Future-oriented and customized punishment

6 oktober 2011 | In Crime Emotion theory Hate Crime Meta-ethics Moral philosophy Moral Psychology Naturalism Neuroscience politics Psychology Psychopathy | Comments?


Legal punishment is normally justified by appeal to Wrongdoing (the criminal act) and Culpability (”the guilty mind”). These are features focusing on the perpetrator, which makes sense as it is he (nearly always a ”he”) who will carry the burden of the punishment. We want to make sure that the punishment is deserved.

But it is also typically justified by appeal to societial well-being. To protect citizens from harm, to promote the sense of safety, to reinforce certain values, to prevent crime by threatening to punish, to rehabilitate or at least contain the dangerous. According to so-called ”Hybrid” theories, punishment is justified when these functions are served, but only when it befalls the guilty, and in proportion to their guilt (this being a function of wrongdoing and culpability). Responsibility/culpability constrain the utilitarian function. Desert-based justification is backward-looking, while the utilitarian, pro-social justification is forward-looking. (Arguably, the pro-social function is dependent on the perceived adherence to the responsibility-constraint.)

Neuroscientist and total media-presence David Eagleman had a very interesting article in The Atlantic a while ago, pointing out that revealing the neural mechanisms behind certain crimes tends to weaken our confidence in assigning culpability. Rather than removing the justification for punishment, Eagleman suggests that we move on from that question:

Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?

The important change will be in the way we respond to the vast range of criminal acts. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals; we will still remove from the streets lawbreakers who prove overaggressive, underempathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. Consider, for example, that the majority of known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question. The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to support social programs to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench. We still need to keep him off the streets, irrespective of his past misfortunes. The child abuse cannot serve as an excuse to let him go; the judge must keep society safe.

Those who break social contracts need to be confined, but in this framework, the future is more important than the past. Deeper biological insight into behavior will foster a better understanding of recidivism—and this offers a basis for empirically based sentencing. Some people will need to be taken off the streets for a longer time (even a lifetime), because their likelihood of reoffense is high; others, because of differences in neural constitution, are less likely to recidivate, and so can be released sooner.

Adding that the type of punishment need to be customized to criminals to ensure effective rehabilitation and make reoffending less likely, this sounds like a wise, positive and humanistic suggestion. The punishment might also be customized to serve other functions, such as the victim’s (legitimate – important limitation, mind) coping-process. Butncouldn’t this argument be used to justify punishing people who have not yet committed a crime?

Conceptually, ”punishment” is ”punishment for” and thus some amount of backward-looking seem to be necessarily involved. While we might want to lock up/rehabilitate dangerous people before they commit any crime, it would hardly qualify as ”punishment”. But Eaglemans point, as I take it, is that this feature is only contingently important to what we want to do: prevent crime and rehabilitate (would-be) offenders. It is contingently important because the best predictor of future crime is crimes committed in the past.

There is an obvious objection here: ”punishing” people for the disposition to commit crime is unfair and uncanny. The risks are too great and the public wouldn’t stand for it. Both are real concerns. Even if we would prevent crime to an extent that far exceeds the harm done by locking up would-be innocents, it is not worth it. (The state Punishing an innocent is assignedov greater negative value than a criminal harming an innocent, say). And what the public feels about the legal system speaks to Rule of Law: it would counter-act the pro-social function. But perhaps enough evidence undermining our traditional notion of responsibility would change this reaction.

If situationist psychology is roughly right, most of us are ”disposed” to do anything, given the right triggers. All of us are potentially dangerous, but some are more so in the kind of situation they are likely to encounter. But this means that (actual) criminals can argue that punishing them, and not the would-be’s is unfair. After all, the fact that their triggers happened to occur was no fault of theirs.

The traditional picture of agency and responsibility on which traditional criminal law (traditionally portrayed as blind, mind) is constantly being challenged from incoming evidence. Equality before the Law should not be understood as all being treated equally, but as all equally situated being treated equally. The ”evidence”, and the ”science” on which the proposed shift is based, Eagleman admits, is still very much in its infancy and immense difficulties remain to be addressed. But then again, the currents rate of re-offending suggest that not taking these considerations into account isn’t working that well. Replacing the simplified mens-rea model of culpability with a more naturalistic picture of the offenders psychology would be a great place to start.

No Comments yet »

Leave a comment