Why do those words go together?

Society - and for once, I'm using this term universally - teaches that, if you committed a crime, you should be punished.

But in some societies, we have an insanity defense.  If you had a brain condition so that you had no - here it's a little vague - consciousness, or moral sense, or free will, or, well, something - then it would be cruel to punish you for your crime.  Instead of going to prison, you should be placed somewhere where you can't hurt anybody, where professional physicians and counselors can study your case and try to reform you so that you can rejoin society.

Wait - so that isn't what prison is for?

No.  Prison is to punish people.  Is it any wonder that prison doesn't reform people, when we don't want it to reform them?  Most people would be upset if prisoners could go in on Friday, and emerge, rehabilitated, on Sunday.  When people say, "It would be cruel to punish people who aren't responsible for their actions", they are implicitly saying, "Prison is necessarily cruel; and that's good, because we should be cruel to criminals who are responsible for their actions."

But the more we learn about psychology and neuroscience, the further responsibility recedes into the distance.

Outcome-based justice argues that we should give up playing the blame game, because neuroscience keeps finding more and more proofs that things are "not our fault".  Instead, we should write laws that deter crime.

You might think this is what we already try to do.  But it isn't!  Witness this confused article from the Brookings Institute, Cognitive Neuroscience and the Future of Punishment by O. Carter Snead.    Snead objects to outcome-based justice.  He summarized all of the arguments for it, yet managed to completely miss their point, concluding where he started from, saying that outcome-based justice is obviously bad because it could lead to being cruel to people who didn't deserve it.  (Instead of only being cruel to the people who do deserve it, which is obviously what we want to do.)

Snead understands that outcome-based justice deters crime:

Many features of the criminal justice system that are frequently criticized as draconian and inhumane are, in fact, motivated by a purely consequentialist crime-control rationale. Such measures include laws that authorize life sentences for recidivists (e.g., “three strikes” laws), laws that reduce the age at which offenders can be tried as adults, laws that punish gang membership, laws that require the registration of sex offenders, laws that dramatically increase sentences by virtue of past history, and, most paradigmatically, laws that provide for the involuntary civil commitment of sexual offenders who show difficulty controlling their behavior.

You might expect that Snead goes on to explain why these laws are bad things.  But he doesn't!  He assumes we can all see that these are obviously bad things.

The Wrath of Kahneman describes a study which asked whether people punish others in order to deter crime, and concluded, No.  People are doing something else.

One theory is that people are trying to be fair.  Everyone should get the same chances; everyone should get the same punishment for the same crime.  John Rawls argues this explicitly in Justice as Fairness:  Justice should not be utilitarian, but should instead be fair.

I believe Rawls' view is also the popular view of what "justice" means.  And, I will argue in a later post, it is part of a pattern showing a deep divide between two different ways of using the word "ethics".

ADDED: Constant made the point that, while one part of outcome-based justice is preventing future harm from the criminal on the dock, another part is deterring harm by other criminals.  This latter part does not benefit from punishing criminals who cannot be deterred.  Thus, to optimally punish both criminals who can and cannot be deterred, the law requires a concept of moral culpability, and should punish criminals who can't be deterred more lightly.  This is a better origin story for the linking together of morality and free will than the just-so story I'd come up with, so I plan on stealing it for my next post.  (SilasBarta may have been trying to make the same point, but I found his comments impenetrable.)

(This post is laying groundwork for two other posts that will go in different directions, neither of which concerns justice.)

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Snead objects to outcome-based justice. He summarized all of the arguments for it,

All right then, let's look at what words Snead puts into the mouth of the judge, who he apparently takes to represent the advocates for outcome-based justice.

The only question you are to answer is this: is this defendant likely to present a future danger to others or society? You should treat every fact that suggests that he does present such a danger as an aggravating factor; every fact suggesting the contrary is a mitigating factor.

Surely the defendant's own future danger to society is not the only relevant question. A system of deterrence is a system that attempts to guarantee, ahead of time (it must do this is in order to deter crime) that if someone commits a crime, then he will be punished. The prospect of being punished will deter the would-be criminal. That's what deterrence is. In such a system, a person who goes ahead and commits a crime will be punished. It does not matter whether he himself will commit additional crimes after his initial crime. That's irrelevant to the deterrent mechanism. That person's own "future danger to others" is of no special interest.

Deterrence d... (read more)

This would be a good post in its own right.
You're making a valid distinction; but Snead lumps "deterrence of crimes by others" and "prevention of future crimes by this individual" in together, as being rational, outcome-oriented, and uncompassionate. I'm afraid I did too. I wasn't focused on justice; I was focused on refuting Kant's argument for free will. Your distinction shows that we need to introduce a concept of free will into our reasoning about justice. The original distinction I was going towards, which is still valid, is that we shouldn't merge them, as many conceptions of ethics do. Yes; that's the theme of one of the follow-on posts I have planned. Both philosophers and the public often think of "morality" not as "doing the right thing", but as "getting God to like you". "Moral responsibility" requires free will to them, because they don't conceive of moral behavior as behavior that's good for society; they conceive of it as behavior that wins bonus points. I don't know if polytheistic societies tend to have a different conception of morality due to having competition between gods.
Very good comment, upvoted. Only one objection: State is made of individual people, and in modern developed states nobody is individually so powerful to be absolutely sure that he doesn't fall victim to either crime or malfunctioning justice system.

Outcome-based justice argues that we should give up playing the blame game, because neuroscience keeps finding more and more proofs that things are "not our fault". Instead, we should write laws that deter crime.

That strikes me as confused. Blame just is an aspect of our already-existing, inborn deterrent system. Saying we shouldn't blame and instead deter, is like saying we shouldn't deter and instead deter. It doesn't make sense. Maybe what you want to say is that we should deter better. Okay, I can buy that. But it's just confusing to put it in a way that essentially reads, instead of deterring, let's deter.

But the more we learn about psychology and neuroscience, the further responsibility recedes into the distance.

My deep suspicion about this is that psychology and neuroscience really say no such thing. It is, rather, the interpretation of psychology and neuroscience by free will incompatibilists which says such a thing. Now that is perfectly predictable. Can anyone doubt that those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism will, as science uncovers more and more of the causal structure of behavior, conclude that there is less and less scope for f... (read more)


Blame just is an aspect of our already-existing, inborn deterrent system. Saying we shouldn't blame and instead deter, is like saying we shouldn't deter and instead deter.

I suppose he wanted to say that we should make deterrence our ultimate goal and use blame instrumentally, instead of having blame as our terminal value with deterrence being only a consequence thereof, which is the way it basically works now.

Exactly, and I should mention that this confusion about blame occurs in other areas. For example, in praising Coase's famous theorem, some people think they've identified a brilliant reason to discard the concept of blame in favor of a Pareto-superior method of social rules. When you point out that a system of pure Coasean bargaining would require, e.g. that women have to buy out potential rapists (rather than "blame" the rapist for causing the rape as if it's not supposed to happen at all), they say, "oh, no, of course we need to have good baseline rights, such as ..." and then go on to specify a classifier that works exactly like the existing blame concept! See the linked discussion, starting from that point.

Humans in general punish because we are built to enjoy properly punishing others, not just because we think it deters. Punishment is an adaptation we execute. When we execute this adaptation, it does indeed deter crime. And evolutionarily speaking (both genetically and culturally) that is its purpose.


This is of course true, but... I don't usually take part in karma debates, but 17 points for such a short and rather simple comment seems to indicate that the "adaptation executer vs. fitness maximiser" phrase serves as an applause light here. (I am not criticising or commenting on the parent comment itself.)

That leads in one of the directions I want to go with this. I especially thank you for using the word "enjoy".

In this context I find it interesting that most of the reforms to eliminate "barbaric" punishments have not hugely limited cruelty to the condemned - but have made the punishment boring for observers and punishers. Our present day ambient ethics thinks enjoying punishing is bad - without thinking punishing is bad.

Very true. In many case deterrence would be better accomplished by a brief, intense punishment (basically anything physically painful that doesn't cause permanent damage). But that would be too icky to tolerate in our 'enlightened' age, so instead we lock petty criminals up in prison for months or years.
I've always found it odd that harming someone via deprivation of positive experience is considered 'enlightened', but inflicting negative experiences is 'barbaric'.

My understanding of prison is that, despite much talk about rehabilitation, it essentially serves the function of exile. When a person breaks the rules of the society, society forces em to leave. These days, just about all land belongs to one society or its neighbors, and it's bad form for one society to send its criminals to a neighboring society. Instead of exile, then, societies lock people up to keep them away from everything. People form a society and set up rules, so a person who violates those rules gives up eir position in the society and the right to participate freely in it, i.e. the right not to be imprisoned.

Putting all the (convicted) criminals together in one place, given the understanding that most of them will rejoin society at some point, is a pretty bad method of actually reducing crime. The typical prison environment is one which delays or even reverses an inmate's apparent moral development (see e.g. this study by Peter Scharf, a student of Lawrence Kohlberg), so likely it will actually make things worse. This has been demonstrated in studies (like this one), which showed recidivism at over 60% and rising in the U.S.

