I’m sure most people are now aware of the utterly horrific crimes of Ariel Castro, who abducted three young woman and raped, abused, and threatened them for a period of eleven years. The extent of his evil is so great that it is difficult to put into words, and his actions are so vile that they would shake even the most optimistic humanist who believes that human beings are basically good. Castro is a moral monster of epic proportions.
Castro, however, doesn’t think he’s a monster. He claimed in court that he was “sick,” that his wife made him become abusive, and that he himself was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. He even went so far as to blame the FBI for not investigating the kidnappings more thoroughly (he actually might have a point that they should have seen the connections between the women, but that’s neither here nor there when it comes to his guilt). The judge incredulously told him that he was trying to paint himself as the victim when he was assuredly the criminal.
While what Castro did was so blatantly evil that I doubt even the most naive moral relativist would be brave (and stupid) enough to deny that it is objectively evil, Castro’s attitude is unfortunately similar to what many people have these days about their wrongdoing. They want to deflect responsibility, so they claim they’re “sick,” that they were born that way, that rough factors in their life made them do something that was wrong, etc. One time, I heard a psychiatrist try to argue that we shouldn’t criticize people who have road rage because they are sick. Road rage is a “disease,” he said. In our society where we don’t like it when people call out our actions as evil and wrong, we deflect blame and claim that it’s not our fault. Twentieth century lawyer (and materialist) Clarence Darrow was famous for trying to argue that his clients weren’t guilty because they had no free choice; they were determined by outside causal factors to do what they did, so why hold them responsible?
It gets even worse when it comes to doling out punishment. Again, in our society where objective distinctions between right and wrong are blurred, people are hesitant to call for retributive punishment for crimes. There were even people trying to say that we shouldn’t punish Jerry Sandusky, the ex-Penn State defensive coach who sexually abused little boys, because we think he deserves punishment, but only to perhaps deter actions like his in the future and to hopefully “cure” him of his problem. It’s really bad when even Christians argue like this, saying that we shouldn’t “judge,” that we shouldn’t “seek revenge” (which they define as seeking punishment in general), and that we shouldn’t be angry. Not only that, some decry the death penalty as uncivil and claim that nobody deserves it. While some may have legitimate reasons for not liking the death penalty, here’s the thing: One of those good reasons cannot be that you deny that some actions deserve death as punishment. What Castro did is absolutely deserving of capital punishment, and the only reason he isn’t getting it is because he plead guilty and made a deal to instead spend a lifetime in prison. It would take an especially clueless person, I think, to claim that it would be unjust if Castro was executed for his crimes.
Isn’t that “judgmental” and inhumane? Shouldn’t we want to “rehabilitate” that person? Isn’t it more “enlightened” to not seek retribution? On the surface, it may seem so, but in reality, when we treat human beings this way, as if they have no moral responsibility and there are no moral consequences for their choices, then we actually stop treating them as conscious human beings who have minds and wills. We instead treat them as objects to be fixed and/or as merely instruments for society, which is decidedly inhumane and can open all sorts of doors for evil down the road.
C.S Lewis wrote an article about the so-called Humanitarian Theory of punishment, which holds to what I described above: That “punishment” should only aim for the deterrence of future crimes and for the rehabilitation of that person. Lewis of course doesn’t deny that these two considerations should be factors in deciding punishment, but as typical of Lewis, he succinctly and brilliantly points out how that is not only a woefully inadequate view of justice by itself, it is actually not humanitarian at all. He writes (forgive the long quote):
According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?
My contention is that this doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law, is deprived of the rights of a human being.
The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’. (emphasis mine)
This is what people don’t understand when they try to excuse behavior because of a deterministic mindset. There is no sense of justice but instead mere correction of a test case and a deterrent for future such persons who are so unfortunately and totally molded by outside factors that are assuredly not their fault. But when you remove justice from the equation, you don’t get “humane” treatment; you implicitly strip away that person’s status as a thinking and moral agent. You don’t get mercy either, no matter what it looks like on the outside. Lewis explains this very well:
The error began, with Shelley’s statement that the distinction between mercy and justice was invented in the courts of tyrants. It sounds noble, and was indeed the error of a noble mind. But the distinction is essential. The older view was that mercy ‘tempered’ justice, or (on the highest level of all) that mercy and justice had met and kissed. The essential act of mercy was to pardon; and pardon in its very essence involves the recognition of guilt and ill-desert in the recipient. If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned. How can you pardon a man for having a gumboil or a club foot? But the Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. This means that you start being ‘kind’ to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties. You have overshot the mark. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice; transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety. But we ought long ago to have learned our lesson. We should be too old now to be deceived by those humane pretensions which have served to usher in every cruelty of the revolutionary period in which we live. These are the ‘precious balms’ which will ‘break our heads’. (emphasis mine)
The vast majority of people will find that Castro’s excuses ring hollow, no matter if he was abused himself growing up and had other psychological and emotional problems. His evil is so great that most people know that these things cannot excuse that. We should also realize, however, that many people in our society use similar excuses frequently, and they ring just as hollow when we think about it even though their sins may not be as awful. If you want to blame a “disease” for doing what is wrong, then the only one that makes sense is a moral one, sin… and since it is a moral one, it is absolutely still one we are responsible for. This is not to deny that people have unfortunate upbringings, experiences, and pyschological problems that predispose them to certain things, nor is it to deny that some people need treatment. This is only to deny that these things abolish moral choice altogether. There is still choice involved in giving into these tendencies rather than resisting them. “This is just the way I am” is no excuse, because it is very possible that there is something wrong with the way you are. This goes for all of us.
Christians, you want to be merciful? Hold to justice as well, because mercy cannot legitimately exist without it. And justice requires that we affirm that people are generally responsible for what they do and that they may deserve punishment as payment for their acts. God’s mercy, love, and justice are not contradictory notions in his mind, and they shouldn’t be in our moral philosophies either.