St. Augustine, vices and the criminal law – Part 2

[Part I here]

In the last post, we saw that St. Augustine taught against the criminalization of all but the most egregious human conduct. Beyond keeping the peace, he wrote, government does more harm than good when it uses force to make men behave rightly. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, he essentially adopts the libertarian non-aggression principle as a limit on the use of force by government.

In his “Letter to Macedonius,” St. Augustine goes further, challenging the idea that government can make bad men good by force of law:

[The bad] are not to be described as good just because they do not sin, out of fear of such penalties. One is good not through fear of punishment, but through the love of justice. Punishment by the government is useful so that “the innocent can live in security among the unscrupulous.” 

Not only does he reject the notion that criminal punishment removes an interior disposition to evil, he goes on to assert the opposite. He writes that, “prohibition increases the desire of illicit action.” [City of God, XIII:5.] This cannot be denied, for the attractiveness of “forbidden fruit” goes back all the way to the garden of Eden and is especially enticing to less mature individuals. Teenage rebellion is a testament to this proposition.

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