I do think that people are trying to be fair i... (read more)

I agree with the "prison as exile" view. (Transportation was an interesting historical institution somewhere between the two.) However, I don't see the logic behind the Rawlsian argument. Yes, of course that behind the veil of ignorance you wouldn't like to be among the 1% who are in prisons, but significantly reducing that number may well be feasible only at the cost of making the lives of the remaining 99% much worse on average. Now, maybe you believe that this is not the case, but that requires a separate argument, and it certainly can't be asserted as self-evident. Also, high rates of recidivism can be an argument in favor of longer prison terms (especially for repeat offenders), if deterrence and incapacitation are recognized as the primary motives for imprisonment, rather than rehabilitation.
I meant that you wouldn't like to be among the 1% in current prisons, rather than any number of better-structured alternatives. Given the various studies of and statistics on the current system, it doesn't seem likely that this is the best we can do. It can be, but I think that ignores the effects, psychological and otherwise, that current prisons seem to have on inmates. It seems like the system tends to encourage recidivism. Longer terms in an otherwise-unchanged system would be unlikely to accomplish professed goals better than larger reforms could.
I agree that the present-day U.S. prisons are absolutely horrible. On the other hand, their awfulness is an important element of deterrence, so it's not entirely clear what the net consequences of making them less awful would be. It is also unclear what would be the cost of keeping such a large prison population in much better conditions. Also, I'm far from convinced by the literature claiming that prisons encourage recidivism significantly on the net. There are certainly plausible scenarios of how this could happen, but I don't know how statistically significant they really are in practice. On the whole, it seems to me that what evidence exists suggests that the harsh approach emphasizing deterrence and incapacitation has so far been vindicated much better in practice than the attempts to make rehabilitation feasible on a mass scale. That said, I believe that the present system is heavily distorted by some biases that seem rather weird from a historical perspective, like for example the irrational revulsion against corporal punishment. One of my pet theories is that the present bias against torture ends up making prisons more torturous on the net, since it robs the authorities of effective means for enforcing prison discipline. (I elaborated on this theory in an OB comment a while ago.)
With such high recidivism rates, though, deterrence doesn't seem to be working too well. As I think about this further, it occurs to me that maybe the deterrent effect partially results from people's fear of the unknown. Once a person has been in prison, even with its awfulness, it might not seem as bad. (There's also the problem that many repeat offenders come from environments so unstable that prison hardly seems bad by comparison, no matter what.) One problem is the unreasonable size of the population itself, due in large part to the absurdity of U.S. drug laws and penalties. The large size of the prison population serves to point out that we should be trying to improve the system in a variety of ways. Also, just to clarify, when I made the Rawlsian argument about prisons, I was referring more to the incarceration vs. rehabilitation debate than the awfulness of conditions in general. Yes, I agree, but we should note that deterrence and incapacitation are much easier to implement effectively than rehabilitation. Locking people up is something we've known how to do for millennia; we're not quite as practiced at understanding human psychology and neurology.
Not necessarily. Even very effective deterrence that drastically cuts crime may coexist with high recidivism rates, since those who ever get imprisoned in the first place are those for whom deterrence is less effective. A high percentage of repeat offenders among former prisoners doesn't mean that there isn't a huge population of potential offenders that are successfully deterred altogether. (Whether this is true is of course arguable.) I don't think "absurdity" is the right word. Drug laws are among those selectively enforced sweeping provisions that give the authorities a broad enough latitude to use them as pretext for enforcement of unwritten de facto norms which would be nowadays found unconstitutional or at least perceived as scandalous if spelled out explicitly, even though all respectable people hypocritically expect them to be enforced for their own benefit. Here I especially have in mind those norms that used to be enforced more openly through anti-vagrancy, anti-loitering, and similar laws. These are no longer considered constitutional, but respectable people still want the authorities to keep the underclass away from them. In a sense, drug laws are for the underclass what the insider trading, arcane tax violations, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and similar vague and sweeping laws are for the rich. Also, a significant element of any criminal punishment is the subsequent stigma of having been subjected to it, both informal and official (as reflected in background checks). This factor is clearly less relevant for repeated imprisonment.
All good points.
Minor quibble: my understanding is that, in European-derived cultures at least, prison time as a punishment for crime in its own right is actually a relatively recent (i.e. post-Enlightenment) development. We've locked people up for millennia, but the victims have usually been political prisoners, prisoners of war, or people awaiting other forms of punishment. Not that this really degrades your point about deterrence and incapacitation being easier to implement than rehabilitation.
A sufficiently long term (i.e. life sentence) does guarantee a ~0% recidivism rate. There are obviously other factors to consider, but if the primary goal is simply to reduce recidivism, longer sentences do have the benefit of simply reducing opportunities to commit a second (or third, or fourth...) crime. I personally feel that this would be a terrible solution, especially given the financial costs involved. I'd argue that the goal is to make society safe at the lowest cost, since the saved costs can then (presumably) be spent on something that further helps society.
This suggests wide application of death penalty as an attractive option. Historically, English law took this approach, prescribing death penalty even for petty theft and similar offenses that would nowadays be seen as not too serious. (This changed with a series of reforms in the first half of the 19th century.) Of course, the problem with death penalty is the irreversibility of the punishment in case of wrong conviction, and also that it gives criminals the incentive to murder at will once they've already done something that draws the death penalty (and to fight like cornered rats when being captured). However, my impression is that the old English system worked pretty well. (Also, the problem with the death penalty as practiced in modern-day U.S. is that the amount of time and effort involved in the bureaucratic work that is necessary to execute someone is so vast that it ends up being more expensive than life imprisonment in practice. But this could of course be easily changed given the political will to do so.)
Your own comment seems to suggest that the cost of the death penalty is excessive: It reduces safety by causing innocent people to die, it reduces safety by making those criminals have nothing left to fear (and probably building a fair bit of resentment), it's expensive due to bureaucratic practices, and it's expensive because you lose all the resources invested in to that individual with no chance of redeeming them in to a productive member of society. So, I suppose we're in agreement that it's not actually a practical solution for either the goal of safety or finances, even if some people might assume it is? :)

describes a study which asked whether people punish others in order to deter crime, and concluded, No

The study concluded that people favor punishment that isn't optimal for deterring crime, but that doesn't necessarily mean their punishments aren't aimed at deterring crime; it could mean these people are aiming to deter crime, but they're just going about it the wrong way.

Or that the study authors are wrong about what punishments are optimal for deterrence. The social sciences are a long, long way from being able to make definitively accurate statments about that kind of thing.

Most people would be upset if prisoners could go in on Friday, and emerge, rehabilitated, on Sunday.

Upvoted for this sentence alone.

That sentence leaped out as me as the crucial error that plunged the article into confusion. The words "prisoners could go in on Friday, and emerge, rehabilitated, on Sunday." are a massive failure of natural language where two very different ideas get referred to by a single ambiguous phrase. Start by recalling Daniel Dennett's warnings against thought experiments. We set them up by saying: imagine X. We make a vague and half-hearted effort to imagine X. Then we draw the conclusion that we believed in all along. We seldom put the effort into our thought experiments that would let the logic of the scenario drive us to an unexpected conclusion. Let us try to take Dennett's warning seriously. Fred goes into prison on Friday saying "Ofcourse I glassed the fucking bitch! That cunt deserved it." He comes out on Sunday saying "Call me Frederick. Call me Frederick the Fabulous. I hereby renounce my past life. It was so hopelessly vulgar. I will never be able to live down the shame of it, but I will strive mightily, for as long as God keeps me on earth, to be a shining example of penitence and good taste." The psycho-surgery and neural implants had done their job and Fred really is rehabilitated over the weekend. Where is the old Fred, who seldom got through a rugby match without being sent off, who lost girlfriends through spending all his money on beer, and whose dangerous, manly allure won him new ones, quickly, if not for long? Is this new Federick even straight? Why is he playing chess on Friday nights. People are shocked, disturbed, creeped-out. The state psychiatrist is adamant that it is the same person and has old school records to prove it. Rough old Fred had been the strongest chess player in his school, aged 9. The friends who don't recognise him now, didn't know him then. The folk understanding is that the elite are erasing prisoners completely, effectively stealing their bodies to provide homes for completely new people who subscribe to elite values. The e
I wouldn't call that a warning against thought experiments, but a warning to do take them seriously and do them well. After all, Dennett himself does thought experiments. And of course, your comment does a thought experiment.
True, but it was a warning against the particular thought experiment in the comment that he had responded to.
This seems like an extremely unfair and disingenuous comparison, assuming that one believes the current system also rehabilitates people, since we don't generally assume Fred has been ego-executed during the 10 year sentence he would have had otherwise. If the outcome is the same then why would it be creepy for this to happen over the course of a weekend instead of 10 years? After all, either way, Fred is "a shining example of penitence and good taste" and has a sudden interest in chess...
I've often encouraged people to give someone a more charitable interpretation. But I haven't had to ask someone not to deliberately search out the least-charitable interpretation... until now. If you'd said, "most people", I wouldn't agree, but I could imagine you were thinking it through carefully. But it's "implausible" that people want revenge on criminals? No. I find that implausible. So when I say P, it's speculation; but when you say not(P), it's definite?
I suspect that we are talking past each other because of a cross-cultural confusion. There are hidden assumptions here that we do not share. I'm going to try and step back a bit and to bring my subconscious assumptions to the surface. I accept Robin Hanson's notion of Homo Hypocritus: Man the sly rule bender. Indeed I push on a little further. Mr. A takes advantage of Mr. B with a little sly rule bending. Later Mr. B gets his own back with a little sly rule bending of his own. Later still Mr. A tries it on again, but Mr. B knows how the trick is done and resists, becoming Man The Stubborn Rule Stiffener. I see Man The Sly Rule Bender and and Man The Stubborn Rule Stiffener as two sides of the same coin, action and reaction. To see how this plays out in real life consider the case of Abdelbaset_al-Megrahi. His imprisonment, after being convicted of the Lockerbie Bombing, was causing political difficulties with Libya. It would be expedient to release him, but how could it be justified? Since he had protstate cancer it was possible to declare that he only had 3 months to live and to release him on compassionate grounds according to existing rules. He is still alive eighteen months later, so round one to the Man The Sly Rule Breaker. How can Man The Stubborn Rule Stiffener push back? He could try insisting on accountability, with some kind of sanction being taken against doctors who turn out to be excessively pessimistic about the prognosis of candidates for compassionate release. Man The Stubborn Rule Stiffener loses round two; there is no accountability for these kinds of decisions. Why does Man The Stubborn Rule Stiffener usually lose? A glib answer is that when we have power we turn into Man The Sly Rule Breaker because we are in a position to abuse discretion. When we lose power we turn into Man The Stubborn Rule Stiffener because we object to those who have displaced us abusing the power of discretion that they have won from us. Perhaps, but I would rather sa
I think someone else on LW said it first.

