Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Retribution Mistake

Many criminals - likely a large majority, in my opinion, would stand a good chance of rehabilitation if only we took the effort seriously.  But then there are those that, despite our best efforts, are too far gone.

Pedophilia I think is a perfect example of this. As far as we know, it can't be cured; it seems to be a sexual preference (for prepubescent children) much like hetero or homosexuality. While different therapies can somewhat limit the behavior, the impulse will always be there.

In discussions of determinism, both sides should be able to agree that there are at least limitations on freedom; people will always have different capacities for behavior, whether genetic or learned. Pedophilia seems likely to have a genetic root. It therefore makes sense to at least have some compassion for people who have been born into a body that, due to a design flaw, makes them want to do bad things to children.

In embracing a determinist outlook, I think it is reasonable to suppose that were society at large to move in that direction, much of the stigma surrounding pedophilia would fade, and pedophiles would be more able to "come out", as it were, and volunteer for treatment. There would still be harsh penalties for offenses, as a deterrent, but otherwise people would be considered mentally ill and "prone to violence".

I think of those who argue for social retribution, in which there isn't an emotional satiation claimed, but rather a sort of "social evening"; I understand it to be a sense that the wrong committed needs to be corrected for through punishment, at the most extreme being a death sentence. The calculation seems to be made under the assumption that the individual made a choice. Would retribution still apply if the individual had no choice. A better example might be if someone had a brain tumor that destroyed his sense of empathy, turning him from an otherwise kind person into a murderer?

In other words, if the notion of choice were removed, would the desire for retribution still exist? Is there a point where retribution no longer seems appropriate? Looking at violent attacks by animals, many feel that retribution is necessary, even if the animal - a bear say, or puma - was merely behaving naturally, and could be set free into the wild. This notion seems to stretch the concept.

But I think it might argue against the concept of social retribution. For even assuming that to the degree that no personal impulse towards retribution exists in such cases, the argument could still hold that a wrong has been done against society, and must be "paid for". Of course, the debtor is a wild animal. When a tree crushes a family in their home, a wrong has also been done against society. Yet seeking retribution on the tree would be absurd.

Or would it? How much of a difference is there really between individual bloodlust and the concept of social retribution? The former seems highly biased, and therefor distasteful, but how much is the latter, seemingly more calm and rationally considered, not merely a different version of that same impulse? Human nature has been shown over and over to suffer from very peculiar and emotionally driven impulses, even in the total abstract.

Experimental studies have found all kinds of evidence for the ways in which our decisions are guided by impulses we are not even aware of. For instance, the study in which people refused to put on a jacket that was told was once worn by Hitler. Or our tendency in the trolley car experiment to greatly favor those close to us as opposed to those further away. I mention these not to necessarily illustrate that these are wrong feelings, or that we should feel them, but that they can lead us to illogical premises and bad policy outcomes.

What becomes difficult is in determining just how much this bias is at work in our thinking - especially concerning bigger philosophical issues in which it isn't clear where our thinking - our "preference" - is really coming from; in this way, politics and philosophy can be like a matter of taste, where we just "know it when we see it". I can't say for certain that the concept of social retribution is based upon a biased sense of justice - that it is more a matter of personal taste than reason - but I can see how it might be.

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