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4 Christian Law. (C.L.S.) 4 (1971-1973)
C. S. Lewis and the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment

handle is hein.journals/chrislwyr4 and id is 90 raw text is: C. S. Lewis and the Humanitarian Theory
of Punishment

*Stuart Barton Babbage
Conwell Theological Seminary, Massachusetts. This
paper was published in the Christian Scholar's review
and is reprinted.
To T. S. Eliot, who had written to him in
his serious illness, Lewis wrote:
We must have a talk-I wish you'd write an
essay on it-about Punishment. The modern view,
by excluding the retributive element and concen-
trating solely on deterrence and cure, is hideously
immoral. It is vile tyranny to submit a man to
compulsory 'cure' or sacrifice him to the deter-
rence of others, unless he deserves it. On the other
view what is there to prevent any of us being
handed over to Butler's 'Straighteners' at any
It was a subject about which Lewis felt
deeply. He was frustrated by the fact that
he could get little hearing for his point of
view. At the end of his paper on 'The Human-
itarian Theory of Punishment'2 there is a re-
vealing postscript: 'One last word. You may
ask why I send this to an Australian periodi-
cal. The reason is simple and perhaps worth
recording: I can get no hearing for it in
The nature of the debate and its subsequent
ramifications are worth recording.
The 'issue was prompted by widespread
public controversy about Capital Punishment.
What interested Lewis was the larger and more
fundamental question of the nature of punish-
ment itself.4 'My subject,' he wrote,
is not Capital Punishment in particular, but that
theory of punishment in general which the con-
troversy showed to be almost universal among
my fellow-countrymen. It may be called the Hu-
manitarian Theory. Those who hold it think that
it is mild and merciful. In this I believe that they
are seriously mistaken. I believe that the 'Human-
ity' which it claims is a dangerous illusion and
disguises the possibility of cruelty and injustice
without end. I urge a return to the traditional or
Retributive theory not solely, not even primarily,
in the interests of society but in the interests of
the criminal.'

The advocates of the humanitarian theory of
punishment, Lewis pointed out, argue that the
traditional concept of punishment based upon
desert is barbarous and immoral and that the
only legitimate basis for punishment is the
desire to deter others by example and to mend
the criminal. This belief implies that all crime
is morally pathological and that what is re-
quired is not punishment but psychiatry. At
first sight this sounds eminently sensible: what
we are doing is abandoning the harsh and self-
righteous notion of giving the wicked their
deserts for the charitable and enlightened one
of tending the psychologically sick. Lewis
pointed out, however, that 'the things done
to the criminal, even if they are called cures,
will be just as compulsory as they were in
the old when we called them punishments'.
It was this aspect of the matter that filled
Lewis with dark foreboding. 'My contention,'
he repeated, is that this doctrine, merciful
though it appears, really means that each
one of us, from   the moment he breaks the
law, is deprived of the rights of a human
The traditional concept of punishment is
tied to that of justice. The basic question is:
Is the sentence just or unjust? 'When we cease
to consider what the criminal deserves and
consider only what will cure him or deter
others,' Lewis warned, 'we have tacitly re-
moved him from the sphere of justice alto-
gether; instead of a person, a subject of rights,
we now have a mere object, a patient, a
The humanitarian theory of punishment
changes the whole character of the judicial
process. Traditionally, the determination of
what constitutes a just sentence is regarded
as a moral problem: that is why we appoint
as judges persons trained in jurisprudence,
trained, that is, in a science which deals with
rights and duties and which, in origin at least,
consciously accepts guidance from the Law

4 The Christian Lawyer / Vol. IV, No. 4 / Winter 1973

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