We punish because if we did not regard it as optimal to inflict disutility on those who game-theoretically defect, (a decision theory instantiated by) some people would not regard it as optimal to cooperate, and we would thus be in a worse position; and we cannot simultaneously be "such that we would punish", and reap all the benefits of subjunctive punishment, while not also punishing while in the branch that has a particular crime.

Note: this reason does not depend on any punishment, or even punishments in general, causing less disutility than not-punishing, in the technical sense of "cause" (which requires the effect to be either in the future, or, in timeless formalisms, a descendent of the minimal set [which includes the cause] in a Bayesian network that screens off knowledge about the effect). However, with an appropriate comparison to the counterfactual case, the punishers come out ahead.

(And yes, I'm neglecting the case of the exact limit of punishment for which this holds, and thus the issue of what it takes for a punishment to be regarded as excessive.)

The general pattern of "when people want to punish" coincides largely with what this reasoning gives, although internally it usually feels like some otherwise-ungrounded "deservedness of others of being treated badly" (see the Drescher quote in my article).

This is absolutely correct. Consider the following as an example to why a pure likelihood of recidivism system would be undesirable even from a utilitarian perspective:

If someone murders their spouse, and it's clear that they would never murder anyone who isn't their spouse, locking them up causes them to suffer and prevents no future crime. Indeed, it costs the state money in the form of their lost taxes and imprisonment costs. An injunction against ever marrying again would be the cheapest way to prevent them from committing another crime.

But if this were the punishment, how would that effect people's decisions to murder their spouses? Or commit other crimes they could prove were one-off events?

This would be the perfect place to link Eight Short Studies on Excuses.
Can I summarize all of that as "We punish to deter crime"?
It's important to distinguish between subjunctive and causal deterrence. People typically think of deterrence in the latter sense, but the former is actually what governs it. See my reply to Marius. (Sorry, sorry, "User:"Marius, as seems to be the convention now ...)
That's just a Clippyism.
I'm starting to feel an otherwise-ungrounded deservedness of Clippy of being treated badly ...
I always considered it to include people not committing crime out of fear of being arrested.
Um... what? Dead link, but what I would like is a definition of subjunctive deterrence. "Deterrence that makes us feel good"?
"Counterfactual" would be better. "Subjunctive" is a grammatical term.
So is "gender", but it's entered common usage (at least among a community that includes this one) enough that it serves a non-grammatical purpose here.
Which is what? What does it mean?
Edit: Subjunctive as in "If I were to kill my neighbour they would punish me". Type 1 (subjunctive): Being the sort of society that punishes crimes makes would-be criminals anticipate being punished and deters them from their crimes. Type 2 (causal): Actual executed punishment makes would be criminals take note and remember that specific example before committing a similar crime, deterring them from carrying it out.
What's the difference between these? Can you give an example of a criminal who is deterred by one type, but not by the other?
Let's imagine that your city hires Robocop, who (fortunately) has a publicly readable source code in this hypothetical, and is programmed to shoot anyone who commits a violent crime from this moment on. An evil mastermind would immediately look up the source code, realize this, and put their criminal plans on hold until they've found a way to circumvent Robocop. They would be subjunctively deterred. A regular hoodlum wouldn't realize that anything was different until they started seeing other criminals riddled with bullets. They would be causally deterred from committing crimes when they saw the punishment actually being meted out. The point Silas is making is that, if all your city's criminals are of the first type, then Robocop will successfully deter crime even without actually shooting anybody.
And possibly without being able to shoot anybody. That is, if there's a bug in Robocop's source code that in practice will cause it to never actually load its weapon, but the bug is subtle enough that even an evil mastermind won't notice it based on an evaluation of the source code, then the evil mastermind is deterred "subjunctively" while the regular hoodlum is altogether unaffected (though the evil mastermind presumably quickly updates on the existence of non-bullet-riddled criminals). If all the city's criminals are evil masterminds, OTOH, they are all deterred.
I may be splitting hairs, but causal versus subjunctive deterrence aren't mutually exclusive as described here. In fact causal deterrence is always subjunctive and subjunctive deterrence is always causal. The difference is on what you're focusing: the historical learning experiences versus the lessons learned from those experiences. When you talk about causal deterrence, you're talking about the learning experiences themselves - but they are learning experiences only because of the lessons learned. Meanwhile, when you talk about subjunctive deterrence, you are talking about the lessons learned - but the lessons always require a learning experience. Let's apply it to these examples: The evil mastermind knows how to interpret source code - but he has to have at some point learned how to do this. If he's like the typical skilled programmer, he has a long history of having run code and seeing what happens. Even if you think, "in principle he could learn language simply by reading the language specification", he needs to have learned how to read and understand language, which again involves lots and lots of experience. In order for the regular hoodlum to learn from the experiences of others as he does here, he must draw an inference about the future, such as, "if I were to commit a crime then Robocop would shoot me" - which belief about the future behavior of Robocop conditional on his own behavior, if it deters him from commiting crime, is subjunctive deterrence.
I still think that the two types of deterrence ought to be distinguished, as they differ on the key point of whether a punishment has to actually happen in order for deterrence to take place. Recall the hypothetical raised here on LW wherein the US, immediately after WW2, declares that any other country found to be pursuing nuclear weapons will be immediately nuked. Ignoring the many moral and practical difficulties of that policy, it at least is an example where leaders would strongly prefer subjunctive deterrence to suffice.
I agree that it's an important point that the punishment doesn't actually have to ever happen in order for the deterrent to work. Agree 100% on that. Nor do I think that I'm really saying that there isn't a distinction - what I'm arguing is that the distinction is which side of the coin you're looking at. However, to split another hair, the WW2 example that you mention (I didn't see the original mention so I may be wrong about this) depends strongly for its deterrent effect on the fact that the US actually did drop atomic bombs on Japan, which created an example for the world to look at and learn from. I don't doubt that there would be a deterrent effect merely by demonstrating the bomb on fake houses and people, but actually dropping the bomb on populated areas probably greatly increased the seriousness with which everyone takes the atom bomb.
Anything that increases anticipated punishment, but hasn't been in effect long enough to have noticeably increased past punishment will increase type 1 deterrence, but not type 2 deterrence. Assuming universally known conviction rates and punishments making further personal details about convicted criminals known to make their individual fates more memorable might increase type 2 deterrence, but shouldn't have any effect on type 1 deterrence. In practice few if any criminals should respond to only one of these types (though perfectly rational criminals would only take type 1 into account).
I think your distinction between type 1 and type 2 is not the right distinction. The important distinction is whether the criminal is the type of criminal who could have been deterred or not.
I think you mean SilasBarta's distinction. I have no strong opinion on how useful making the distinction in this particular way is.
Link fixed, FAWS summarizes it nicely.
Subjunctive or subjective?

One reason we punish criminals is to deter private revenge, which tends to escalate into long-lasting feuds. This function isn't incompatible with rehabilitation in prison, though, teaching people life skills that will keep them out of trouble after release.

I got the impression that such feuds were common in prison. As such, it would increase them. Also, while drug-dealing does tend to result in long-lasting feuds, it wouldn't happen if it wasn't black-market. As such, the primary reason people go to prison (in America) wouldn't help with this.
I agree that we should imprison as few people as possible. My point was that having murders punished by the state rather than by the victim's families leads to fewer people in prison. If we don't jail Bob for killing Ken, then Ken's brother kills Bob, so then Bob's brother kills Ken's son, and so on. At least, that's what tends to happen in societies without effective law enforcement.
Literal feuds? Murder isn't exactly the most common crime.
Yes, literal feuds. Cycles of tit-for-tat revenge that involve violence or are likely to escalate to violence unless the injured party (or their surviving relatives) perceive that "justice has been done" through state-imposed punishment. I lived in West Virginia, which such feuds were common before effective law enforcement was substituted for private revenge. This is clearly not an argument for punishment in the case of victimless "crimes" or offenses unlikely to provoke escalating retaliation.
I think you mean "preempt"? Deterrence would be against all future crimes, not revenge in particular, wouldn't it?
Yes, preempt is better.

