In the year of my birth, which now seems to me a very long time ago, C.S. Lewis wrote a short and incisive essay entitled The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment. In this essay, Lewis drew attention to the potential for tyranny of this seemingly humane theory, according to which people were to be treated not according to their deserts, but according to what would make them ‘better’ on whatever scale of goodness was adopted by the therapists, who of course would also decide whether or not the wrongdoers were ‘cured.’Therapeutists as Teachers of Evil | Online Library of Law and Liberty
The horrors that Lewis foresaw as following from the humanitarian theory of punishment were those of cruelty and oppression disguised as benevolence. What he did not foresee was irresponsible and self-indulgent leniency disguised as benevolence. Under this new dispensation, it was not those who had been wronged who would exercise mercy, but those at several removes from the wronged, and who themselves would never suffer the practical consequences of its exercise, if any such there were. They would enjoy the psychological rewards of leniency without experiencing the material effects of recidivism.
It is hardly any secret that no one these days enjoys a reputation for generosity of spirit (at least among intellectuals) by advocating more severe penalties for wrongdoers; or that an easy way to secure a reputation for broad understanding is to forgive everything. Pardonner tout, c’est tout comprendre. The pressure on those who want to bask in the esteem of all right-thinking people to forgive those who have done wrong to others is therefore considerable. ....
The peculiarity of this approach is that it allows every man a rape or many rapes – indeed many crimes of any description – provided only that experts determine that he will now desist, for prognosis is everything and justice nothing, in the sense of retribution for past misdeeds, nothing. Even if prognosis were a science much more accurate than it is or ever likely to be, this would do tremendous violence to our sense of justice. If you believe in the therapeutic theory of response to crime, you would have set Heinrich Himmler free, had he survived, because it was unlikely in the new political circumstances that followed military defeat that he would ever have committed similar crimes again. .... [more]
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
"Irresponsible and self-indulgent leniency"
Theodore Dalrymple, in "Therapeutists as Teachers of Evil," argues that C.S. Lewis was right to denounce a therapeutic approach to determining the appropriate punishment of criminals, but wrong in predicting the direction that approach would take: