ExPostModern, Philosophy, Spotlight

A Bad Philosopher Answers a Bad Question Badly

Photo by Giampaolo Macorig.

Philosophers fill an important role in our society, and not only in academic circles. As specialists who use logical deduction to answer tough questions, philosophers have dominated the worlds of business leadership and law; many of us instead choose to work as authors, teachers and public intellectuals. Philosophy by its nature can come up with answers even when there is no hard empirical data to swear by—that’s both why it’s less rigorous than science, and also why it can sometimes answer questions that science can’t, such as ethical questions. Having a mind that’s trained to think calmly through great uncertainty is an asset in figuring out right from wrong in real-world situations.

That’s why it astonishes me that one academic philosopher, Oxford’s Rebecca Roache, chose not only to give an interview on what is essentially a fantasy question (should we use technology that doesn’t exist and isn’t on the horizon to create an artificial hell for criminals?) but managed to give all her answers without one whit of critical thinking. You can read the entire interview here.

Faced with this question, one might expect a philosopher to start by digging at its premise. Before addressing, “Should we use to make life hellish for prisoners,” they could ask: why are we using anything to make life hellish? It may be a natural impulse, but is it right to make criminals suffer?

That kind of questioning is the essence of what philosophers do. Most of society treats its beliefs as sacrosanct, but philosophers are that professional class trained to pick at scabs that most of us would rather keep covered. Philosophy as a discipline is perhaps most famous for asking questions like, “How do we know the world is real?” and “Do we truly know anything?” Taking that same healthy skepticism and applying it to ethics, philosophers have successfully tackled big questions like is it right to kill one person to save many and does morality mean anything if there is no God?

Dr. Roache apparently missed those classes at Leeds. She begins:

I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice [in certain cases] was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

Now, as a thought exercise, this is fine; because of our question-everything attitude, philosophers often touch on repulsive ideas as hypotheticals. But if you’re wondering whether this is merely Roache’s setup for a refreshingly ethical solution, the answer is no. The same reasoning runs throughout everything she says on the topic of life-extending punishments.

Discussing potential future technology, she suggests we may someday live for centuries or millennia (which is plausible, if you really emphasize the “someday”). And it seems to her that we should seize upon this tech to artificially extend a prisoner’s lifespan to, say, 1000 years. That way they could really, really suffer in the slammer.

Does she have any moral qualms about creating all this extra suffering? Only one:

…I soon realised it’s not that simple. [Among death row inmates] death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

So her concern about using sci-fi to create extra suffering is that she doesn’t want to overlook ways to create even WORSE suffering.

Dr. Rebecca Roache, Philosopher.

Dr. Rebecca Roache. Photo from Oxford University.

(To be fair to Dr. Roache, she also raises an existential question about whether the individual in the cell at age 1000 is even the same person who went in at age 30, but she never explores this point—which would incidentally serve as an excellent objection to life sentences in general, even with our current 70-year lifespan.)

Now, like all the best villains, Roache has a great moral justification for the suffering she believes we should create: these are criminals. Criminals, after all, need to suffer to make up for their crimes. Everybody knows that. But few people can answer why: why exactly do criminals have to suffer? How does that help anything? That’s a question that Roache neither asks nor answers. She just assumes that they do need to suffer, and that it’s our job to make that happen.

I want to point out some reasons why we might question that assumption of hers, and these are reasons that are actually raised in the real world by legislators, criminal justice experts, human rights activists, prisoners and even the families of murder victims.

First, creating suffering seems inhumane.

As a society we have decided that some types of persons—typically those who have engaged in violence—need to be separated from the population and kept confined for our safety. As long as they are securely confined, that objective is met without piling on any extra suffering; the main point is just to keep them away from the rest of us.

Second, confinement itself is a form of suffering.

There is almost nothing as debilitating to the human psyche as loss of agency. In prison this confinement is combined with tight day-to-day control and constant observation by guards. So if we have some moral imperative to make prisoners suffer (and it’s unclear that we do), we’re already doing a darn good job of it.

Third, the law in most developed countries forbids creating extra suffering for prisoners.

If needed, we can discipline a particular prisoner for bad behavior; but it’s against laws and regulations to actually torment prisoners. They’re typically allowed beds, toilets, washing facilities, meals, health care, entertainment, religious meetings, educational opportunities, and other amenities because they are human beings and torturing human beings is wrong. If someone were to suggest, “Should we cut off three toes from every prisoner’s right foot?” or “Should we burn the eyes out of prisoner’s heads?” we would not take them seriously—or we might even wish that they themselves were locked in prison. Finding more existential ways to torture prisoners might seem cleaner, but it violates the same basic prohibition on cruel punishment.

Fourth, and most importantly: isn’t justice about something more than revenge?

If an individual commits a violent crime and is confined, wouldn’t we much rather see that individual eventually become peaceful, and thoughtful, and mentally stable, and productive? Wouldn’t that rehabilitation be a better outcome than simply flogging them, one way or another, for a few hundred years?

That last question is a point of contention—maybe the biggest point of contention—in the field of criminal justice today. Roache mentions this debate, framing it as a “long-standing philosophical question” between retributivists (punish the bastard!) and consequentialists (fix them!). She jumps away from actually engaging this important issue by claiming, perhaps wrongly, that even consequentialists want to see punishment, “because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.”