If you had a brain condition so that you had no - here it's a little vague - consciousness, or moral sense, or free will, or, well, something - then it would be cruel to punish you for your crime.

If people in your pre-crime condition would commit certain crimes regardless of people in your pre-crime condition generally being punished for committing such crimes, punishing people post-crime does not deter others in such a position from committing such crimes.

Harming anyone who injures is still retributive.

Prison may sometimes serve to rehabilitate or impr... (read more)

Hypothesis: Punishment is also a way of signaling whose interests are to be taken seriously.

This hypothesis was inspired by a radio interview (in other words, turning up a cite is inconvenient and not necessary to the argument) I heard with a woman who'd been raped by a guard when she was in jail. Rather unusually, there was physical evidence and enough people to take her seriously that he was convicted. However, it was defined as a lesser crime and he was imprisoned for only four months.

Prior to knowing anything about this specific case, we know that prison guards in part self-select for the desire to abuse prisoners, and are in an excellent position to hide evidence. We also know that prisoners are highly likely to dislike even their honest guards and to be willing to break rules, and thus highly likely to make false claims against their guards. Thus, we can expect even the best judges (faced both with the huge number of falsely positive claims and falsely negative sets of evidence) to do poorly when faced with prisoner-guard lawsuits.
This was described as a case where there was physical evidence.
This slightly reduces the chances of a falsely positive claim. With more information about the nature of the evidence and with access to the evidence itself rather than to a radio interview with the accuser, further reductions could be made.

Punishment serves many purposes, but one of the most important ones is evolutionary. A long history of seeking out criminals and taking away their ability to reproduce is what caused humanity to evolve morality. Psychopathic personality traits, a strong correlate of crime, are heritable. If we stopped punishing then crime would become adaptive, and in a few tens of generations our ancestors would be significantly less moral than we are.

Under this view, whether insanity means punishment is more or less deserved depends on its underlying cause, but usually m... (read more)

And yet prison sentences do not correlate with reduced ability to reproduce. http://inductivist.blogspot.com/2011/02/average-family-size-of-jail-inmates.html Perhaps ancient prisons worked differently? edit: it would be a mistake to compare the reproductive effect of modern prisons with ancient executions, beatings, or fines. Prisons and slavery would be the closest ancient analogs for this purpose.
Good point, but technically you really want to compare like with like. Maybe prisoners would have had even more kids than they did had they not been imprisoned but allowed to lead their life of crime unpunished. In fact that seems probable. Imagine this: you are told that you belong to the control arm of such a study, which means that if you commit any crimes or other infractions, you will never be punished. What would you do and what would be the result? I, being at heart bad, very bad, would get very rich very quickly (not telling you how, but it involves being above the law), and I would have plenty of unprotected sex (with carefully selected gold diggers) without worrying about child care payments.
"Ancient prisons"? Incarceration is a relatively new development. Most punishment was corporal in the past. People were sent to jail to await trial or pay off debts. Robin Hanson can see beyond the status quo assumption that criminal punishment = prison.
A more plausible study would look like "how does early release affect fecundity rates". It is certainly true that the set of "people above the law" currently equates to "dictators" and that their reproductive success is well-documented. This may relate more to their relative power in society than to their lack of incarceration, however.
Certainly my proposal is not realistic, but amounts to a thought experiment.
Just to be clear: You are talking about a hypothetical version of yourself, and don't mean to say that the only thing currently keeping you from committing crimes is fear of punishment, right?
I am thoroughly domesticated and come when called. However, the law is out of control and makes illegal many acts which are not morally wrong (no details as that would be political), and I would have no problem ignoring those evil laws. I would get very rich, very quickly, just doing that, because ofmy competitive advantage. However, real evil men exist and if they were above the law they would do terrible things.

You might expect that Snead goes on to explain why these laws are bad things. But he doesn't! He assumes we can all see that these are obviously bad things.

Well, I can see that these are bad things, but what I can't see is what they have to do with outcome-based justice. These all exist because of political decisions, not impassioned consideration of their likely effects.

Yes, exactly. Those laws are claimed to deter crime, but really, they're the result of politicians wanting to appear to be "tough on crime." The appearance matters more than the result.
Care to explain?
That doesn't really matter; if these things (bad or not) are to have any bearing on the idea of outcome-based justice, then the connection has to be established. Maybe Snead did establish this, and Phil just didn't report that part, but I'm pretty sure that they're not based on outcomes at all. When I lived in California, the supporters of the three-strikes law, as far as I could see, discussed punishment and not prevention. The rhetoric surrounding sex offenders is mostly about protecting children, but the evidence is not there, and sex offenders are made out to be monsters; this is not a rational decision but a political one. (As for why I'm against these, it's because every one of them increases the power of the state to punish people. In principle, I agree with Phil's implicit claim that justice should be utilitarian and outcome-based justice (consequentialist ethics) is the right approach. But in practice, if "outcome-based justice" means increasing the power of the state, then I'm against it, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Phil's point.)

Society - and for once, I'm using this term universally - teaches that, if you committed a crime, you should be punished.

This is not exactly something society teaches you. It is inherent in the concept of "crime." With a few exceptions, a crime is a thing that is forbidden by law, and being forbidden by law means that it carries a punishment. If you aren't punished for it, it isn't a crime. If you shouldn't be punished for it, it shouldn't be a crime. This observation is more linguistic than social.

And, incidentally:

[We should] only [be] cru

... (read more)
No. Being forbidden by law means that the Powers That Be will take forceful steps to stop people doing it, even if they want to. At present, that generally means punishing people who do whatever-it-is, but in some hypothetical future surveillance-heavy society it might instead mean that as soon as someone tries to do whatever-it-is they are physically prevented by an armed robot police officer. Or in some hypothetical future brainwashing-heavy society it might mean that those who do whatever-it-is are tracked down and have their brains modified so that they won't (or can't) do it again. In yet another hypothetical society it might mean that anyone discovered to have done whatever-it-is feels so ashamed that they commit suicide. It happens -- and this is PhilGoetz's point, I think -- that in (almost?) all existing societies, in (almost?) all cases, a central part of how legal forbidding works is via punishment of those who do what's forbidden, even though this isn't the only conceivable way it could work.
Another way that's currently used in the United States is that the state may refuse to enforce your contracts, if these call for illegal activity. It's also common with minor crimes to obtain a conviction with a suspended sentence; does that count as not being punished?
Being forbidden by law means that the Powers that Be might take forceful steps in an effort to stop people from doing it. The law is only an approximation of government behavior, and there are many laws which are no longer enforced.
Agreed: "might, and in some sense are supposed to" would have been better than "will".
You'll note that the sentence you are taking down includes a rather explicit, "With a few exceptions," before it. I would consider a hypothetical future society with omnipotent thought police to count as just such an "exception." I would think mandatory brainwashing falls comfortably within the bounds of the concept, "punishment." incidentally, I suspect that new words will evolve when (and if) new meanings exist - terms like thought-crime or pre-crime. I saw nothing in the original post implying that the correct formulation of the criminal code involved omniscient robot police. More seriously, the original post is principally about the distinction between deterrent and non-detterrent punishment. I think commenters have sufficiently destroyed this distinction - the fact that punishment is not a deterrent ex post for party A does not mean it is not a deterrent ex ante or for parties B-Z.
On reflection I'm very confused by that sentence. It has two parts, after the "with a few exceptions" qualification: "a crime is a thing forbidden by law" and "being forbidden by law means that it carries a punishment". Both of these seem to be definitions, and I'm not sure what sense it makes to give a definition while saying it has exceptions. The immediately following sentence said -- with no qualifications -- "If you aren't punished for it, it isn't a crime". So I'll take your word for it that you didn't mean to assert that being forbidden by law means, by definition, carrying a punishment; but I can't see that it was unreasonable for me to think you were asserting that. I don't think the original post is principally about the distinction between deterrent and non-deterrent punishment. It's about whether punishing institutions are there for reform, for deterrence, or because people just like punishing, with the suggestion that there's a great deal of the last of those even though it's usual to talk as if the first two are what matter.
You think having your brain forcibly re-written isn't a punishment? A robot using physical force on you isn't a threat? No, law = threat of punishment in every past or existing society, because that's the only way it can work unless you have universal mind pre-emptive mind control or a godlike singleton AI. The idea that there's some alternative to punishing criminals only seems sensible if you redefine 'punishment' to leave out whatever you're suggesting as an alternative to prison time.

Conversely, the idea that the only effective thing you can ever do to lower crime rates is punish criminals only makes sense if you define "punishment" to include anything that lowers crime rates.

Just to be concrete for a second: if stores S1 and S2 both have the same rate (R0) of shoplifting, and S1 implements a policy of prosecuting all shoplifters to the fullest extent of the law and its rate drops to R1, and S2 implements a policy of putting up signs everywhere with sad-looking cartoon characters with big eyes expressing various kinds of sadness over shoplifting and its rate drops to R2.

Are you asserting that:

  • ...because S2's policy isn't punishment-based, it's not going to reduce the shoplifting rate, so R2 ~= R0?

