A+ A A-

Forgiving Criminals – Punishing the Sick


Whereas once it was the law-abiding and respectable citizen who was most highly valued, it is now the law-breaker and the bearer of social pathology who is to be cherished.


In Samuel Butler's satire, Erewhon, crime was illness and illness was criminal.  In at least one small respect we have taken the book as a model and put it into practice.  While in our hospitals nurses are enjoined to address patients, however old and venerable, by their first names, or even by diminutives of their first names, in our prisons staff are enjoined to address prisoners, however young and callow, in a formal fashion.  Thus Bill in hospital would be Mr. Jones in prison;  and Mr. Smith in prison would be Bert in hospital.

Our nurses are now taught that informal modes of address are friendly and reassuring to patients while prison officers are told that formal modes of address protect the dignity of prisoners.  There is an all too obvious contradiction here that reveals something rotten in the state of Britain.

There are nurses who work partly in hospital and partly in prison;  they are formal in prison and informal in hospital.  In my view, what the prison officers are told, that formality preserves dignity, is much nearer the mark than what nurses are taught, than informality is friendly.  I believe that authorities know this very well.  If this is indeed the case, what does it mean?  I think it means that there has been a complete reversal in our official scale of values and the adoption of a mirror-image morality.

Whereas once it was the law-abiding and respectable citizen who was most highly valued, it is now the law-breaker and the bearer of social pathology who is to be cherished.  That is why his dignity is to be preserved while that of the ordinary hospital patient is to be destroyed.

There is a long history of sympathising with, or at least in not openly reprehending, the sinner because there is more rejoicing in heaven etc., etc.  But the rejoicing in heaven is over the repentance of the sinner, not over the sin itself.  These days, however, repentance is not even demanded of the sinner;  it is the consequence of that is celebrated.

Why?  Our public administration hates and fears the independent citizen, the person who, in ordinary life, needs no assistance, supervision, subvention or care, and therefore creates no employment opportunities for itself.  The really valuable person is the one who cannot manage on his own, the one who keeps the public administration in employment;  thus the respectable are to be humiliated while the incompetent or criminal are to be respected.



Theodore Dalrymple. "Forgiving Criminals – Punishing the Sick." The Hilarious Pessimist (September 15, 2013). 

Theodore Dalrymple takes pessimism about human nature to a new level....once you get past the initial shock of reading about battered wives, petty crooks and junkies from a non-Left perspective, you find humanity and pathos.

Reprinted with permission of Theodore Dalrymple.

The Hilarious Pessimist is Theodore Dalrymple's blog written for the Salisbury Review. Subscribe here.

The Author

Dalrymple5Dalrymple3Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He writes a column for the London Spectator, contributes frequently to the Daily Telegraph, and is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. He lives in France and is the author of Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Farewell Fear, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2013 Theodore Dalrymple
back to top