Should you punish people for wronging others, or for making the wrong call about wronging others?

For example:

  1. A newspaper sends me annoying emails all the time, but suppose that empirically if they didn’t behave like this, they would get markedly fewer subscribers, and may not survive. And suppose their survival is in fact worth a little annoyance for a lot of people, we all agree. Such that if I was in their position, I agree that I would send out the annoying emails. Should I resent them and unsubscribe from their paper for their antisocial behavior, or praise them and be friendly because overall I think they made the right call?
  2. Suppose Bob eats beef, which he thinks makes him feel somewhat better and so be better able to carry out his job as a diplomat negotiating issues in which tens of thousands of lives are at stake. He also thinks it is pretty bad for the cows, but worth it on net. Suppose he’s right about all of this. Five hundred years later, carnivory is illegal and hated, and historians report that Bob, while in other regards a hero, did eat beef. Should the people of 2521 think of Bob as an ambiguous figure, worthy of both pride and contempt? or should they treat him as purely a hero, who made the best choice in his circumstances?

I have one intuition that says, ‘how can you punish someone for doing the very best thing they could have done? What did you want them to do? And are you going to not punish the alternative person, who made a worse choice for the world, but didn’t harm someone in the process? Are you just going to punish everyone different amounts?’

But an argument for the other side—for punishing people for doing the right thing—is that it is needed to get the incentives straight. If Alice does $100 of harm to Bruce to provide $1000 of help to Carrie, then let’s suppose that that’s good (ignoring the potential violation of property rights, which seems like it shouldn’t be ignored ultimately). But if we let such things pass, then Alice might also do this when she guesses that is only worth $60 to Carrie, if she cares about Carrie more than Bruce. Whereas if we always punish Alice just as much as she harmed Bruce, then she will take the action exactly when she would think it worth it if it was her own welfare at stake, rather than Bruce’s. (This is just the general argument for internalizing externalities - having people pay for the costs they impose on others.)

This resolution is weirder to the extent that the punishment is in the form of social disgrace and the like. It’s one thing to charge Bob money for his harms to cows, and another to go around saying ‘Bob made the best altruistic decisions he could, and I would do the same in his place. Also I do think he’s contemptible.’

It also leaves Bob in a weird position, in which he feels fine about his decision to eat beef, but also considers himself a bit of a reprehensible baddie. Should this bother him? Should he try to reform?

I’m still inclined toward punishing such people, or alternately to think that the issue should be treated with more nuance than I have done, e.g. distinguishing punishments from others’ opinions of you, and more straightforward punishments.


10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:48 AM
New Comment

This probably depends heavily on whether people are capturing all the benefit of the good they do.

If Bob inflicts $100 of harm to do $1000 of good, and Bob was rewarded by $1000 for the good he did, taking $100 of that away for the bad seems reasonable. If he was not rewarded for the good he did, punishing him for the bad seems very strange.

It makes a difference whether punishment is zero-sum or negative-sum. If we can't take $100 from Bob to give to someone else but can only impose $100 of cost on him to no one's benefit, we'd rather not do that.

In that case I think the answer is to forego the punishment if you're sufficiently confident the harm is an inevitable result of a net-good decision.

Agreed. It seems the right move should be to estimate the current net externalities (bearing in mind incentives to hide/publicise the negative/positive), and reward/punish in proportion to that.

Bob's a hero provided he's paid his meat tax. That's the tax we impose on people who do bad things to animals. The tax makes up for their bad karma. People who pay the tax should be considered absolved of sin - they've bought and paid for their indulgence, fair and square.

Am I a contemptible person because I burnt a gallon of gasoline this morning? What if I paid for it, external costs included? What if I paid a separate CO2 tax? What if I offset the carbon by planting trees? I think not.

Does this viewpoint make me a monster? As Temple Grandin likes to say, "that's the kind of animal we are" (carnivores). Maybe we shouldn't get too morally worked up over acting like homo sapiens. Nobody blames lions for eating antelopes. (Plus, just think of our poor mitochondria; enslaved for life...).

