In this essay, Lewis is responding to those who feel that the punishment of criminals should be primarily concerned with rehabilitating the criminal and also deterring others from crime. The murderer should be dealt with in such a way that he receives therapy that will deal with whatever problems he has that led him to kill someone. He should also be punished to a sufficient extent that others would be reminded that they, too, will be punished if they do something similar. But to execute a murderer, on this view, is inhumane. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Others have been murdered. Why kill again? That’s the way many people think regarding capital punishment.
C. S. Lewis responds to that way of thinking by asserting the concept of just punishment. If rehabilitation is our main goal, justice goes by the wayside. If deterring others is the main goal, justice goes by the wayside. So even though the “humanitarian” theory of punishment may sound very merciful, it actually compromises the very principle of justice.
Lewis makes an additional observation about this humanitarian theory of punishment that may be surprising. He says that it is actually dehumanizing to the criminal. Not only is this theory harmful to society at large for various reasons, it is also harmful to the wrongdoer. It ceases to respect the criminal as one who is responsible for his or her actions. “To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason . . . But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better,’ is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.”