  • ...because S2's policy isn't punishment-based, it's not going to reduce the shoplifting rate as much as punishment does, so R2 > R1?

  • ...we don't know whether S2's policy is punishment-based based on this information; if R2 <= R1 then perhaps it is?

  • ...this example has nothing to do with what we're talking about?

  • ...other?

Those things are doubtless unpleasant, or at least undesired, but if the unpleasantness is merely a side effect and the intended prevention of crimes happens independently of the unpleasantness then they are not punishments in the sense that's relevant here. Of course, if someone wants to do X and a society's enforcement mechanisms -- whatever they are -- stops them doing X, or does something to make doing X unattractive to them despite their wanting to do it, then that's going to be unpleasant for them. In that sense, crime implies punishment. But it's a very weak sense and not, I think, the one that's relevant to this discussion.
In that case, he meant that society teaches you that some things should be criminal.
I don't think this is a terribly contentious claim. I would be very surprised if I heard of a human society that had no concept analagous to "crime." Dissolving the language makes the claim sound a lot less exciting.
I can tell you that I, personally, have no concept analogous to "crime". I don't see why the value of your happiness would be correlated with your personality, or why it would ever have a negative value. Perhaps it would be better to taboo "crime". Society teaches you that some things cause your happiness to have negative value.
I think the fundamental statement is that, "Society teaches you that some acts are forbidden." The concept of "forbidden" entails negative consequences. More generally, I think you're analyzing a social phenomenon at an individual scale, which is needlessly confusing things. Let me make three assumptions. I don't think there are any societies that would contest them, though of course nihilists, egoists, and other special philosophies exist. 1. There are certain acts that are detrimental to the sustained existence of human society. 2. These acts are often highly beneficial to individual humans who commit them. 3. Society must substantially prevent these acts from occurring. Given that all of these are true, there are bound to be forbidden acts. Something is not forbidden where a rational actor prefers all of the consequences of doing over consequences of not doing it (i.e. assuming a 100% chance of being caught). For example, if the legal consequences of thievery were that you were given a large wad of cash so you wouldn't need to steal, this would not really amount to forbidding theft, and indeed it would encourage it to occur. Also, that wad of cash had to come from somewhere, and thus you've diverted resources from some other entity. The concept of forbidding something requires it to have unpleasant consequences. (This is excepting fantastic situations like omniscient police.) That doesn't mean that your happiness has strictly negative value - we don't torture prisoners - but it does mean that some unhappiness must be inflicted on some individuals that happiness generally can be maximized. It might be nice if we could get all the results we want without having to make people suffer, but reality just doesn't work like that. Understanding crime and punishment from a utilitarian perspective is really no different than understanding going to the dentist from a utilitarian perspective. It's unpleasant, and if we could get the same results without doing it, we w
We don't torture prisoners? If the 'we' in question is the US, I think it's more accurate to say that we don't admit we torture prisoners.
This is entirely correct. But we hide it because we think it's wrong. The condition of our prisons is due more to extremely powerful guard unions and other general incompetence than it is due to an affirmative desire to make prisoner's lives miserable. Unless you're saying we do have some covert policy of torturing prisoners. That may be true across some extremely limited scope, and it's done purely as a means to an end. I don't think there's much of a case for saying that we deliberately and gratuitously torture prisoners as an intentional part of their punishment, which was my point.
We have a fairly strong taboo to the effect that government should stop at the prisoner's skin. However, there are a lot of ways of making people acutely miserable without breaking the taboo. I don't think it's a bad taboo-- it's better than overtly mutilating people, I think. Torture and Democracy is a history and analysis of no-marks torture, and concludes that no-marks torture is generally a result of monitoring by human rights groups.
I second Torture and Democracy's analysis; it's a great, if very long and very depressing, book.
This doesn't sound right. Russia's prisons are pretty horrible too, but we don't have powerful guard unions.
I'm inclined to agree with you-- the prison-industrial complex affects the number of people in prison in the US, but it's not the only way that sort of thing can happen. As for the US, it's not just the guards' unions, though the unions have lobbied for "tough on crime" measures-- there's money in constructing prisons and in for-profit prisons. Also, prisons can be a major source of employment in rural areas, and prisoners count as residents for counties (I think-- it might be at some other organizational level) to get Federal aid, but the money need not be spent on them. History of treating teenagers like adult criminals
Surely its effect is above zero, but I'm highly suspicious of how significant it really is. I wasn't around back then, but from what I know, it seems pretty evident that the crime wave of the sixties, seventies, and eighties produced a genuine popular sentiment in favor of tougher criminal law, which hasn't subsided to this day. In fact, this is one of the few major political trends in recent decades that looks like an authentic democratic response to popular demand.
Some large proportion of Americans, perhaps a majority, seem to be in favor of the rape of male prisoners. Also, a large proportion seem to favor life imprisonment because it's more painful than execution. I used to think they said that as an excuse to be against the death penalty, but I'm no longer so sure.
I don't believe this is quite correct. I think a large number of Americans support (to an extent) the status quo in all areas, and this prevents them from taking prison rape as seriously as other rape. But I've met nobody who'd be willing to pay ten cents to increase the amount of prison rape. Nor have I seen many people who disfavor execution as being "too easy". I won't say zero on this one, however.
Can you unpack where you're getting the "because it's more painful" clause? I mean, I assume you're talking about revealed preferences here, where the fact that X happens and I don't stop it is evidence that I'm in favor of X. I don't entirely buy that, but I don't think discussing it will be productive. But I don't see how you can use revealed preferences as evidence of my putative reasons for being in favor of X.
I've heard a number of Americans say that. I haven't heard argument against it, and there's a lot of sentiment against making prison conditions more humane. I don't have statistics from polls-- I don't know if polls have been taken on that question-- but I think I'm making a reasonable deduction.
I asked about this in my livejournal, and some people have run into that argument (one used it in the tactical way I imagined), and some haven't. I'm concluding that it's within the range of possible beliefs for Americans, but not very common. It may have been more common in the past than it is now.
Fascinating! I sorta wish I'd ever heard anyone say that, I'd really want to know how much money they're willing to spend every year on causing pain to convicted criminals.
I wonder if there's a generational difference. I believe I'm rather older (age 57) than the typical LessWronger. Opponents to capital punishment, like Geoffrey Robertson QC, argue that it is "much worse for an individual to spend the rest of their life in prison than to be executed immediately" That's the only example I've been able to find in about 15 minutes of googling (and British, not American), so it may be a less common view than I thought. Or maybe I don't have the right search terms.
Punishment doesn't seem like a very reliable way of getting people to not do what you don't want, but I'm not sure that an absolutely no-punishment society is feasible.
This gives a reason it might be instrumentally good to punish someone, but it's only good so long as it's necessary to prevent those acts. If there are better ways to prevent them, or punishing them isn't sufficiently effective, then punishing them is a bad idea. We need to distinguish between terminal values and instrumental values. If you mean that it has a positive instrumental value, that means that we don't imprison them because they should be punished. We do it for the greater good. If you mean that it has a positive terminal value just because it leads to something with a positive terminal value, that would logically result in each link of a chain of events resulting in something with a positive terminal value to increase the total terminal value exponentially. The issue here isn't whether or not punishing people deters crime. It's whether or not we are punishing people with the intention of reducing crime. If punishing people is more cost-effective (counting their own unhappiness as cost) than giving them a psychiatrist and trying to reform them, so be it. If not, let's give them a psychiatrist instead.
This is ignoring my (2) - those acts are individually beneficial. I want a nice watch. I steal a nice watch. It's unclear how a psychiatrist is going to be particularly helpful here, if there's no punishment. Moreover, what if I don't want to go to the psychiatrist? Am I allowed to wander around freely before I finish my sessions? What if he can't help me? Ultimately, the psychiatrist is still a punishment - I'm being compelled to go even if I otherwise might not. The fact that it's a much nicer punishment than prison doesn't change the fact that it's a punishment. You wouldn't give me free psychiatric sessions that I had no obligation to go to in response to my stealing something (or killing someone). I think I'm in agreement with you on the terminal/instrumental bit. I just think of it bigger-picture. If someone murders his wife, it is good to punish him irrespective of the fact that he has no chance of reoffense. I think my main objection is that I don't think there's a world that is likely to exist in which non-coercive responses to certain actions provide adequate deterrence, so there's no practical difference between justice being a terminal value and not being a terminal value. But that's somewhat irrelevant. However, I might even go so far as to say it is good to punish him even if it has no chance of deterring anyone else. Similarly, if I had $10 to give to a serial killer or a sick orphan, I'd give it to the orphan, even if they would experience an equal amount of happiness from obtaining it (and only partly because "equal amount of happiness" may not be a meaningful concept in human language). I believe this choice is typical of all of humanity. The idea of justice as a terminal value requires more development than I can properly do in a comment response; I'll develop a top-level post on the issue soon.
I don't understand. Do you think justice has terminal value, or just instrumental value? Punishment may very well be the best way to minimize harm. I'm not saying it necessarily isn't. I'm just saying that hurting a criminal has negative terminal value. As far as I can understand, the terminal value of punishment is what this post is about.
The first is not completely tautological. For instance if you commit a crime strictly to prevent a greater harm, have no other approach available, there is no pre-made legal exception and it's the sort of crime that rightfully carries a punishment because I causes actual harm and usually net harm I believe you should still be convicted, but pardoned shortly afterwards.
What about the necessity defense? (That seems to exist only in the United States; I always thought that it was derived from English Common Law.) ETA: Here's some discussion on the necessity defense in the context of law school, and it includes our old favourite, the trolley problem. (It also cites an 1810 court case which suggests that the necessity defense does derive from English Common Law, but Wikipedia disagrees.)

