Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Punishment’ Category

A renaissance for Uncle Joe?

July 9, 2012

The United States has never done anything so ghastly as the “Great Purge” in the Soviet Union, in which hundreds of thousands of politically undesirable people were killed in the 1930s. However, you begin to understand why Stalin tired of trials and went straight to executions when you hear a former Congressman favor targeted killings because they avoid courtroom costs.


Law as value signal

December 4, 2011

The government prevents people from engaging in activities even when they do not violate others’ rights. A few examples are drugs, prostitution, gay marriage, kidney-selling and gambling.

Notice that nearly all governments in the world have such paternalistic policies. Notice that nearly all such governments allow emigration to other countries that do not ban drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc. That leaves us with a mystery to solve. Why would the government allow people to leave the country if doing so allowed them to engage in all these sinful activities?

You might say that preventing emigration would be too intrusive into the person’s life. But the government is already intruding into their lives by putting them in jail for doing some of these activities (namely drugs), so it’s hard to believe that it’s freedom we’re worried about.

I suspect that the motivation behind these laws is not a desire to help people but rather a desire to signal the society’s values. If an American wants to use drugs in Amsterdam, that doesn’t bother us so much since we’re not really worried about the drug user but the shame the drug user brings on the rest of us. To legalize drugs, prostitution or gay marriage here would signal that our society approves of such behavior, and we don’t want to think that about our society, and especially ourselves.

A prediction on the popularity of retributivism

June 15, 2010

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.