Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Disciplease and Funish

Smilansky concludes, not that hard determinism is an inaccurate description of the world, but that it is impossible to live justly within a hard deterministic world. Which is the same kind of "null hypothesis" on human welfare as that of antinatalism.


Saul Smilansky, in his paper "Hard Determinism and Punishment: A Practical Reductio," argues that hard determinism fails as a practical moral philosophy, in that it is inherently self-defeating. His core example is the punishment of criminals. Since the hard determinist rejects the notion of morally relevant free will, he rejects the notion that a person can deserve to suffer for his actions (which he could not, in terms of physics, control). While incarceration may be necessary for the purpose of incapacitation (that is, keeping criminals away from the rest of society where they will do harm), it is not justified on grounds of retribution - because, in a hard deterministic world, no one freely chooses anything, so prisoners do not deserve their suffering.

Smilansky proposes that a hard determinist is committed to what he calls "funishment" - resort hotel prisons that accomplish the dual purpose of incapacitating criminals (protecting society) and keeping them entertained (compensating criminals for the injustice necessarily imposed upon them by society, for society's benefit).

The problem with funishment is that it's fun. It ceases to have any effect by way of deterrence. (Here we see three theories of criminal justice interacting in a fascinating way.) Lots of people would want to go to the resort hotel funishment prisons ("fun-zone," Smilansky calls them) and may even commit crimes to get there - removing most of the negative incentive for committing crimes, and in fact creating a positive incentive. The end result of the funishment program is, says Smilansky, "Many people who would otherwise not have become involved in crime, nor even suffer detention, would be caught up in that very life. In the meantime, the rest of us would be living in the worst possible world: suffering unprecedented crime waves while paying unimaginable sums for the upkeep of offenders in opulent institutions of funishment."

Smilansky gives this argument as a reductio of hard determinism as a practical moral philosophy. I think the context of antinatalism makes this an overstatement on Smilansky's part. The upshot of Smilansky's argument is not that hard determinism is not true in the metaphysical sense, but that committing ourselves to its reality ends in moral horror, the "worst possible world." My view is that Smilansky's argument is not a reductio of hard determinism, but of the idea that there could ever be a decently just human society. There is, in essence, a right of each person to be free from unjust suffering - but in fact, unjust suffering is guaranteed simply by being born. See a problem here?

One who recognizes determinism cannot insist on desert. But could a person who accepts hard determinism morally choose to reproduce? By doing so, he imposes suffering on a person who does not deserve it, and will not deserve any of the suffering he receives. Creating a being that will necessarily suffer unjustly seems to me indistinguishable from making a being suffer unjustly. Isn't it immoral to bring beings into an unjust world?

What of fun and pleasure, then? To what extent do we "deserve" those? Can we morally give benefits to people who do not suffer any deprivation without them when other, suffering people need those benefits?

I think that desert is incoherent (and birth wrong) primarily because the most important thing ever to happen to a person, that which determines that he will suffer gravely, is without question outside his free will: his birth. The undeserved suffering imposed on a person simply by being born is likely to overwhelm any suffering justly imposed on him for his actions, even if we were to buy into a morally relevant free will.

But without free will, of course, desert goes out the window. All suffering, none guilty, as Dostoevsky put it. Hard determinism helps us realize the horror show we are in, so that we may end it. THAT, and only that, is the practical consequence. There is no reductio; there is only support for the null hypothesis.

Most self-described compatibilists that I know ground their beliefs in the experience of choices: we feel ourselves to have free choices, and it seems impossible to live as if we didn't. But even granting this, the suffering of the "guilty" is nowhere near justified. A demon could build a machine that we might find ourselves in that would give us the experience of free choice within a virtual reality world. But our suffering as a result of our fake-but-perceived choices would be justified not at all.

