Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wickedness, Whips, and Life Imprisonment

David Bernstein asks "why the infliction of physical pain on someone, assuming he’s not just a suspect but been convicted of a crime, is considered beyond the bounds of human decency by all respectable sources, but locking that same individual in a cell for the rest of his life is a-ok." I'm not sure I have an entirely sound answer to this question but I think that -- at least to some extent -- the basic point is that torture degrades the torturers. There is a relevant moral difference between pushing a button that somewhere, somehow, kills someone you don't know and strangling someone with your bare hands, viz. that one of these things can be done without emotion. I think it's important that no one should derive pleasure from the punishment of others; therefore, public executions, whipping, and anything else that personalizes the process of punishment should be avoided if possible.

You might ask why I'm assuming that the relevant emotion would be pleasure rather than revulsion. This is because there's a selection effect: if you don't enjoy public executions, you can avoid them; if you don't enjoy whipping people, you can try finding work as a plumber.


Alan said...


I've long believed it would be great if we could use torture as punishment in order to deter and retribute without incurring the massive costs of imprisonment -- food, shelter, clothing, personnel, removal from society, criminogenisis, etc. Of course, we need to lock some people up, but I think that, ideally, these people should either be treated or terminated. Of course, the latter option isn't really an option in a prejudiced society, so we need imprisonment.

Needless to say, the ideal method of torture would be a machine that inflicted measurable doses of pain in order to produce the desired subjective experience of suffering -- one that would be memorable but not physically, or too psychologically, damaging.

Maybe this is a pipe dream even in theory because criminals would either not sufficiently remember the pain (cf. childbirth, but maybe that's sui generis) or would be too psychologically scarred. But hey, it would only have to be better than prison, which is really fucked up.

--a horse

Not-a- Generic-User-ID said...

Having lived in america and in a society that used corporal punishment, public executions, etc my experience was that the later is really a much better option. Much less crime, no entrenched criminal underclass, much less fear of crime,etc.
Obviously there are more differences between the mid east and the US than just means of punishment so its not a controlled study, but thats my experience.

On an entirely different path, if its really important no one enjoy inflicting punishment, could society just hire profoundly autistic people to be the torturers?

Anonymous said...


Zed said...

Will: interesting point re the autists. This is basically related to Alan's measuring machine; both of these would largely address my concerns but they're very far from the hurting people as it's actually done in countries that have whipping, sharia law, etc.

As for E. Asia vs. the US the comparison is so immensely uncontrolled that I'm not even going to bother to list relevant differences. But, like, Pakistan and the middle east and much of Africa have corporal punishment as well as lots of fear of crime etc.

Alan: In general I must say I'm very doubtful that punishment has much of a deterrent effect _except_ in trivial, mostly victimless, cases (like littering or open containers or whatever) where the incentives involved are minor. (It's very hard to get controlled data on this but I've certainly never seen anything to suggest that punishing people really deters robbery or murder or anything one actually cares about.) This being so -- and because I don't believe in retribution -- I think I have an entirely different take on what criminal justice is about; I think it's half about getting criminals off the streets and half about trying to turn them into harmless members of society. (The death penalty is in principle OK because it serves both purposes.) I guess this makes my opinions much more "mainstream"; obviously I don't believe in the system as it currently is because prison wrecks people rather than rehabilitating them, but I guess I do believe in prisons in some form.

Grobstein said...

To digress slightly, I think a smaller answer to Bernstein's question (assassinations vs. torture) is that torture takes place in a context where you already have the suspect / enemy in your physical dominion. Arguably you can assassinate people because it's the only way you have to get them under control; this argument will not ordinarily work for torture.

That said, our killings abroad -- "targeted" and otherwise -- make me uneasy.

Zed said...

Agreed but I think that's a completely different question (i.e., Orin Kerr's rather than Bernstein's) because (1) it's essentially a wartime question about the Geneva conventions, and (2) the objective with terrorists is not to retribute, deter, etc. but to put them out of the way or to get them to divulge information. I'm not too bothered by the assassinations because it seems to me that the US is in fact engaged in a fairly permanent low-level guerrilla war against various Islamist groups and, like, killing enemy combatants is what one does in a war.