This is kind of a follow-up on my last blog post, Necessary Evils, where I talked about the way I perceive evil people in positions that could only have ever been filled by an evil person in the first place. My general contention in that post was that you’d be pretty silly to feel enraged while watching a seven news exposé on a local criminal stealing from grannies, given that when you turned the TV on and switched to seven news, you could bet your life that there would be a segment dedicated to exposing an easy-to-hate criminal.
This post is about the question ‘what do we actually do with all the granny robbers?’. Actually that’s not true: the obvious answer to that question is ‘imprison them’. This post is about the question ‘Why?’.
I’m a utilitarian at heart, meaning at the end of the day I think that the best social policies are the ones that try to maximise happiness/reduce suffering for the greatest number of people. So it’s easy in this situation to say that as a utilitarian, given that there is a high probability that this serial granny robber will strike again, and that there’s a good chance that when he (or she) does, the trauma inflicted will marginally increase the net suffering in the world, the tradeoff of putting the criminal behind bars, thus increasing net suffering by a lesser amount, is worth it.
Notice that I’m taking the suffering of the criminal into account. And that’s not just because I’m a nice guy; society does this too. We have punishments that society has deemed to ‘fit the crime’. That means that if the punishment for robbing a granny was ten years of constant torture, the increase of suffering in the world would be greater than if we had just let the granny robber (we’ll say for now he is more or less non-violent) do what made him happy without consequence. So we pick a gentler punishment, that we don’t consider to be over the top.
But if we for whatever reason had to choose between torturing the criminal for a decade or letting him go free, I’m sure there are plenty of people who wouldn’t care about picking the torture option. That kind of scares me, not because they picked the torture option, but because they didn’t care. In many people’s eyes, becoming a criminal and repeatedly violating the social contract makes you subhuman, and any suffering inflicted on you ‘doesn’t count’. In a society like that, you’d better hope you have an academic-level understanding of what the social contract mandates, because if you ever violate it, you’re in very deep trouble.
Maybe there’s common ground to be found with our granny robber though. Let’s say that due to some brain tumour, he is now incapable of being violent or robbing anybody, even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t. You can be guaranteed that he won’t ever rob again if you let him go free. But this guy has racked up at least a thousand robberies to date, and all those victims are still traumatised (and want their jewellery back). Alright, well given that our anti-hero made serious bank off his exploits, and there are plenty of people on the r/grannyrobbers reddit thread who are themselves thinking of taking up the profession, letting this guy go free will send a message that there’s no punishment for the crimes. We can’t go and do a PSA and say ‘but if you rob grannies and you don’t end up with a pacifying brain tumour, we definitely will put you in prison!’. So for the sake of deterrence, we need our newly harmless ex-criminal to spent time behind bars.
But what if there was no r/grannyrobbers reddit thread, and we knew the ex-granny robber’s punishment/lack-of-punishment would receive absolutely zero media attention, and nobody would be any more/less likely to follow in his footsteps, regardless of what we do with him. Then there’s two things left. The first of these is the victim’s grievances. Victims want justice, and there is a very real suffering involved with victims whose criminals go unpunished. If the collective suffering of those victims is greater than the suffering of putting the criminal behind bars, then as a utilitarian, behind bars he must go.
But what if the criminal’s trial has stretched on as long as this blog post has, and now all the grannies have passed away, and their families either were never told about what happened, or are too busy in their own lives to care. Now there’s no chance of anybody being harmed, nobody to deter, and nobody left to feel indignified. All we have is our criminal. Do we let them go free? My contention is yes. Putting them behind bars would increase the level of suffering in the world by virtue of them hating their lives, and letting them go free wouldn’t produce any suffering either directly or indirectly.
But they deserve to be punished because they chose to commit the crimes in the first place
There’s not much I can do counter that argument. I can’t really link a study that proves that nobody ‘deserves’ anything. But I’ll try my best to pick the idea apart.
If you believe somebody deserves punishment purely because they chose to do something bad, regardless of anything else, you need to believe three things.
1) Free will exists
2) The self is continuous
3) Humans have the authority to enforce karma
1) Free Will Exists
I guess all of my opinions on crime and punishment come down to free will. In a nutshell, the way I see it is that when you’re born, you obviously can’t pick your first thought, because doing so would itself be an act of thinking. And that first thought, combined with your sensory input from the outside world, is going to determine what your second thought is. And so on and so on, until right now. At no point did you pick what sensory input you were receiving, and at no point did you pick what your previous thought was. Even if you allow for randomness, you’re still not the one rolling the dice; you’re just responding to whatever face it lands on.
