exists that imposes the punitive system father down the food chain. In this subculture, if you hurt someone by snitching on them, i.e., reporting their crime, they see hurting you back for what you did to them as your “just rewards.” 

Another common example of proportional revenge is when a parent spanks a child for breaking a rule. When a church excommunicates a member for disobeying church rules, it is proportional revenge. When students get into a fight in order to “get even,” they are operating on the same moral principle that a nation relies on when it goes to war—proportional revenge.

The Moral Principle Underlying Unitive Justice: Lovingkindness

Unitive justice is based on the moral principle of lovingkindness, a mandate to extend kindness and compassion to others. This moral standard applies equally to everyone, without exception. Whatever the circumstances, harm to another is not condoned as moral.  

The concept of lovingkindness is at least as ancient as proportional revenge, and is found throughout major religious traditions and philosophies. Wikipedia lists the following examples:

Judaism: Loving-kindness is used as an English translation for the Hebrew word חסד (chesed). This term is used often in the book of Psalms, and refers to acts of kindness, motivated by love. It is used primarily in reference to God, rather than people. The term is also used in Pirkei Avot, with the quote "The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and deeds of loving-kindness." (1:2)

Hinduism: Priti (Sanskrit: प्रीति) means loving kindness in Hindu traditions, and refers to "amity, kindness, friendly disposition, love, affection, harmony, peacefulness" in texts such as Grhyasutras, the Mahabharata and the Puranas.

Maitri, another term found in Hindu literature that means "loving-kindness". It is particularly found in Hindu Yoga-related literature.

Mettā, a Pali word, given the association of "loving-kindness" and "friendliness", conferring with the Sanskrit word maitri.

Buddhism: Metta. Loving-kindness is an English equivalent for the Buddhist term Mettā, as described in the Metta Sutta of the Pali Canon's Sutta Nipata (Sn 1.8) and Khuddakapatha (Khp 9), and practiced in Loving kindness meditation.

Christianity: The term Loving-kindness (or "lovingkindness") was coined by Myles Coverdale in his Coverdale Bible of 1535, as an English translation of the Hebrew word chesed (which appears in the Latin Vulgate as "misericordia"); in that text it is spelled "louinge kyndnesse". It is also used in this sense in the American Standard Version and other versions of the Christian Bible.

Jainism: Yogabindu, the 6th-century Jain yoga text by Haribhadra uses the Sanskrit word Maitri in verses 402-404, in the sense of loving-kindness towards all living beings.

Pyaar, an Urdu word taken from the Sanskrit word priya, meaning love of others.

Agape, (Ancient Greek ἀγάπη, agápē) a Greco-Christian term referring to "love: the highest form of love, charity", and "the love of God for man and of man for God".

Lovingkindness requires nonviolence, even nonresistance. When we are nonviolent even in the face our adversaries, we offer to them what we want for ourselves--lovingkindness. The power of unitive justice lies in this internal moral consistency--the absence of double moral standards.

For those of you who just gasped for breath at the very idea of lovingkindness, rest assured that it will not immediately appear, but we can immediately begin to create the bridge from here to there--there being a place in which the idea of lovingkindness seems rational and not threatening. We can begin to build a culture in which this is the norm by beginning small, in the places in which we have influence and possess power.

Some immediately question, “How do we extend lovingkindness to those who are a threat if they are not restrained, such as a child molester or rapist?” While we are deeply immersed in the punitive system and are being taught that retribution and punishment constitute justice, confusion about how lovingkindness might apply in the face of conflict, even violence, is understandable.


Violence begets violence. As we begin to create unitive justice systems that address conflict early on and address the root causes, the frequency of harmful acts will be reduced and fewer violent acts will occur. When fewer people are harming others, this will diminish the occurrence of violent acts. Lovingkindness begets lovingkindness.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on the power of love when he sought to change the course of U.S. history:

"Oh yes, love is the way. (Yes) Love is the only absolute. More and more I see this. I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear. (You bet, Yes) I’ve seen it on the faces of too many sheriffs of the South—I’ve seen hate. In the faces and even the walk of too many Klansmen of the South, I’ve seen hate. Hate distorts the personality. Hate does something to the soul that causes one to lose his objectivity. The man who hates can’t think straight; (Amen) the man who hates can’t reason right; the man who hates can’t see right; the man who hates can’t walk right. (Yeah) And I know now that Jesus is right, (Yeah) that love is the way."[1]

Some of King’s contemporaries argued with his nonviolent approach, saying that violence (proportional revenge) was more expedient. Similarly, some people object that the positive results of unitive justice take too long to produce. They prefer the quick compliance that punishment aims to achieve, not considering the time it takes to repair the further wounding and conflict that comes with it. After conflict erupts, the punishment-and-revenge approach may result in enforced compliance, but this is not peace, and perpetually enforcing compliance consumes valuable resources.

An important expression of lovingkindness is found in the circle process based on unitive principles. Instead of answering harm with harm, this circle process seeks a mutually beneficial resolution in which no one has to lose, a goal that is achieved without anyone being directed, coerced or threatened with punishment.


Unitive justice will not immediately reverse everything in the larger context, but neither is it inaction nor passivity. It is a place to begin to restore positive connection and balance, even in difficult cases.

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A Ted Talk by Daniel Reisel called “The neuroscience of restorative justice” examines recent discoveries in brain science that provide an explanation of why violence begets violence and lovingkindness begets lovingkindness. You may watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=the+brain+science+of+criminals+ted+talk (15 min.).


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., The American Dream, pg. 4 at http://depts.drew.edu/lib/archives/online_exhibits/King/speech/TheAmericanDream.pdf. Last visited Feb. 12, 2015.