Just as I was debating with my youngest sister the issue of capital punishment, I chanced upon an excellent essay by C.S. Lewis on the “humanitarian theory of punishment”. The author asserts that during the 50’s the theory of punishment underlying the British judicial system went through subtle, but important changes: from the idea of retributive justice to the idea of humanitarian, remedial or therapeutic punishment.

Lewisʼs essay seems to be prophetic. The insidious change rightly diagnosed by our author was by no means confined to the British judiciary. Out of the numerous evils it contains in nuce, one is surely the infamous “re-education policy” inflicted on large number of political prisoners by totalitarian regimes in the Communist countries. Think of the numerous cases in which psychiatry was used to “cure” (in fact, repress) dissidents in Romania or other states of the former Communist bloc. The goal of “re-education” was ultimately the creation of the “New Man”, no doubt a very Humanitarian goal in the eyes of the oppressors. I wonder to what extent Lewis was aware that the atrocities which he describes here only as potential evils had already been put into practice by all the Communist governments of his time.

I should add that those who want to make full sense of Lewis’ argument should read the essay in full. Below is only a small fragment.


The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish. And when they are wicked the Humanitarian theory of punishment will put in their hands a finer instrument of tyranny than wickedness ever had before. 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. For our masters will not be using the concepts of Desert and Punishment but those of disease and cure. We know that one school of psychology already regards religion as a neurosis. When this particular neurosis becomes inconvenient to government, what is to hinder government from proceeding to „cure” it? Such „cure” will, of course, be compulsory; but under the Humanitarian theory it will not be called by the shocking name of Persecution. No one will blame us for being Christian, no one will hate us, no one will revile us. The new Nero will approach us with the silky manners of a doctor, and though all will be in fact as compulsory as the tunica molesta or Smithfield or Tyburn, all will go on within the unemotional therapeutic sphere where words like „right” and „wrong” or „freedom” and „slavery” are never heard. And thus when the command is given, every prominent Christian in the land may vanish overnight into Institutions for the Treatment of the Ideologically Unsound, and it will rest with the expert gaolers to say when (if ever) they are to re-emerge. But it will not be persecution. Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, that will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic. Even in ordinary medicine there were painful operations and fatal operations: so in this. But because they are “treatment”, not punishment, they can be criticized only by fellow-experts and on technical grounds, never by men as men and on grounds of justice.