Hunt the Wild Justice

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis’s article “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” is simultaneously an excellent argument against the rehabilitative or therapeutic approach to punishment, and a lousy argument in favour of the retributive approach to punishment. Lewis makes a compelling and eloquent proto-Szaszian case for the thesis that punishment not based on responsibility is wrong; but, never examining his implicit premise that punishment must be justified somehow or other, he then slides without much reflection into the conclusion that punishment based on responsibility must be right. So when I read this article I’m cheering half the time and tearing my hair out the other half.

Of course that’s often my reaction when reading Lewis – as when reading Nietzsche, another writer who to my mind tends to mix together equal parts of the magnificently right and the horribly wrong (though his points of rightness and wrongness seldom coincide with Lewis’s). Anyway, Lewis, like Nietzsche, is generally worth reading even when he’s wrong.

While we’re at it, here’s another fine Lewis piece, “The Inner Ring,” that has a good deal less wrong in it.

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4 Responses to Hunt the Wild Justice

  1. Kevin Carson July 12, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    I strongly recommend reading The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength in conjunction with A Clockwork Orange. With the close-circuit cameras, ABSO orders, near abolition of criminal due process, etc., I often wondered if Tony Blair had taken That Hideous Strength as a blueprint.

  2. Anon73 July 12, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    I definitely agree that he is one of “those authors” that’s great to read even when they are wrong. As I recall, I first came across the notion that evil is merely a corruption of the good, as opposed to a thing in its own right, when reading Lewis. In one of his more liberty-minded moments he opined that those who use force against us because they are robbers are much less worrisome than those who use force for our own good; for the former will at least rest when their stomachs are full, but the later will keep torturing us because their conscience demands it.

    As a bit of Lewis trivia that Kevin may enjoy, can you cite the work where Lewis (through his characters) scorns the idea that an Englishman can no longer cut down a tree in his own yard, with his own axe?

    • Roderick July 12, 2010 at 11:25 am #

      Screwtape Proposes a Toast. 🙂

  3. Kevin Carson July 12, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Good thing you answered it, because I had nothin’.

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