21 comments:

  1. I think this argument doesn't make much sense.

    For Smilanskys question: if we believe in hard determinism the question how to justly deal with criminals cannot even be asked. They are dealt with the way they are dealt with. How we choose to deal with them is, surprise, predetermined, i.e. we don't choose it at all. The concept of justice cannot apply, AFAICS, to such a world or at least with regard to how we "should" act. You could only ask "is this world (or some detail of it) just or not?". You can only observe.

    The same with antinatalism:
    "But could a person who accepts hard determinism morally choose to reproduce?"
    This question is invalid too because in a world of hard determinism there are no choices, neither moral ones nor any other. We just reproduce - or we don't. But we can't chose.

    Or did I miss something profound here?

    All the best,
    rob

    ReplyDelete
  2. I understand your intuition. Similarly, in a hard deterministic world, policy will be what it is, and deterrence wouldn't really "work," because behavior will just be what it is. We will just do what we will do; anything is permissible, or perhaps rather, as harm is predetermined, our choices can't prevent it.

    Smilansky says, "More general doubts about normativity in a deterministic world are beyond our scope here." But elsewhere, he says he accepts that there can be "rightness" and "wrongness" without choice necessarily existing. We may not be able to choose our actions in a morally relevant way that would justify punishing us for them, but our actions remain right or wrong (harmful, kind, etc.).

    A naughty hard determinist, as you point out in your comments, might argue that, for instance, (a) it's okay to rape babies because you can't really control your actions, and (b) we shouldn't bother having any public policy, or changing public policy, because things will be as they will be and we can't affect them in a meaningful way.

    But this itself is arguing for a course of conduct, arguing that DETERMINISM ITSELF - the idea that we can't affect our choices - should AFFECT OUR CHOICES. It's making the argument that because we have no control over our choices, we should control them in a particular way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "But this itself is arguing for a course of conduct, arguing that DETERMINISM ITSELF - the idea that we can't affect our choices - should AFFECT OUR CHOICES."

      Of course any information, including this information, is going to affect our choices in a deterministic world. If you're arguing otherwise (and maybe you aren't?), you're missing the point.

      Delete
  3. Smilansky proposes that a hard determinist is committed to what he calls "funishment" - resort hotel prisons that accomplish the dual purpose of incapacitating criminals (protecting society) and keeping them entertained (compensating criminals for the injustice necessarily imposed upon them by society, for society's benefit).

    I wonder why. A hard determinist could cheerfully that it's not fair that some people should be punished for things that they couldn't help having done while still maintaining that those punishments are part of a system of incentives that achieves other goals, like maximizing human welfare. Indeed, this seems to be the position of a lot of writers in the law and economics tradition. Some even seem to go so far as to insist (rather plausibly, I think) that fairness and welfare are inconsistent goals (see e.g. Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell, Fairness versus Welfare, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.) and just come down defending human welfare over fairness. To be sure, this violates many people's moral intuitions, but the moral realm is one of hard choices, obviously.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ack. Somehow left out "maintain" after "cheerfully."

    ReplyDelete
  5. I wrote a while back that determinism would actually make the legal system better, instead of worse, from a negative utilitarian perspective. Punitive laws, in my view, are evil so long as the suffering caused doesn't match up to the outcome afterward (whether the criminal re-offends) - and why cause suffering when you could simply fix the person, or keep them away from society? Doesn't this man know that two wrongs don't make a right? My view is simply that all crime is caused either by a defect in one's personality, or due to strong emotions. The defect could be fixed (no suffering caused) by simply therapy, or worst-case scenario, keeping those people with the defect locked away where they can do no harm. Strong emotions are easily solved, again by therapy, or simply by no punishment at all - i.e. no chance of re-offending, so no need to impose suffering. My world would have less people being made unhappy, Saul's world (the actual world) has more people being made unhappy. It's a no-brainer. Saul's mistake, I think, is in thinking with his anus. His reason for believing that hard determinism isn't a practical moral philosophy is based on him wanting to see naughty boys punished, and wanting the rest of us to get lollipops for being good. Cold hard negative utilitarianism buries his arguments deep underground.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Strong emotions are easily solved ...."