Even if you were able to pick your first thought from some higher position of spiritual contemplation, your spirit would also not have been able to pick its first thought, unless it existed for eternity, in which case it’s very peculiar that after an eternity of gaining wisdom on how to live a good life, your spirit chose to become a human being who would go around committing crimes and end up ostracised and hated by all of society, likely to be punished behind bars for decades, and denied the human experiences of true love, companionship and social inclusion.
Does my disbelief in free will mean that I’m going to go and commit crimes because I can’t be held responsible? No, because I was lucky enough to be born with a disinclination for blatantly harming others. I doubt I would walk away from robbing a granny with a sense of gratification or pride, and I don’t consider that a virtue. In the same way that I’m not going to judge somebody for failing a maths test, I’m not going to judge somebody for failing a morality test, given that if they were born more morally minded, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t pass it as a more mathematically-minded person would pass a maths test. Yes, you could put more effort in and just-pass if you really tried, but some people will never pass, and the fact that some people have to try harder than others is enough to tell me it’s not just a matter of choice.
It seems that we’re all perfectly capable of recognising that not all humans are made equal when it comes to physical attributes, intellectual attributes and personality traits, but for some reason moral traits get the exception? I don’t understand that.
On the topic of moral traits, how many situations does the average person have in their daily life where they want to do something, and on some level they know it will cause harm, but they do it anyway? There’s not many, but when the situation does arise, we’re very bad at doing the right thing. Nearly everybody, including myself, can think of a time in the last year where they have said something about a person that would offend them if present, purely to get a laugh or for social points. Nearly everybody eats meat, despite knowing a great deal of suffering is involved in producing it. Some people have cheated on their partners in the heat of the moment.
The general trend is that humans are very very bad at doing the right thing when they actually want to do the wrong thing. It’s easy for me not to go and kill people when I don’t want to kill people, but it’s much harder for me to forego shittalking somebody if I know I can get a laugh out of it, because I WANT TO MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH GODDAMNIT. If we gave the violent urges of your average criminals to 50% of the population, don’t act like that 50% are going to remain law abiding citizens just because the thing stopping them from committing crimes in the first place was self-restraint.
2) The Self Is Continuous
The example with the brain-tumour is not just me hypothesising for the sake of argument. There are plenty of cases where regular people have had sudden changes in personality and began committing crimes, due to brain tumours and brain diseases. After the tumours were removed, their behaviour returned to normal. Should a person be held accountable for something they did when they were effectively a different person? I don’t think so. I’m actually of the opinion that we’re morphing through different personas almost constantly, with far less continuity than we think. Does that mean we should extend the same sympathies from people with brain tumours to people who just happened to wake up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning and then committed murder? I think yes, but the sympathy you feel for somebody and the punishment you give them can be two completely separate things, once future harm, deterrence, and victim’s grievances are taken into account.
3) Humans have the authority to enforce karma
Does society have the right to decide who deserves what, irrespective of deterrence etc? It’s the kind of thing where if we had an oracle who could talk to the gods, then we could confidently hand out the right punishments. But we don’t, so it’s all guesswork. That same moral guesswork is responsible for the countless homosexuals who’ve been persecuted throughout history, and who are still persecuted by the laws in some countries today. When people are punished for doing something that is ‘just wrong’ without any victim analysis, horrible horrible things happen. Communism in all its forms has killed millions of people for espousing capitalist and individualist beliefs because it held specious concepts like ‘the greater good’ and ‘social wellbeing’ in higher stead than individual rights¹.
To sum up my contention: justice is about ethics, judgement is about psychology. If you judge somebody in your life for something they did wrong, judge away because it’s probably psychologically healthy, and because scorn is an effective behaviour-correcting mechanism. But society shouldn’t allow itself to indulge in vestigial psychological rituals of hate, judgement and contempt, because they simply don’t scale.
I believe that future harm to society, deterrence, and the dignity of victims are the only factors that should be considered when deciding the fate of a criminal. Some societies have started taking this approach already, with punishments becoming less retributive and more rehabilitative. But there is still a long way to go, and a lot of old sentiments about good and evil will need to be challenged before we get there.
Until then, thank your lucky stars you’re one of the good guys.
¹ Communism was an ultimately utilitarian ideology. It placed overall wellbeing above the wellbeing of any given individual to catastrophic effect, but I don’t think this discredits utilitarianism, any more than bad science discredits science. A utilitarian ideology is only as good as its predictions on what will reduce suffering and maximise happiness. The communists got it dead wrong, whilst western countries who were effectively anti-utilitarian in their protection of individual rights ended up topping the ladder for prosperity and happiness. Given that we now know the long term benefits of protecting individual rights, it only makes sense for a utilitarian to follow suit, even in one-off circumstances where e.g. the government can pick a healthy human to sacrifice in order to save five people who each need a vital organ to live. It might make sense in the moment but in the long term, how happy would a society be where everybody knows that at any time they could be the ones picked for the sacrifice?