Month: July 2010

Treatment v. Punishment

Dr. Mike Adams has successfully rekindled my distaste for moral absolutists and religious zealots. In a recent column for, he suggests that the world has trended toward “viewing all undesirable behavior as symptomatic of a disorder to be treated, as opposed to a wrong to be punished.”

In a personal anecdote, Dr. Adams describes a conversation with a former student regarding a young boy whom the student insists has ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder). After listening to the symptoms of the disorder, Dr. Adams and his student conclude the boy is actually a jerk and that ODD is merely an excuse to call his behavior a medical condition instead of what it really is – unacceptable. To an extent, he is absolutely correct. Imagined medical conditions are increasingly used as excuses for socially unacceptable behavior ranging from childish misconduct to heinous criminal activity. Terms like ODD, ADHD, and irritable bowel syndrome have become euphemisms for rude, obnoxious, and whiny.

What he does not state, however, is that the clinical treatment for ODD is exactly the age-old and universal treatment for obnoxious kids the world over: better parenting, with clear rewards and punishments for behavior. In essence, ODD and “jerk” are synonyms, and the solution the same. Dr. Adams’ further argument regarding the dangers of treating misbehavior as clinical disorders is consequently pointless; regardless of diagnostic nomenclature, treatment and outcome are constant.

I should end my criticism there, but what really irked me was his later suggestion that the human heart is inherently evil and requiring punishment, which I consider a gross misrepresentation of human nature and a flat denial of the continued eradication of ignorant superstition by technological and medical advancement.

Consider a world with “an emphasis on punishing evil, rather than curing disorders,” as Dr. Adams suggests. Imagine a world in which conditions like epilepsy, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and Tourette’s (sufferers of which all demonstrate significantly alarming and socially unacceptable behavior) are considered evils to be punished rather than disorders to be diagnosed and cured. Imagine a world in which paralysis, smallpox, polio, mental retardation, and birth defects are considered God’s vengeance for their (or others’) disobedience. Six hundred year ago, that world existed; it was Catholic-dominated Europe—where priests and Popes used religion and superstition to explain what they could not understand.

Obviously, I hyperbolize. Dr. Adams is not suggesting a return to medieval religiosity and superstition. But I think my point is still clear. The abandonment of “evil” as the primary diagnosis for social misbehavior has done more for advancing human dignity and charity than almost any other paradigm shift in history.

Lastly, an irony of which the religious Dr. Adams seems ignorant: Jesus compared himself to a physician, diagnosing (and prescribing the cure for) sin. He was, as Dr. Adams (parroting C.S. Lewis) warned against, in a “rush to treat, rather than punish, people who do evil things.”