Why is it a bad idea to tell criminals that they're mere vessels of adverse social forces and thus, in all fairness, entitled to understanding rather than punishment?
First, because it's false. Second, because it retards the development of a sense of guilt, an important ingredient in changing behavior. Below are the first three paragraphs of a piece in today's Wall Street Journal that makes the point:
Authorities in China recently made a surprising announcement: They want to see an end to public shaming of miscreants by the police.
It's a step in the right direction that shame is falling out of favor as an official punishment in China. Thankfully, here, too, it remains the exception rather than the rule. Most of us have little appetite for bringing back the town stocks, and "perp walks" can end up parading an innocent suspect. The ugliness of shame makes us want to avert our eyes wherever we find it.
Yet in rejecting the cruelty of public humiliation, it's important that we not make the mistake of tossing aside guilt as well. Despite the bad reputation it has acquired since perhaps Freud, few emotions are more socially productive or personally beneficial. Let's not hold it against guilt that many people can't distinguish it from its evil twin, shame.