      You're being ridiculous.

      Delete
  6. I am pretty sure that if criminals were funished, no one could go through the sentence and remain a criminal. Criminals are not so mad that they don't know the distinction between good and bad, and if they were treated well to begin with, they would not become criminals. Our culture is a culture of suffering instead of pleasure, that's the whole problem, and that's why we have criminals. That's also why we do not appreciate life. But a culture can be changed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I am pretty sure that if criminals were funished, no one could go through the sentence and remain a criminal."

      You are also being ridiculous.

      Your position is -- seriously -- that if criminals received lots of fun from society as a result of committing crimes over and above any pleasures they derived from their crimes, then they wouldn't commit any more crimes?

      Your position is crazy. Flat-out delusional and illogical.

      Delete
  7. I came up with a better summary:

    Unjust suffering is a load-bearing part of the human system. Humanity cannot exist without it. Ergo, humanity should not exist. (Ditto animals.)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Re: wanting to see naughty boys punished - yes, yes, yes. Retribution is not moral; it is an evolved, game-theoretical solution to a coordination game. We want to punish "bad people" (people who harm our interests), even at our own expense, because that is the way that our genes were able to get here. It doesn't make it okay, and it certainly doesn't give retribution any kind of moral standing. Retribution is just animal bullshit.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Algonomy, I agree with you right up until the "culture can be changed" part. I think suffering is guaranteed by our biology, and no amount of cultural engineering can eliminate it to a sufficient degree to make life worthwhile.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Algonomy, I agree with you right up until the "culture can be changed" part."

      Really? You agreed with this?

      "I am pretty sure that if criminals were funished, no one could go through the sentence and remain a criminal."

      Delete
  10. "Most self-described compatibilists that I know ground their beliefs in the experience of choices: we feel ourselves to have free choices, and it seems impossible to live as if we didn't. But even granting this, the suffering of the "guilty" is nowhere near justified. A demon could build a machine that we might find ourselves in that would give us the experience of free choice within a virtual reality world. But our suffering as a result of our fake-but-perceived choices would be justified not at all. "

    The demon example doesn't work because it seems like for every hypothetical like this one about the 'upper layers' of reality, there would be a totally different scenario with the opposite conclusion that the suffering is justified. Constantly thinking up new worlds that are equally justified or unjustified ad infinitum is futile, so an argument over all possible 'upper layers' is needed to tell us which ones are more likely. This is difficult, even in Bostroms's simulation argument only one of the possibilities actually provides any knowledge about what might be going on in the upper layers.

    I would also describe myself as a compatibilist, but this 'feeling of choice' is fairly concrete and based on a simple observation. Even if determinism were true in any form, at the moment we only have finite resources at our disposal and these are inadequate to predict and control the future with great accuracy. The idea that we could 'in theory' because it is consistent with our collective observations of the universe is not so relevant for ethics. To salvage the idea of 'free will' I would take the 'free will = liberty' option because it is still notable that some moral agents cannot force others to make certain choices.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm making a limited claim with the demon example: the impossibility of acting as if choice didn't exist still does not justify suffering on grounds of desert.

    The "feeling of choice" is very concrete, undeniable even. But since we do seem to have a lot of second-order knowledge about choices (not even just physics-determinism: we know that circumstances determine most of behavior, not personal character; hence the idea of "moral luck" and the awareness of the Fundamental Attribution Error). We should use this second-order knowledge to stop this horror show, not to justify continuing along as we always have.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The question of how we should judge/act when we don't know if we live in a deterministic world reminds me of the question of wether we should pray, when we don't know if god exists: if he does exist it might help, and we could avoid going to hell. If he doesn't exist then praying probably does no harm. Therefore praying is the safe choice. (This is of course extremely short and badly put, but you know the scenario).

