Forced conversions

January 20, 2008

I’ve been ruminating a little about these “Human Rights Commissions” that I wrote of yesterday. One of the peculiarities of the Levant case — and perhaps others as well — is that the complainant is formally seeking, among other things, an apology from the person who offended him. Presumably he wants this apology to be sincere; he wants Levant to have a change of heart. It reminds me of another Canadian case: Robert Latimer, who murdered his disabled twelve-year old daughter Tracy in a “mercy-killing”, was recently denied early parole, not because of the seriousness of his crime, but because he would not express remorse for his action. Both of these cases have something in common: the system is seeking to coerce, with the authority and force of the state, an interior conversion in the wrong-doer. The legal and punitive process appears to be not so much about punishment as it is about therapy.

A classic statement of opposition to this view of judicial process is C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”:

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.

The problem, of course, is that deterrence and therapy have no intrinsic connection to justice. We must not forget that if the aim is to reform, to change the heart, to bring to repentance, then the instruments of the state are blunt instruments.  They can succeed only by breaking the spirit, and that is a tyrant’s game.

The whole essay is worth reading.

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2 Responses to “Forced conversions”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    In the Latimer case, we must also remember that the state must consider the common good and the security of its citizens. Whether Latimer should remain in prison because of a lack of rehabilitation is debatable, to be sure. However, his lack of remorse has broader ramifications. Though he is unlikely to re-offend if released, there is a reasonable possibility that he would become a leader of, or at least a symbol for, the euthanasia movement. So I think in this case the parole board had the common good in mind more than Latimer’s lack of reform.

  2. cburrell Says:

    You make an interesting point, Adam, but it comes close to saying that Latimer should be kept in prison as a deterrent — that is, to serve as a warning to others who may wish to promote or commit euthanasia. But deterrence is one of the motives that Lewis criticizes. His point is that the only legitimate reason to imprison someone must be because they have done something that deserves punishment.

    I don’t know if your reasoning played a part in the parole board’s ruling in the Latimer case, but the reason they gave publicly for denying parole was that he did not express remorse. They did not say, as in my judgment they should have, that he had committed a serious crime and should serve the sentence the courts gave him. It was a good decision, but for the wrong reasons.


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