Secularism and Humanitarian Punishment

Recently, I came across C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”. If you’ve not read it, I do recommend it: I think Lewis makes some excellent points about punishment. It makes quite a neat follow-up to my previous post on Atheism Plus and ethics. What I was talking about in that post was personal morality: does atheism have the power to change anyone’s life from bad to good? Does atheism have the power to stop people doing things which are ‘unethical’?

What I’d like to do in this post is look at the idea of punishment itself. What happens when someone DOES do something considered unethical / wrong, at the level of society? Lewis argues that the traditional idea with respect to punishment is that of retribution: someone has done something wrong, therefore they deserve some kind of punishment. There is a connection between punishment and crime.

However, what some were arguing back in the 1940s with respect to capital punishment, was that retributive punishment is actually immoral. Lewis outlines the two reasons given for punishment: correction – i.e. to make someone change their behaviour – and deterrent, i.e. making sure that other people don’t follow the same pattern of behaviour. I think the same arguments would probably be applicable today. Where it gets interesting is how Lewis then takes it.

If you want to see where he takes it… I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the actual article! But, it did make me wonder about secular theories about punishment. I think the idea of punishment as retribution makes sense within a Christian worldview: mankind is created in God’s image, with knowledge of good and evil. Mankind is portrayed as morally responsible – everyone makes a choice to do good or to do evil; we go into things with our ‘eyes open’ – therefore, when we break the law, we deserve punishment for it. I don’t know how other people feel about this, but it instinctively makes sense to me. (Perhaps this is just a Western way of thinking – I think things work a bit differently e.g. in Japan, which is a more shame-based culture. although I guess even in that case there is some kind of retribution involved).

Now, I’m just wondering if one could make a case for retributive punishment from within a naturalistic / atheistic framework. Within that worldview, there isn’t really “right” and “wrong”: there are just desirable behaviours and non-desirable behaviours (i.e., the idea that we all survive better if we can manage to get along). I think the main thing within that view would be ensuring that the desirable behaviours were promoted (i.e., the behaviours that benefited society), and the non-desirable behaviours discouraged. I would argue this particularly comes into play given that, for the naturalist, everything is pretty much deterministic – in a naturalistic worldview, there is no room for anything other than cause and effect (it’s known as ‘causal closure’ – there is no room for free will).

You see, I don’t think one could make the case for retributive punishment – and I think this would leave you with a kind of disconnect between the crime and the punishment. Everything would become very utilitarian: what would best discourage behaviour x from happening? How much punishment would discourage other people? How much punishment would be necessary for someone to reform their behaviour? The notion of someone ‘deserving’ to be punished for something could potentially become a quaint, old-fashioned notion which unenlightened people of old used to practice.

In addition, with any kind of punishment – whatever the form – there is no guarantee that behavioural change would happen. As I said in my previous post about Atheism Plus – what has the power to really change someone? If someone did not change – i.e. they were serial offenders – would they be punished forever? Would they be eternally locked up? Maybe terminated? It’s not outside the realms of possibility to imagine a “Minority Report” style scenario where someone is locked up because the system determines there is no hope for reforming them.

I’m not saying I have any answers here, only questions. But, at the same time, the idea of a purely atheistic-secular / “rational” way of looking at punishment strikes me as a potential minefield. If you take away the idea of people being morally responsible beings, what you are left with is not pretty. It may be argued that it’s an assumption we have to live with for the sake of society, although I don’t understand how we get from a naturalistic worldview to what is essentially a Christian presupposition.


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