    In a similar way we should act as if free will did exist (moral, responsible, etc), even if we are not sure if it really does. Because only if it does is it even possible to make right or wrong moral choices. If it does not exist our world is completely amoral because we only believe that we have choices. The "choices" we make can then never be wrong. But they can be wrong if we do have free will, so that is the only case we should consider.

    If we would _know_ for sure, that the world is deterministic (or if we assume it for discussions sake) then I don't agree that this affects our choices and is somehow circular or paradoxical. It just tells us that these choices are only illusions and that whatever we do we would have done anyway.

    I'm very intrigued by the experiments that point to the hypothesis that our conscious mind does not control our actions to the extent that we are used to believe but in some ways is only observing and explaining them after the fact. But anyway, hard determinism is, at least for me, almost unimaginable because it is so much in conflict with our everyday experience. (Which is not to say that I have even the slightest idea what this "free will" is and how it works ;-).

    Oh, and I would certainly say that things can be "bad" or "good" even without real choices. Suffering is real even if it is unavoidable. So... raping babies would be very bad in itself [for the babies], even if we could not blame the rapist in any meaningful sense. I guess because things like that we would not _want_ the world to be deterministic. We need someone to blame, preferably the exact people who commit the crimes.

    All the best,
    rob

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am a determinist but I don't believe in jails and prisons as a way of dealing with crime, so I can't make sense of your objection. This is all based on a false premise- that stuffing people in an enclosed criminal environment is a good way of dealing with crime. This is a contradiction.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Rob, you do know Pascal's Wager has been thoroughly discredited, both from a moral and from a statistical standpoint, right? If that's your only argument for free will, then you've got nothing.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Well said, James.

    With everyone discussing how to deal with crime AFTER THE FACT, it seems the issue of prevention has somehow been overlooked. And I don't mean the question of how to deter the criminal from acting on his/her criminal impulses. Rather, we ought to be discussing means of eradicating, or at any rate mitigating, the criminal impulse, or the environmental conditions responsible for triggering it in the first place. Antinatalists and Determinists alike are not unfamiliar with the notion of seeking first causes, or at least indirect antecedents, in order to subvert and redirect an entire chain of consequent problems. Aren't we, then, particularly well-suited to recognize the issue of prevention as fundamental?

    Obviously, the Antinatalists have but one solution to prescribe; without entering into the nuances connected with the many particular manifestations of the human condition, we simply do away with the human -- conditioned or otherwise. While some may call this "throwing the baby out with the bathwater", it is enough to remark "what baby?" to indicate the absurdity of throwing out a child which has never existed (not having been condemned to existence). But if, as Antinatalists, we are to descend from our lofty ideological perch in order to puzzle out the particulars of social organization, we ought at least to concern ourselves primarily with the creation of relatively supportive environments, and less with the issue of what to do with the "bungled and the botched" once we have bungled and botched them.

    Likewise, as Determinists, it seems only natural that we should want to concern ourselves with the environment as incubator; addressing the formation of the criminal mind, and not the response to criminal behavior. In other words, rather than preoccupy ourselves with methods of cleaning up spilt milk, we might give more attention to preventing the milk from spilling at all.

    Anyone familiar with the latest Zeitgeist documentary knows something about the increasing evidence in support of a view which posits the environment as key; we've heard how outer conditions can actually trigger the suppression or activation of DNA within the individual. This is really the place to begin our discussion, imho.

    ReplyDelete
  16. All I know is how much I don't want to be here.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Francois, I meant that only as a metaphor.
    Also I was not meaning to argue in favor of the existence of free will but, as I think like Pascal, in favor of rational pragmatism (although here as it relates to morality).
    So the basic question, that you as a determinist maybe can give some insight to, is: do moral choices exist in a deterministic world? I was arguing that they don't.
    That is also why I don't quite understand your statemend that you are a determinist BUT you don't believe in jails. Why would one assume that a determinist would be in favor of jailing people?

    All the best,
    rob

    ReplyDelete

Tweets by @TheViewFromHell