A prediction on the popularity of retributivism

Some occupations require you to impose costs on other people. Principals send students to detention. Police put people in jails. Soldiers kill people.

Perhaps all of those examples are justifiable on utilitarian grounds because the act, while imposing a cost on someone else, is the only way to prevent even greater suffering in the future. With this in mind, it is possible for someone to intentionally impose costs on others and still be a rational utilitarian.

Possible, but unlikely. The reason I say that is because people like to think they are doing good. Even Hitler was not intentionally trying to make the world a worse place. Someone who engages in acts whose immediate effect is to produce suffering has a difficult time believing they are doing good. He must have confidence that his actions will produce utility in the long-run, even if it is for people far away or for people not yet born. When the costs of your action are known and immediate, while the benefits are distant and uncertain, convincing yourself that you are one of the good guys is an uphill battle.

In this way, cost-imposing occupations cause cognitive dissonance which is:

A condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistency between one’s beliefs and one’s actions, such as opposing the slaughter of animals and eating meat. [Source: American Heritage Dictionary]

In this case, the cognitive dissonance is caused by the person’s desire to do good and their occupation, which asks them to do bad [i.e. impose costs]. I believe the way most people in these occupations overcome their cognitive dissonance is to convince themselves that they are not in fact imposing costs at all, but are rather meting out justice. They see detention, jail and death not as costs to be mourned but rather benefits to be celebrated. In short, they become irrational utilitarians, placing the pain of the “guilty” on the wrong side of the cost/benefit ledger.

Personal Anecdote:

I was a resident advisor in a college dormitory called Friley Hall when I was a junior at Iowa State University from 2006-2007. One of my tasks was to enforce the drinking age and other alcohol related offenses. That fall, even before school started, a co-worker and I discovered a roomful of underage students consuming “strong spirits.” We did our duty, which was to write down the names of the perpetrators, of which there were eight.

The next day, someone on our staff got the idea to keep score of how many people our staff in Lower Friley had “written-up” or documented, versus the number of people written up by our sister staff in Upper Friley. After one day on the job, the score was 8-1 in favor of Lower Friley.

Why would someone on the staff do such a thing? Why would they think it was funny to have a running tally of the number of kids who were embarrassed in front of their peers, and who would later be disciplined for the infraction? I suspect that it was for the reason I described above. That staff member didn’t think of the write-ups as costs to be borne by the students but rather as an accomplishment to be boasted of.

I earlier wrote that the success of prediction markets has to do with giving knowledgeable people an avenue to get rich, and in the process share the information they have about an event’s probability. With this in mind, I will try to make more predictions on this blog, as a way of showing that I have confidence in the theories I propose. What I risk is not money (sorry) but reputation.

Based on the preceding analysis, I predict that people who are employed in cost-imposing occupations are more likely to have a perverted moral sense. I do not mean that in a pejorative sense. What I mean is that they are more likely to confuse costs and benefits.

I’m not exactly sure how this hypothesis can be tested, but I have an idea. There is a philosophy of punishment known as “retributivism” which holds that the “guilty” should be punished because they deserve it.

As stated by law professor Michael Moore, “Retributivism is the thesis that punishing those who deserve it is an intrinsic good, that is, something good in itself and not good because it causes something else.” This is in stark contrast to the utilitarian approach to punishment, which treats all punishment as a cost that can only be justified by producing benefits in the future.

To make my prediction more specific, I predict that cost-imposers will be more receptive to the retributivist philosophy of punishment than the utilitarian one, because the retributivist philosophy produces less cognitive dissonance for them. Perhaps this could be tested through survey questions such as “Should criminal X be punished even if doing so does not reduce crime or ease the victim’s pain?”

In addition, an important implication of this theory, if true, is that asking people to impose costs will reduce utility even further in the long-run by perverting the moral sense of the cost-imposer, causing him to view costs as benefits. That is a good reason why we should be leery of deliberately imposing costs, and especially of asking a person to impose costs for a living.

I’m willing to hear evidence against this theory if you have it, so please don’t be afraid to leave a comment.

P.S. I was the staff member who got the idea to keep score of the write-ups.

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2 Responses to “A prediction on the popularity of retributivism”

  1. David Says:

    “P.S. I was the staff member who got the idea to keep score of the write-ups.”
    Evil 🙂

    I guess with the survey, I’d worry about people having a hard time with the hypothetical. Also, you’re making a causal claim here — it may be hard to test that using survey data. Maybe people with a perverted moral sense — from whatever source — are more likely to become prison guards, etc., either because the perversion gives the less pause in choosing the career or because it’s associated with something else that leads them down that path — less education?

    I guess the Stanford prison experiment — people playing roles? — could also be relevant?

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    David makes some good points. Before I respond to them individually, I should state that what I really want to test what unintended consequences there are of asking a person to impose costs on someone else. I suspect there are such unforeseen consequences, and I suspect they lower utility.

    Unfortunately, measuring utility is difficult. We have to find facsimiles, approximations. I thought that measuring attitudes toward certain outcomes could be one such approximation, on the theory that their expressed attitudes reflected their real behavior. Perhaps that isn’t true. David seems to doubt that it’s true. I agree with him, but I don’t know what else to do and it was just a first pass at solving the problem of measurement. I’m open to suggestions.

    Also, you’re making a causal claim here — it may be hard to test that using survey data.

    Yes, I am making a causal claim, and yes that is difficult to test. A controlled experiment would be nice but is impractical. I hope there is something better out there than survey data.

    Maybe people with a perverted moral sense — from whatever source — are more likely to become prison guards, etc., either because the perversion gives them less pause in choosing the career or because it’s associated with something else that leads them down that path — less education?

    David suggests I have the causal arrow pointing in the wrong direction. I postulated that a person’s occupation determines their moral sense (in part, of course), but it could also be true that a person’s moral sense determines their occupation. How do we know which, if either, is true? One way is to test a person’s moral sense before they begin their occupation and then once again after they have worked in it for several years. The obvious problem with that is that there are so many other variables that could explain the change. Perhaps people become more retributivist after they have children, for instance. These other variables would have to be controlled for, but after we control for all the variables that could influence a person’s moral sense (or so we think), we may end up with a very small number of people in the control group, in which case the sampling error is sufficiently large that we won’t be able to make any firm conclusions. Well, I think David knows more about this sort of thing than I, so maybe he can give us a few more suggestions about how to overcome this problem.

    David mentions the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was an experiment to test how college students would react if half of them were randomly assigned to play the role of prison guard and the other half assigned to be prisoners. For those unfamiliar with the experiment, see the wikipedia page on it and this video of the experiment.

    The main criticism I have of the Stanford Prison Experiment, apart from the fact that it was unethical, is that the organizer of the experiment, Professor Philip Zimbardo, encouraged the guards’ bad behavior. Specifically, Zimbardo told the guards:

    Zimbardo: You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.

    Also, in the video I linked to above, one of the guards named Dave Eshleman had this to say about what was going through his mind during the experiment:

    Prison Guard Dave Eshleman: I arrived independently at the conclusion that this experiment must have been put together to prove a point about prisons being a cruel and inhumane place. Therefore, I would do my part to help those results come about.

    What is being tested here? Are we testing how far pretend guards will go to please a researcher? To have fun in what they know to be a two-week long experiment that is attempting to prove something?

    That said, the experiment does seem to show that people can be very cruel to each other even when they know the “prisoners” are just fellow experimental subjects and that their roles were chosen at random. (They did know that, didn’t they?)

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