Michael Key

Lewis on the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment

Michael Key
Lewis on the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment

Before Amber Guyger was sentenced to ten years in prison and both Allison and Brandt Jean responded with calls for justice and radical mercy, which have rapidly zoomed across the internet with hundreds of commentators holding on for the ride, some friends and I were prompted by the proceedings to discuss an issue encompassing this particular case which many in our nation have been deliberating for some years now. My friend was asking very a fair question: What good would occur from sending her to prison? In reality, he was positing, Guyger made a mistake. She believed to be in her own apartment, and had that been the case, her actions would have been justified. She wasn’t a violent criminal. In fact — and this is the part that often gets deliberated — given the corruption of our penal system, she has a higher chance of engaging in a life of crime post-confinement according to statistics.

The U.S. penal system…I agreed that corruption pervades this institution severely. We, especially as Christians, need to drive reform in this area to which we often choose social blindness. But in order to reform an institution, we must have some idea about the end, the goal of that institution. What is imprisonment for? Why punish people?

Many argue, for example, that prison ought to be a time to transform the individual, to rehabilitate him or her to become a more productive member of society. Many, agreeing with my friend, believe this to be the proper end of the penal system. Such being the case, his question makes perfect sense. Sending Guyger to jail most likely would not result in personal transformation. It might, but if we take account of what statistics demonstrate, probably not.

But that doesn’t seem quite right. Wouldn’t a severe injustice be done if nothing happened as a result of her actions? Gugyer was not, in fact, stepping into her own apartment but into Botham Jean’s, whom she shot and killed. Our judgment is correct, I think, if we answer in the affirmative. But if it is, we need to revisit what the penal system is for, because the idea that rehabilitation is the primary goal, when taken to its logical conclusions, clearly runs counter to some of our most basic moral sensibilities.

C.S. Lewis offered a perceptive analysis of what he termed the humanitarian theory of punishment (HTP) in an essay titled after the theory he critiqued. This theory mirrors in many ways those still current today. In this view, “the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal” (Lewis 224). These, he argues, hide behind the language of humanitarianism while actually stealing justice out from underneath us. How is this so? I will summarize the rest of Lewis’s essay to answer that question.

Deprived of Human Rights

If you mete punishment in order to cure or deter, you essentially remove the concept of receiving what one deserves, of decreeing a suitable reward or punishment — what Lewis and others at that time called desert. According to HTP, the main link — desert or deservingness —  between punishment and justice is removed. That is not to say, he asserts, that deterrence or reform ought not to be considered. They just cannot be the only or even the primary considerations. If they become the deciding concepts in punishments, “instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’” (225). The judge and jury view the criminal not as a moral subject, who can and must take responsibility for her actions, but as a corrupted, disturbed object to be acted upon.

Crime as Disease

The treatment of crime as a disease to be cured especially highlights this deprivation of rights. Lewis seems aware that incarcerated people often return to jail even if the relevant data in his day were not as striking as they are in modern America. Yet the fear of relapse works against the rights of the criminal in reality. Whether jailed or treated, the person is held against his will. Both notions are compulsory. But in the former, when retribution, or getting what one deserves, determines the sentence, there is a definite start and end date. Following the logic of HTP, the sentence ends when the “patient” is “cured.” Who knows when that will be or what measures need be taken to achieve the desired result? Such a “humanitarian” process turns out to be not so humane.

Lewis approaches this issue with a definite realism shaped by his witness of vile, oppressive States. With a seemingly clear view of original sin, he recognizes that people bend towards wickedness and would be able to do more damage within the HTP framework.

For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call "disease" can be treated as crime; and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to plead that states of mind which displease government need not always involve moral turpitude and do not therefore always deserve forfeiture of liberty (229).

In other words, the government, which frequently and perhaps inevitably attracts sinful people, could label competing ideologies as sicknesses in need of curing. Who has the authority to question the government?

Who Is Qualified to Sentence?