The most-favorable interpretation I can come up with is that Snead believes that justice should always be fair. Everyone should get the same chances; everyone should get the same punishment for the same crime.

There is certainly a powerful slippery slope argument here. The norm that ties well-defined punishments to specific deeds is a strong focal point. In such a situation, it's impossible to move away from this point in carefully measured steps in order to maximize some abstract metric. Once the system has moved away from it, there will be strong pres... (read more)

Punishment also has the effect of discouraging further crime, of course. A lot of discussion goes wrong by conflating this purpose with others.

ETA: Also, your second link is broken.

The second link (fixed, thanks) is to a post arguing that people don't punish the way they should if their goal is to discourage crime. I revised the post extensively to say that the idea that justice should deter crime is, at best, controversial.
If you're interested in further reading on crime policy, I've recently seen a lot of positive reviews of Mark Kleinman's "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment." I confess to not having read it myself yet, but the subtitle was too perfectly germane not to mention here.

Most people would be upset if prisoners could go in on Friday, and emerge, rehabilitated, on Sunday.

I for one wouldn't. What do you suppose is wrong with that - besides that it's counterfactual?

(I believe you're misstating Rawls' position on punishment; for instance he says "by enforcing a public system of penalties government removes the grounds for thinking that others are not complying with the rules", which strikes me as a consequentialist argument. I can't recall his arguing in ToJ that "everyone should get the same punishment for th... (read more)

"Seems obvious" is not an argument. Does someone have links to literature on whether inequality causes crime? On average, are more dollars stolen by rich criminals, or by poor criminals? Is more violence directed by rich people, or by poor people? In Mexico today, the body count in the drug wars, directed by rich people, is greater than all other violence combined. For my purposes, attitudes toward punishment matter, because I want to refer to them in a later post. But, even aside from that, human attitudes toward punishment matter, because we are not yet controlled by an AI. Somebody makes decisions about these things. And it is generally not a small cadre of trained professionals in the relevant domain.
There are links all over the place to the effect that the correlation between inequality and violent crime is well attested. There is a lot of quibbling about what kind of inequality correlates with what kind of crime, but the basic link seems sound. Rich, but does that matter? I'm not arguing that poverty causes crime, rather that inequality does. Whoever is a beneficiary of the inequality tries to maintain it, while whoever is a victim of it tries to correct it. If the inequality is modest and proportioned to merit, we can expect that both will remain within the law in their efforts; if the inequality is disproportionate, both will have an incentive to resort to extraordinary (and possibly illicit) measures. I'm not denying the existence of middle class crime, but it's clear that inequality provides lots and lots of opportunity for crime; the greater the inequality, the more the opportunity. Yup, drugs supplied by poor countries to rich countries: inequality in law enforcement (which comes down to economic inequality) amplifying existing economic inequality.
The causal connection, however, is at best controversial. (Though of course it's fashionable and high-status to assert things along the lines of "inequality causes crime," because it sounds enlightened and caring.) For one, there are historical examples of societies with extreme inequalities and nevertheless extremely low crime rates -- late Victorian Britain, to take a notable example, and most of the 19th century Western Europe in general. And certainly there are numerous ways how the correlation between crime rates and various measures of inequality could emerge without any causal connection. Am I misreading you, or do you actually believe that inequality proportioned to merit is likely to be less severe than otherwise? What do you base this conclusion on?
Agreed: it cannot be established from correlation only. That would be overreaching. No, I just point out that extreme inequalities that do not appear to have any sound justification make a fertile breeding ground for crime. Extreme inequality of this kind constitutes "grounds for thinking that others are not complying with the rules", and if you think that others are not complying with the rules you may reason that it is rational not to comply with them yourself, since complying with the rules hurts you and does not benefit society as a whole (because the benefits of complying only accrue to a society where by and large everyone complies).
Does that specifically have support in the data? I have various thoughts related to this which I'll simply list: 1) People have an amazing ability to rationalize what they want to do. That being the case, someone who is committing a crime is likely to rationalize it by claiming that the existing inequalities do not have any sound justification. High crime periods will then likely be times in which a lot of people - namely criminals and would-be criminals - will say that inequalities are unjustified, even if the causality goes in the opposite direction (from the prevalence of crime to the popularity of the claim that inequalities are unjustified). 2) We have a tendency to approve of what happens, whatever it is. We favor the strong horse, and find nice things to say about it. Two possible examples of this phenomenon are (a) that the winners are the ones who write the histories, and (b) Stockholm Syndrome, in which a victim comes to identify with their victimizer. That being the case, a time of high crime, which for economic reasons I expect to be a time in which crime is successful, should tend to be a time in which crime is looked upon more favorably by at least some parts of the population (though not all - specifically not by the victimized groups, aside from those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome). 3) There is one bad, very bad kind of situation in which it is widely believed that inequalities are unjustified, and this belief is obviously (to me) wrong. In particular, if some identifiable and somewhat foreign sub-population proves (by its actual merit) to be disproportionately successful relative to the majority population, this can cause resentment in the wider population (demonstrated by historical examples), which will favor explanations which purport to prove that the sub-population got their wealth by illegitimate means. I believe that Jews in Europe have long been an example of this. I have also read that Chinese subpopulations of non-Chinese population
I agree with this -- in fact, it's actually a pretty good description of some places I've lived in. However, it should be noted that what exactly is perceived as "complying with the rules" is highly culture-specific. (Of course, what counts as "merit" is also highly debatable.) All that said, when searching for the causes of crime, rather than focusing on the overall level of social inequality, I think a more fruitful approach is to ask whether there exist significant numbers of people for whom turning to crime offers a better chance of raising their status than any legitimate occupation, and if yes, why exactly it is so. Of course, the answers to these questions won't be completely independent of the overall social inequality, but this approach, in my opinion, makes it possible to analyze the situation with much more detail and accuracy than the crude idea that crime rates can be pushed up or down just by changing some measure of income inequality used by economists.
I propose restructuring the causal relationships implicit in the description. If there is a society in which crime pays well, then as a consequence of this people will become rich from crime, and therefore there will be unjustified inequality. But at the same time, since crime pays well, then it will be rational to commit crime. Both of these are effects of the same cause, which is that crime pays well. Because people are rational and keen observers of their immediate environment (but not such keen observers of society in general), I expect these causal relationships to greatly outweigh the supposed causal relationship between observing that there is unjustified inequality and, as a consequence, deciding to commit crime. People respond well to their immediate environment, to the incentives that they are faced with. If crime pays, it pays locally (i.e. if an individual person commits a crime then that pays that individual person), and people will respond well to these (local) incentives. This response has nothing in particular to do with the larger picture (which is that inequality is unjustified). If you merely make the society-wide observation that inequality appears unjustified, this does not by itself give you any program for profiting from crime yourself. It does not give you a recipe for profiting from breaking the rules. Whereas if you see an opportunity that you can act on, by for example observing that people are profiting from activities which you could participate in (such as burglary, mugging, or what have you), then this gives you an incentive to participate.

I think you're wrong to focus on the financial incentives for crime. In reality, the only criminals who earn a lot of money are high-ranking bosses of organized crime and white-collar criminals in the business world, with a few very rare exceptions (like e.g. spectacular heists or super-high-skilled cat burglars). Ordinary criminals don't earn significantly more money than their legally employed peers coming from a similar social class, not even without adjustment for the associated risks -- and taking up crime expecting to become a big mafioso is about as realistic as taking up computer programming expecting to become the next Bill Gates (i.e. not impossible, but vanishingly unlikely for a typical entrant into the profession).

The key issue here, in my opinion, is the status one gains by engaging in crime versus legal work. For concrete people, this is primarily an artifact of the status relations in their own social group, rather than the society at large. In this regard, you are correct to observe that if crime pays, it pays locally -- but rather than the financial gain, the key issue is whether crime pays locally in terms of status gain in the potential criminal's community and social network.

