This paper is published as part of special issue on the theme of ‘justice without retribution’. Any attempt to consider how justice may be achieved without retribution has to begin with a consideration of what we mean by justice. The most powerful pleas for justice usually come from those who feel that they have been harmed by the wrongful acts of others. This paper will explore this intuition about justice and will argue that it arises from the central importance of reciprocity, in the form of equity, balance and fairness, in human relationships. This is expressed in our image of justice, one of whose core symbols is a set of scales. I will use a clinical case to illustrate what can happen when criminal harm is not followed by any form of restitution. In this case, the punitive impulse was internalised in the victim and turned against herself in the form of deliberate self harm and, ultimately, death by suicide. I will argue that human relationships largely consist of reciprocal acts of good or harm and that we constantly strive for a balanced reciprocity in our relationships with others. This theme has been played out throughout human history in personal relationships, social customs, legal systems, religion and culture. It is also seen in higher primates. When someone is a victim of wrongful harm, there is a need to take measures to restore the balance which has been lost. I will attempt to draw a distinction between retributivism as the term is usually understood and the application of the principle of reciprocity in criminal justice. This distinction is one that has found expression in what has become known as ‘restorative justice’ as opposed to conventional justice. There are two cardinal features of restorative justice in this context. The first is that it brings offender and victim into a relationship with the aim of repairing the harm that has been caused. The second is that it gives the offender the opportunity to give something back to his victim. I will conclude that our responses to criminal wrong-doing should be based on restorative principles and that punishment can sometimes be part of the process by which moral harm is made good.