We'd have to physically stop carnivores if cattle had rights - but since cattle can't respect the rights of others, they don't themselves have rights. Sort of like the way we lock up criminals who don't respect the rights of other humans - having proved unable to respect the rights of others, they lose (some of) their own rights.

Cattle are just protected a bit by us humans who impose meat taxes. The cattle don't even get the tax money as compensation (unlike Bruce).

People who pay their way in the world, compensating those they've harmed, aren't monsters and shouldn't be "punished".

Should you punish people for wronging others, or for making the wrong call about wronging others?

This is a topic where the answer depends a whole lot on how generally you're asking, and what your moral and decision framework is.  The key ambiguity is "should".  "what should you do" has been an open question for millennia.

The obvious consequentialist answer is that you should do either, both, or neither, depending on circumstance and your expected net impact of your action.  Other moral frameworks likely have different answers.

The signal I prefer to send on the topic, intended to encourage a mechanical, reductionist view of the universe, is that punishment should be automatic and non-judgemental, with as little as possible speculation as to motive or reasoning.  If it caused harm, the punishment should be proportional to the harm.  Yes, this lets luck and good-intentioned mistakes control more than an omniscient god might prefer.  But I don't have one of those, so I prefer to eliminate the other human failings of bad judgement that come with humans making a punishment call putatively based on inference about reasoning or motivation, but actually mostly based on biases and guesses.

I'm OK with adding punishment for very high-risk behaviors that don't happen to cause harm in the observed instance.  I don't have a theory for how to remove human bias from that part of judgement, but I also don't trust people enough to do without it.

I think a fair bit of the confusion here arises from the difference between judging an act or package of acts as good/bad vs judging a person as a whole as good or bad.

Judging acts is simple. Are those actions or that combination of actions permissible and or desirable under your moral system.

Judging people is harder. Do we judge a person by their actions? Do we judge them by the actions they would have taken in a variety of hypotheticals? (Almost no one will steal/kill/rape when doing so is socially prescribed and likely to be harshly punished. The fact that a given individual doesn't do these things in an environment where doing so would be against their self interest says nothing about them). How do we account for moral ignorance? If a concentration camp guard honestly believes what they're doing is right because of indoctrination from birth, are they still morally culpable for their actions/beliefs?

Basically there are a large number of difficult questions you need to answer if you want to make the jump from judging acts to judging people.

Not sure how to express this, but I'll try:

One consideration is something like... Would Bob be willing to be eaten (and raised in torturous conditions, if he's eating inhumanely raised cattle), if the benefit outweighed the cost? If yes, then maybe he doesn't need to be punished: his decision theory is to do the globally best thing, which shouldn't be punished. Of course we can't in practice determine this in every case with certainty, which leaves the door open for fraud ("oh yeah no yeah I totally would want to be eaten in the unreal counterfactual world where that was most utilitous, definitely").

Generally, a tension here is that to prevent fraud, we have to punish actions, not algorithms, but the decision-theoretic ideal is to punish algorithms not actions.

I wrote about something similar that I call counterfactual contracts. I focused on what a person should do strategically and came to a similar conclusion, namely, that a person should both reward actions with good intent somewhat, while also punishing actions that end up being bad for you.

This resolution is weirder to the extent that the punishment is in the form of social disgrace and the like. It’s one thing to charge Bob money for his harms to cows, and another to go around saying ‘Bob made the best altruistic decisions he could, and I would do the same in his place. Also I do think he’s contemptible.’

I think the overall weirdness of gossip-based reputation is doing a lot of work here? Though community members can hear the whole story and make nuanced updates about Bob, I think this framework makes more sense in the context of monetary punishments (or an automated reputation system).

So, what are your meta-moral considerations here?

If the underlying meta-moral considerations are utilitarian, then I think that using moral outrage as a social punishment against people with differing moral views is likely to backfire very badly in general, and so is not particularly compatible with maximizing utility. (A sin tax is probably a lot safer.)

Now, at least the example of Bob involves a topics on which people in general have differing moral views, but the particular people involved in both examples likely have the same relevant moral views as you. So in these particular cases, perhaps moral outrage might "get the incentives straight", though if people with differing moral views are treated differently (in order to prevent the likely defensive reaction from disagreers), that creates its own set of problematic incentives.