Lewis on Justice and Punishment

In “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” C.S. Lewis argues that if one accepts that punishment is justified, then one must have some moral reason for it. However, there appear to be only three options: retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Lewis argues that neither deterrent nor rehabilitation count as reasons for punishment. Therefore, if we accept punishment as justified, we must accept retribution to be the reason.

When we consider punishment in terms of deterrence or rehabilitation we don’t consider it in terms of whether it is just. Rather, we only consider it terms of whether it succeeds in deterring or rehabilitating. Whereas the concept of desert is conceptually linked to the concept of justice, the same is not true of deterrence or rehabilitation. One might reply that justice just is what deters or rehabilitates. However, Lewis asks us to consider whether we would consider ourselves as subjects with moral rights if those moral rights were reduced to whether our punishments contribute either to the deterrence of others from crime or the curing of ourselves from it. If we consider ourselves as moral subjects with rights, then we should consider whether we deserve punishment. Furthermore, Lewis comments that one need not be a judge to determine the success of deterrence or rehabilitation, one only needs to be acquainted with the data. But surely one must be a judge to determine the desert of a person’s punishment. If we consider a justice system to be the domain of a jurisprudence and not merely of data analysis, then we should prefer that the primary justification for punishment is whether we deserve it.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.