Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Punishment Does Not Work

In this video, I'll discuss some of my thoughts on the fact that punishment very rarely has the intended effect. By the word punishment, I mean any kind of sanction, whether violent or non-violent, that is applied with the intention of managing behavior.
You've probably heard my examples of the retaliatory conditioning that occurs among social animals everywhere. Animal A steps on the foot of Animal B. Animal B reacts impulsively to the pain, biting or kicking Animal A, or whatever that species does when you step on their feet. This conditioning works best when the offense is accidental. If Animal A intends to harm Animal B, then the mechanism begins to break down. Fear of being bitten might discourage an attack, but if A is determined to harm B, then B's retaliation will most likely condition A simply to be more cautious in future assaults. Retaliatory conditioning is great as a means of minimizing the accidental injuries that tend to occur in social groups, but it is not reliable at all as a means of minimizing deliberate attacks. Unfortunately, the advent of larger brains did not help our ancestors to see this; they remained the victims of their intuitions, as do we.
Consider the caste systems among some primates, for example, capuchin monkeys. If a low-born capuchin searching for food discovers a bird's egg, one of the high-born might confiscate it and eat it himself. If the low-born resists, he could be punished severely. Capuchins have discovered that the threat of suffering can be used to control behavior, just as our ancestors did. But this scenario plainly shows the spectacular failure of retaliation when it is applied to deliberate acts. What is the low-born capuchin's response to the punishment? Does he reform himself? Does he learn the proper behavior of surrendering eggs to the authorities? Perhaps, but probably not. Far more likely the low-born will work harder in the future to avoid being caught by those who might punish him.
This is the key problem: retaliation doesn't generally discourage misbehavior. Rather, it encourages those who misbehave to work harder at not getting caught. It happens in capuchin society, and it happens in human society. It happens in the relationships between parents and children, bosses and underlings, states and citizens.
We tell ourselves that justice must be served, but what we really mean is that our desire for vengeance must be satisfied. Consider: you're out in the world somewhere, and a stranger steps on your foot, shoves you to the ground, and runs away. What purpose can be served by chasing him down and retaliating? Revenge, and nothing else. Sure, he might hesitate to repeat such an attack in the future, but that's only one possibility, and not the most likely one. If he sees you coming, he might be in fear for his safety, given his knowledge that most people intend their vengeance to be more severe than the original offense. Therefore, he might cause you serious injury in order to avoid injury to himself. Further, even if you are successful in taking your revenge, he will almost certainly feel that you have punished him too severely, and will feel the need to avenge himself on you. Finally, and most importantly, if you have conditioned him at all, you have conditioned him to avoid capture, not to refrain from harming people, because it is being caught, not the harm he inflicted, that is the most immediate cause of the suffering you inflict on him.
Fine, you might say: chasing someone down and exacting revenge isn't a good idea. Call the police and let the justice system take care of it. But justice miscarries with alarming frequency. We've all heard stories in the news about the constant stream of unfair conviction and sentencing that comes out of our so-called justice system. People who have suffered a lifetime of squalor and hopelessness are convicted far more often and sentenced far more severely than those who have lived a life of unimaginable luxury. If a homeless man steals $400 from you, he could go to prison for two years, while the ultra-rich who regularly steal millions, billions, even trillions of dollars from all of us, wiping out the life savings of countless families, are rarely even charged with a crime. If we had better methods for preventing crime, methods that didn't involve punishment, then gross unfairness like this could be minimized or even eliminated.
Common sense tell us that state punishment helps make law-abiding citizens safer from criminals. Can we trust our common sense? Let's look at some facts: If Wikipedia is to be believed, the United States has the highest per-capita imprisonment rate in the world, well over four times that in, for example, the United Kingdom. Am I, living in the US, four times safer than I would be in the UK? Am I even marginally safer than I would be in the UK? I think not. Rather than greater safety for citizens, our policies result in greater desperation among criminals, making them far more dangerous, far more likely to kill in order to avoid capture, significantly reducing our safety.
Science has shown repeatedly that punishment is problematic at best. How many studies will tell us that imprisonment harms all of us before we stop putting people in prison? How many studies will tell us that deliberately causing pain to a child is psychologically damaging before we outlaw all forms of physical violence against children? How many do-it-yourself science experiments will we perform on our own children before we realize that even non-violent sanction is rarely anything more than a way to vent parental frustration? But we can't just let people get away with misbehavior and crime, can we? Wouldn't that encourage social chaos? Criminals would overrun the rest of us, and our kids would become spoiled brats. I suggest that these intuitions about the relationship between punishment and behavior, these intuitions rooted in our retaliatory impulses, are incorrect. We need science and facts to educate our intuitions.
Punishment does not have the desired effect. Some people tell me that the ethics I have proposed relies too much on everyone voluntarily being good. Like the other religions, our current system of coercive ethics causes us to believe the exact opposite of the truth. It is coercive ethics that relies too much on people voluntarily being good, voluntarily practicing restraint due to the fear of punishment. Invitational ethics suggests that we base our policies on the certain knowledge that people will behave in their own self-interest whenever possible. It is time we stop punishing people for being human beings. We don't need to change people. We need to change the system.
That's all I have to say, for now. Thanks for watching.