I'll support my case with Paraguay, one of the countries listed as being high inequality/high crime in a list in a recent comment. In Paraguay you can easily buy a stolen car for relatively little (thus participating in a crime). At the same time, your car is likely to get stolen. So, what do people rationally do in this situation? There is, first of all, an incentive against owning any car at all because of the likelihood that it will be stolen. But this is especially strong as an incentive against paying full price to legally own a car. Because stolen cars are significantly cheaper, this gives you a strong incentive to favor buying a stolen car over a legally owned car. I do not see any significant status element specifically tied to owning a stolen car in Paraguay. There is of course always a status element tied to owning a car, but it is not tied specifically to the crime. On the contrary, the rich in Paraguay, who are able to afford gated, protected areas to keep their cars, presumably tend to legally own cars (I infer that this is the case from personal observation, because the cars of the rich that I've seen look new; the stolen cars that my non-rich acquaintances own look pretty beat up and old). That being the case, it is presumably high status to own a car legally and low status to own a car illegally. I don't pry, but this is what I gather. So the widespread corruption of Paraguayan society on this matter has to do with practical realities, not with status, on my analysis. Your argument is that only a tiny minority benefit from engaging in crime. But it seems to me that the ordinary Paraguayan benefits from buying a stolen car, thus participating in the crime. So there seems to be a serious gap in your argument somewhere. Paraguay is a country in which the government is utterly corrupt. That being the case, the people are not protected - they are essentially on their own. The government is kleptocratic. I was told the sad story of someone whose busine
You're right -- my above comment was too specifically concerned with the U.S. and other developed nations. In places that are poorer and where law enforcement is much less strong and reliable, financial incentives for crime may well be at the forefront even for low-level crooks. On the other hand, it's also important to note that when some laws are enforced very weakly or not at all, the very notion of "crime" becomes blurry, and what would clearly be crimes under decent law enforcement may effectively become just regular customary behavior expected from everyone. I find your account of the stolen car market in Paraguay really interesting; from what you say, it appears that since the legal enforcement of property in cars is completely broken, they have been replaced with a peculiar customary system where cars just change hands liberally and randomly. In such a situation, I'm not sure if I would classify buying a stolen car as crime.
That's why I said "causes" instead of "correlates with".
Few rich people directing and many not so rich people doing the actual killing. Poor men more easily become involved in the drug trade because for most of them it is the easiest way to leave poverty. Some of them may become really rich afterwards and be unlikely to change their successful strategy, but that's besides the point. Gangsters may be rich or poor, but very few rich people join organised crime in the first place.
Then again, there are more not-so-rich people than rich people. To weigh the ''socio-economic inequality" argument it needs to be shown how criminality correlates with wealth. (Note that 'socio-economic inequality' is a rather imprecise term here -- it seems that what is meant is something like 'poverty induces crime')
It can be easily shown how criminality correlates with inequality directly. Let's for example compare the homicide rates (per 100 thousand inhabitatnts per year) in 15 most equal and 15 most inequal countries in the world (measured by Gini index): Most equal (Gini between 24.7 and 29.2) 1. Denmark 1.0 2. Japan 1.0 3. Sweden 0.89 4. Czech Rep. 1.9 5. Norway 0.60 6. Slovakia 1.7 7. Bosnia 1.8 8. Finland 2.5 9. Hungary 1.4 10. Ukraine 5.4 11. Germany 0.86 12. Slovenia 0.55 13. Croatia 1.7 14. Austria 0.55 15. Bulgaria 2.3 Most inequal (Gini between 74.3 and 53.8) 1. Namibia 18 2. Lesotho 37 3. Sierra Leone 2.6 4. Central African Rep. 30 5. Botswana 12 6. Bolivia 11 7. Haiti 22 8. Colombia 35 9. Paraguay 12 10. South Africa 34 11. Brazil 22 12. Panama 13 13. Guatemala 52 14. Chile 1.7 15. Honduras 67 The data are from Wikipedia. There may be some caveats (e.g. some countries include attempted murders in the count while others don't), but the overall correlation is easily visible.
In rich countries, there are strong correlations between income inequality and imprisonment rates (graph), and between income inequality and homicide rates (graph). As for selection bias, the authors of the graphs took the 50 richest countries over population 3 million for which data was available. Data sources here.

Not sure if anyone's already posted this, but:

Relevant: For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything

SilasBarta has half the answer, which is that public punishment of criminal A is excellent for deterring law-abiding citizen B from committing crimes.

The second half of the answer is that most people believe in justice. Justice makes little sense from a Utililitarian perspective (except that public justice deters others), but it is a commonly held belief that bad deeds actually do deserve punishment regardless of the utilitarian function involved. The belief exists not only in most societies, but also among most intelligent animals (particularly primates). Now, a utilitarian may want to discard this evolutionary baggage, but to do so will be very politically difficult.

That's just Azathoth trying to do the same thing.
Reading the wikipedia entry on Azathoth didn't help me figure out what you mean to say.
Still no clue. Third time's the charm?
Azathoth = Theomorphed evolution. The evolutionary cause of our sense of justice, hunger for revenge etc presumably is in large part the increased fitness due to deterrence.
To clarify: My point was that the crucial aspect is not that people observe a punishment, and then infer that they should not commit crimes later. Rather, the important thing is that people, to the extent that they correctly model the rest of society and its response to their crimes, get an "internal simulation" that outputs "they will inflict disutility on you even if it's expensive to do so, and even knowing that it failed to deter you". And this model can only be correct and have this character if people really do punish in the crime-instances. In other words, to the extent that people require punishments to deter, they only require subjunctive, not causal deterrence -- though obviously the latter is factored in. That's what I was referring to as the "otherwise-ungrounded deservedness of others [who defect] of being treated badly" -- this internalization of subjunctive (and acausal) criteria feels like a desire for "justice" or "what is right" on the inside. In other words, we have causal reasons for doing things, and separate from that, we have acausal criteria that often conflict, and when the acausals outweigh, we get the feeling of, "this person should be punished, even if expensive, and even though the crime has already happened". That is generally called the "sense of justice".
Another thought-experiment to heighten the distinction: if the President went on TV and said that starting this year, refusing to pay taxes would no longer be a crime, then the deterrence effect of having put people in jail for tax evasion would evaporate overnight. Every punishment would still have happened, but they would no longer deter future acts of the same kind.
Well said, but do we then conclude that we do actually value justice in itself? Or do we conclude that we value justice instrumentally? Yes, evolution designed us to care about justice for subjunctive deterrence reasons, but so what? Evolution designed all of our values instrumentally for all sorts of purposes that we may or may not care about. But that doesn't mean we have no values. I have no idea how to answer this question, and am at a loss for how to determine whether a perceived value is terminal or instrumental, in general.
My article, "Morality as Parfitian-filtered decision theory?", was devoted to exactly that question, and my conclusion is that justice -- or at least the feeling that drives us to pursuit-of-justice actions -- is an instrumental value, even though such actions cause harm to our terminal values. This is because theories that attempt to explain such "self-sacrificial" actions by positing justice (or morality, etc.) as a separate term in the agent's utility function add complexity without corresponding explanatory power.
I skimmed the article. First, good idea. I would never have thought of that. But I do think there is a flaw. Given evolution, we would expect humans to have fairly complex utility functions and not simple utility functions. The complexity penalty for evolution + simple utility function could actually be higher than that of evolution + complicated utility function, depending on precisely how complex the simple and complicated utility functions are. For example, I assert that the complexity penalty for [evolution + a utility function with only one value (e.g. paper clips or happiness)] is higher than the complexity penalty for [evolution + any reasonable approximation to our current values]. This is only to say that a more complicated utility function for an evolved agent doesn't necessarily imply a high complexity penalty. You could still be right in this particular case, but I'm not sure without actually being able to evaluate the relevant complexity penalties.
That's a good point, and I'll have to think about it.
I think the phrase "otherwise-ungrounded" is likely a mistake. People (and animals) conflate justice in the sense you describe of "set of subjunctive criteria" as well as justice in the folk sense of "these are the things which are a priori wrong and deserve punishment regardless of one's society". Most useful descriptions of justice need to combine and conflate these two (among other) senses into a coherent whole. Without such a combination phrases like "unjust law" become difficult to explain.
"Otherwise-ungrounded" is not the same as "ungrounded"; it's just that it's not grounded in a specific benefit that "treating defectors badly" causes.
I agree. You made this comment while I was revising the post to talk about justice as fairness. You might want to read it again, and see the Rawls link. One of the directions I want to go in with this, is to explore the idea that the utilitarian may want to discard this evolutionary baggage. It seems appealing, doesn't it? But this "baggage" is exactly the same kind of baggage as enjoying sex, which we evolved in order to reproduce. The question is: Why is enjoying sex a value we want to keep, while enjoying punishing is a value we don't want to keep?
I'm not sure who "we" is in that sentence... for example, I suspect a lot of people don't endorse enjoying sex and do endorse enjoying punishment... so I'll speak for myself here. Value is complex. One of the components to the value equation for me seems to have to do with wanting other people to do what they want to do. Another has to do with wanting sex. A third has to do with wanting rule-violators to be punished. Call those Va, Vs, and Vp, respectively. Mutually consensual sex satisfies Va and Vs and is neutral with respect to Vp. Nonconsensual sex satisfies Vs and antisatisfies Va and Vp. (That is, it causes other people to do things they actively don't want to do, and it inflicts punishment on people who didn't break any rules.) Punishing criminals satisfies Vp, antisatisfies Va, and is neutral with respect to Vs. Of course, all of the above are sweeping generalizations and have many many exceptions. Again, I'm talking about myself here. And there are many many many more components to value, and they all enter into this calculation. But adopting a toy world for a second and assuming that these are the only components and they are equally weighted and binary, then it follows that: Mutually consensual sex = (Va + Vs) > Punishing criminals = (Vp - Va) > Nonconsensual sex = (Vs - Va -Vp) Further, having values in conflict is uncomfortable. So I'd expect that I'd find it easier to endorse the first of those (where all the value components are positive or neutral), and that I'd be more willing to edit my value system to resolve the latter two. Or to edit my environment so that the conflict-causing situations don't arise. Or, as is far more common in the real world, edit my perceptions of my environment so that I'm not aware of those conflicts. For example, if I convince myself that someone I raped did something to deserve it, then nonconsensual sex becomes (Vs + Vp - Va). If I further convince myself that they aren't really people, then it becomes (Vs + Vp
I upvoted Eugine_Nier's reply, but I think in current mainstream western society it's because enjoying sex superficially looks like net positive (though it may in some cases be net negative), while enjoying punishing looks net negative. And historically there certainly is no shortage of groups who tried to remove their valuing sex, I wouldn't be surprised if the total number of people who tried that exceeded the total number of people who tried to make themselves not value punishment.
The reason it seems that way, is that in our current culture, enjoying sex is considered high status, whereas enjoying punishment is considered low status. Edit: Now that I think about it, my main point is that enjoying punishment being bad, while enjoying sex being ok are cultural values. Other cultures take different positions on these issues, and I don't want to presuppose that our culture is necessarily correct here.

