Is it moral to remove someone’s capacity for evil?


I recently finished reading the rather disturbing cult classic ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess, which through the eyes of a teenage delinquent, raises interesting questions about the criminal justice system. It questions the ethics of forcing someone to view violence as repugnant rather than a joy to partake in. Specifically, the novel addresses whether it is moral to remove someone’s capacity for evil. Here are my thoughts.

When someone commits a crime, we view their violation of another’s rights as grounds for removing some of their basic human rights, such as the right to freedom of movement and to some extent, the right to self expression. When assessing incarceration’s role in the penal system, it is often justified not because it prevents re-offending, but because it protects the general populace. The penal system deprives people of the right to free movement, partially as punishment, but primarily to stop the criminal continuing with their crimes and harming the public. Therefore, is removing their capacity to perform crimes merely an extension of the prison protection system?

Theoretically this prevents re-offending, thus protecting the public indefinitely. The ethical dilemma however, relates to removing someone’s ability to choose, thus impeding their ability to think freely. Why does freedom of thought matter? Thought is what makes you, you. It is what differentiates you from others, as Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”thought is primal, it screams “I am alive”. Sartre suggested that all we can know and see is a perception, our individual interpretation, hence how can it be moral to remove someone’s ability to perceive violence in a positive way? Is messing with their thoughts destroying them as an individual? What about murderers, if someone takes away the life of another, can society take away their thoughts? This is almost akin to the death penalty, albeit the person is physically breathing. Is it too ‘totalitarian regime’ an idea to contemplate? Why should serial killers get to retain their sadistic instincts?

If someone has a mental illness like depression, we try to help cure them. Being able to remorselessly commit many murders is also a sign of mental illness. Removing the ability to commit the crimes by re-wiring their brains to associate ultra-violence with sickness etc is perhaps the cure. It goes almost without saying that people will always claim enabling such a ‘cure’ also opens the door to people abusing this technique and brainwashing individuals. This discussion is not about this, it is about the hypothetical idea, the moral dilemma.

Perhaps it is a fitting punishment, why should society show compassion for remorseless murderers? Society can not allow itself to become as heartless as its criminals, it must retain a moral high-ground, even if this inadvertently endangers the lives of its citizens. I’m not sure I agree.

What do you think? If you’ve read and enjoyed ‘A Clockwork Orange’ I recommend ‘The Trial’ by Kafka for more interesting ideas to do with the nature of justice.


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