When we are speaking about justice, about getting what one deserves, the moral law drives the conversation. To ascertain Lewis’s full view on the matter of the Law of Nature or the moral law, we might look at the first book of Mere Christianity. But for the purposes here, we need only note that Lewis convincingly demonstrates that everyone has a sense of this moral law. Applying this idea in the context of punishment and justice, he recognizes a valuable truth. Although no government ever enacts justice perfectly, and in some instances even grossly miscarriages justice, the actual penal code is not “beyond the control of the conscience of society” (225). That is, the everyman possess the ability to speak up when the system seems off because the everyman possess knowledge of the moral law.

In denying the element of desert from punishment and couching things in terms of rehabilitation, the everyman is removed from the system. Experts with cold calculations step in to direct the curative process. Lewis’s objections with this scenario should awaken us.

Only the expert “penologists” (let barbarous things have barbarous names), in the light of previous experiment, can tell us what is likely to deter: only the psychotherapist can tell us what is likely to cure. It will be in vain for the rest of us, speaking simply as men, to say, “but this punishment is hideously unjust, hideously disproportionate to [what the criminal deserves]”...The experts with perfect logic will reply, “but nobody was talking about deserts. No one was talking about punishment in your archaic vindictive sense of the word. Here are the statistics proving that this treatment deters. Here are the statistics proving that this other treatment cures. What is your trouble?" (226).

The Mounting Disaster

No one can in fact object unless having first studied penology, to steal Lewis’s barbarous categorization, because justice and the moral law play no part in sentencing. So when the system becomes hijacked, as it inevitably will, the result is exponentially disastrous. Lewis is worth quoting at greater length on this point:

It is, indeed, important to notice that my argument so far supposes no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian and considers only what is involved in the logic of his position. My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. To be “cured” against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be. punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better,” is to be treated as a human person made in God's image (228, emphasis added).

The disaster heightens as we silence mercy from conversation. Again, Lewis articulates the point shockingly yet lucidly:

If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned. How can you pardon a man for having a gumboil or a club foot? But the Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. This means that you start being “kind” to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which they in fact had a right to refuse, and finally kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties… Mercy, detached from Justice,  grows unmerciful… So it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism. it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety (230).

Getting What You Deserve

When punishment for crime is viewed only as a means to deter future crime, the situation does not fair better. This rationale is not as common today. The “experts” claim that punishment does not, in fact, deter. Thus, many who have already rejected the idea that punishment is essentially getting what you deserve, that certain actions simply deserve punishment because of the nature of the action, have nothing else to turn to but the curative view. But Lewis’s critique of the deterrent view is still important to understand. If punishment became simply a deterrent for future crime, those in authority have no real impetus to judge justly. The point is to make an example. Thus, an individual becomes an object yet again, a means to and end, a thing subservient to the State.

The logic of HTP in either of its forms, when consistently applied, leads us astray into a deeper pit of disaster and corruption than our current systems according to Lewis. The primary purpose of punishment is firstly to grant what is deserved due to the nature of the action. And all people are capable of entering the dialogue about the entailments of a crime because, as we have not left the realm of justice and morality, every person bears the image of God and thus possess a knowledge of his moral law.

Should Amber Guyger, then, go to prison? Yes. Her act of killing an innocent deserves punishment by the nature of the act, and confinement metes that punishment. Would a life sentence have been just? No. The act was not premeditated nor malicious, even if it was motivated in part by implicit, perhaps unconscious, racial prejudice. Is the American penal system corrupt? Absolutely. Yet the conversation, I think Lewis adequately concludes, must begin with what is deserved if it is to be held by the general populace at all. Can we still take into consideration rehabilitation and deterrence? Certainly. But these cannot be our primary guiding factors in reforming the penal system. While it seems like the humanitarian approach, the lack of objective moral standards in our society and the pitfalls Lewis exposes open the door to even worse corruption. Talking about “getting what someone deserves” does not need to be vengeful or barbarous.  In reality, that has to be our starting point if justice is to be carried out.