I think this is what people are complaining about when they complain that "status" is being used isomorphically to "magic".

While Eugine's comment could benefit from some clarification and refinement, I think you're wrong to dismiss it as worthless. The status (or whatever similar term you want to use) assigned to enjoyment of sex versus enjoyment of punishment is definitely a culture-specific thing. (I can easily imagine a culture that, unlike ours, extols sexual asceticism along with righteous cruelty, and some historical examples aren't too far off.) This certainly influences the choice of values that people would like to see perpetuated.

You just deconstructed a large part of my next post before I made it.
In this case it's quite plausible though: People who advocate less sex or not enjoying sex and aren't conservatives/religious/anti-pleasure in general expose themselves to the sour grapes explanation of their position and the low status implications of that. This is obvious enough that the Simpsons did it.
Careful about arguments that prove too much. My point is precisely that advocating not enjoying sex being low status is not universal in all cultures.
I'm quite aware of that. Anti-sex ideologies usually usually are either purity ideologies (conservative) or anti-pleasure in general, though. Some forms of feminism are an exception, but for women the status-sex relation is completely different anyway.
It's plausible that this happens; but you can't use it to explain itself. "Enjoying sex is high-status because it is high-status" doesn't explain anything. Hence Eugine's edit.
Not being able to get sex being low status doesn't require much in the way of explanation.
The super-parent is attempting to provide a reason why enjoying (not having) sex would be high-status, while enjoying punishing would be low status. Having sex is naturally high-status; but punishing people is equally high-status.
I'm not aware of the Simpsons ever making a joke about a character regulating punishment because they were too much of a loser to get in on everyone else's punishment fun. The jump from "I'm against enjoying punishment" to "I'm too low status to get to punish people" is for whatever reason a lot longer than the equivalent for sex. It's not at all obvious that this is due to the status differences themselves and not due to say logistics or some other non-status reason. Note that I'm not actually sharing Eugine_Nier's position, I'm just defending it as at the very least not obviously useless.
I'm not sure what this is supposed to show besides the fact that the Simpsons reflects the culture that produced it. I'd like to know what you think my position is, since in the above discussion I've found PhilGoetz's posts to be closer to my position then your posts.
It wasn't meant to show anything beyond tracing back the asymmetry concerning the two items in the culture that produced the Simpsons to a point where they might possibly be connected to non-status causes such as logistics. That the restatement of the observation as "in our current culture, enjoying sex is considered high status, whereas enjoying punishment is considered low status" would contribute to finding the mechanism that causes the observation instead of being the type of word magic Eliezer saw it as, which implies that status mechanisms are part of the of the causal chain. I am aware that you disagree with the particulars of the causal chain elements I suggested, but you haven't proposed an alternative yet. If the restatement wasn't meant to help explain I'll retract my upvote.
I interpreted Eliezer's comment as meaning that "high status" and "low status" are approximately synonymous with the things they're being invoked to explain. (Or, at least, that no special motivation was given to expect status to play a role. It's a reasonable heuristic for every social behavior to say, "Look for an explanation involving status" - but that also means it does not explain anything to say that; it's the default assumption.)
That's pretty much what I meant with "restatement" and "word magic". As for default assumptions, that's true if you don't require the word status to do useful work compared to an equivalent explanation without that word, but "the word "status" will do useful work here" would be a productive statement to make if true.
It's an interesting distinction, I'll need to think more on how I feel about it. I would certainly be hesitant to discard most evolutionary baggage, however. http://xkcd.com/592/
It doesn't make sense from the utilitarian perspective of an omnipotent God centrally planning everything. However, in a situation where individual actors have some degree of autonomy so that higher-order game-theoretic effects are relevant, and where nobody has perfect information and foresight, it makes plenty of sense even for a strict utilitarian. (This is one of the main reasons why I see no value in utilitarianism, since attempts to apply it that don't reduce to other approaches like virtue ethics almost inevitably end up detached from reality.)
I would say, rather: Approaches like virtue ethics are collections of heuristics that can be used to verify a utilitarian ethics. A utilitarian approach that does not match up with these collections, does not conform to any common human ethical system. That doesn't make virtue ethics superior. It's more observational (empirical), while a utilitarian approach can be more theoretical. A utilitarian approach has more coverage. Anyone trying to deal with the future will find utilitarian approaches more valuable than will people studying the past. (The human ethical system is attached to reality - but is it attached in a normative way?)
There is another important point: a utilitarian may conclude that given imperfect information and limited ability to predict the consequences of acts reliably, it's usually impossible to do meaningful explicit utility calculations, so that the best way to guide one's action are heuristics such as virtue ethics (which corresponds closely with the intuitive folk ethics that everyone uses in real life anyway). I had this in mind when I wrote about utilitarianism "reducing" (probably not a good choice of word) to other ethical systems. I'm not sure what exactly you mean by "attached in a normative way" here.
The opposite of whatever you meant when you said "detached from reality".
This might be a misunderstanding then. What I meant by "detached from reality" is that attempts to do explicit utilitarian calculations for practical problems almost invariably end up working with unrealistic models and thus producing worthless and misguided conclusions, even if we agree that theoretical premises of utilitarianism are sound (not that I do). In contrast, the regular folk virtue ethics does produce workable guidelines in practice, and in this regard it is attached to reality. But what does the qualifier "attached [to reality] in a normative way" add to that observation?

The April 2010 Scientific American has an article by Michael Gazzaniga (a famous cognitive neuroscientist), "Neuroscience in the courtroom", partly about this issue. He writes:

A neuroimaging tool or method that could reliably identify psychopaths would be useful at the sentencing phase of a trial because it could help determine whether the defendant might deserve [my emphasis] medical confinement and treatment rather than punitive incarceration.

This is what we see most commonly in debate on the issue: Not a reasoned defense of any of the va... (read more)

I'm not sure where to put this comment, but I think you're taking a very US-centric view of things. I'm pretty sure that in, say, Sweden, people view prison as rehabilitory. I suspect that there's more of a mix of views in France, but Morendil is not an outlier.
Perhaps they are simply implicitly assuming that the threat of being forcibly confined and subject to medical 'treatment' by those who decided that you are broken and need to be 'fixed' constitutes a rather significant punitive deterrent in its own right. People don't usually want to be institutionalised. The obvious caveat is that voluntary medical treatment for mental health issues must be freely accessible and more pleasant than the forcible kind. Those who wish to proactively prevent themselves from acting out on criminal insanity must have the option of doing so without deliberately committing a crime in order to game the system. Unfortunately those with mental health problems are a notoriously neglected class worldwide. Significant cultural change would be required before this criminal justice policy was coherent.
I have a notion that any project attempting to "identify psychopaths" would soon enough be taken over by psychopaths.
Why? What's in it for them, as individuals when taking over such a project? Doesn't sound like it would be particularly well paying in terms of money, status or sexual gratification.
It pays off in safety-- they could probably control things well enough not to be personally targeted. The money and status shouldn't be bad if it's a big enough project to have influence. The opportunities for extortion could be interesting. Maybe I've just got a suspense novel plot, of course.
Huh? I would think P(brain scanned|work on a brain scanning research project) >> P(brain scanned|~work on a brain scanning research project).
I don't understand your notation. Even so, I suggest that there will probably be enough wiggle room in either the record-keeping and/or the rules for identifying psychopaths from brain scans that the system will be gameable by sufficiently intelligent, dedicated people.
He's suggesting that working someplace where part of the job description is scanning people's brains would be likely to increase your chances of being scanned yourself, since it would probably be required as part of a job interview. Of course, if the people operating the scanning machine were already psychopaths... On another note, do psychopaths know that they're psychopaths? My (admittedly very limited) understanding is that they tend to believe that they are normal, and that everyone else is simply pretending to be good, the same way they are. There are some obvious flaws with this reasoning, but the vast majority of psychopaths probably don't have much training in rationality.
I think I've fallen in love with my scenario, but I'm going to run with it anyway. People in charge typically aren't tested. CEOs can do much more damage than bus drivers, but it's the latter who get drug-tested. I was thinking of psychopaths targeting being in charge of the project from the beginning, but you're probably right that most of them aren't that self-aware. On the other hand, you only need one. In fact, that would work better for that psychopath's self-interest than if a number of them were competing for the spot. Obvious bias: I read Slan at an impressionable age.
Do you think non-psychopaths would do better at it?
I assume that psychopaths would change the project into something non-psychopaths wouldn't want.
Might this be a useful way to identify psychopaths?
It would be an extremely dangerous way of identifying psychopaths.