I understand that one can only cover so much ground in an interview for an online magazine, and Roache may have wanted to avoid directly engaging the reform-versus-revenge debate so that she could spend more time imagining make-believe ways that a make-believe society could torture its criminals. But there are ways to do that that would keep her hypotheticals tethered to the context of the most important debate in criminal justice theory. If, for example, she had framed each of her answers as, “If you wanted to maximize punishment…” or “If you believe criminals need to suffer for their crimes…” she would have constantly reminded us that this is not given. (She only does this once, when explaining why Hitler needs a really really long sentence but not a literally infinite one. Infinite prison sentences she reserves for physicists who create black holes near Earth, and other such hoodlums.)

Another way to very eloquently anchor these ideas to real-world issues would have been to directly disclose her own opinion on retribution. Imagine reading a passage something like this:

“I like to pose these futuristic scenarios to people because, generally, it makes them uncomfortable. It pokes at their fear of mankind’s ability to play God with human lives. And it might scare them a little about future technology, but we have to remember that we’ve already built some truly horrific methods of abusing prisoners, and we use them everyday. So why is that okay?”

That would have really given her imaginings a sense of connection to the real world, and it would have indicated that she has a conscience. Roache does try to ask some big questions like this, but she sort of hurriedly tacks them on at the end. Tying the future into our current debates is clearly not her first priority.

Instead, she seems to take these imaginary technologies as very realistic, very practical issues that are right on the horizon. We could be rocking thousand-year lifespans any day now. Certainly by 2015.

“The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic,” Roache tells us, “But if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before.” Her proof: pacemakers. Some prisoners have pacemakers, a device which primarily allows a person with certain heart conditions to live a normal lifespan instead of dying young. We may be pushing out our longevity a year or two here and there, but even just 100-year average lifespans are a long way off.

(Not all of Roache’s torture dreams involve longer lives. She’s also suggested artificially adjusting prisoners’ sense of time so they experience thousands of years of punishment in one normal lifespan—explicitly referencing torture tactics to make it sound plausible—as well as simply giving them brain implants to cure their behavior. This last option, the only one that might actually reform a criminal into a good person, is the one she warns us against: it “makes some people uneasy” and, she points out, the person whose brain is fixed so they feel remorse over their past crimes might not suffer enough from remorse alone so it’s probably a bad idea.)

But perhaps the most disappointing part of the interview is the hypotheticals that Roache doesn’t raise. For example: currently, life in prison is seen as a less severe, more lenient punishment than execution. But if we all had 1,000 year lifespans, and judges could still hand out life sentences, would that change? Instead of death row inmates begging to commute their sentence to life in jail, would we see 200 year old prisoners begging to be executed? Would suicide rates among prisoners rise, and would this affect public opinion about the use of life sentences?

That, of course, is a question Roache never raises, and seems to actively dodge when she’s asked about a world where everyone lives centuries or more. It’s not the kind of question she’s interested in, because, after all, it’s the kind of question that hints at some compassion or concern for prisoners—some need to view them as dignified human beings with feelings and rights. Roache carefully excludes any such mamsy-pamsy sentiments from her vision of the future.

Clearly I’m not voting for Rebecca Roache for Space Emperor, but fortunately we don’t have much to fear. That’s because the other practical consideration that she ignores is cost, and its perennial primacy in any discussion of prisons. Conservatives already grind their teeth at the cost of keeping a prisoner incarcerated per-year, and one of the toughest expenses to get approved is bolstering prisoner health care. That means that if life-extending technologies become available as a commodity, they certainly won’t be purchased for prisoners; and if they become ubiquitous as a basic health care product, prisoners will be among the last to receive them. In the world of future longevity, the most likely fate for prisoners is either to be denied long lives altogether, or to face a higher execution rate because of the cost of keeping them for centuries.

A better solution would be, of course, to simply reduce incarceration rates, improve rehabilitation practices, and teach our children that ideas like Roache’s are wrong and dangerous; but the thirst for revenge, I suspect, is a human failing we will still have to deal with even long after we’ve banged out longevity.

On a final note, I’ve picked a lot on Dr. Roache in this commentary, and for good reason; but I don’t think her interviewer is without blame. Ross Andersen, the Aeon Magazine editor who conducted the interview, began with an eloquent opening in which he decries the barbarism of the past. He sets the stage for a piece on the dangers of misuse of emerging technology, but that’s not what his subject gives him at all. When she focuses over and over on how to create more suffering, I would expect him to ask point-blank: why should we create more suffering at all?

An experienced philosophy journalist, Andersen should be eager to question her assumptions, twice over: not only as anyone discussing philosophy should, but also because an interview is far more interesting when the journalist asks hard questions. Instead, Andersen seems to play along with the basic presumption that prisoners deserve pain, and that they might not be getting enough of it just yet.

(Anderson also “condensed and edited” the interview for the public; while I can’t exclude the possibility that he spun it significantly, as of Sunday Roache hasn’t given any defense or correction in the comments section, which is almost entirely critical. [Edit: see update below.])

Of course, I don’t study ethics, human rights or prisons for a living. So in closing, I’ll leave you with a commentary from someone who does. And while most blog posts end with a question and a call for comments, this one ends with a more personal request: the next time someone does you wrong, think about whether it would really help the world one bit if they went to a place called Hell—whether that place was made by angels or by politicians.

Update: Dr. Roache has now come forward to say that the interview does not accurately capture her views. She replied in the comments below and has also posted a clarification on her own website. These responses partially address the points made in this essay, and she has agreed to answer follow up questions. Her answers will be posted here on Rogue Priest.

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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17 thoughts on “A Bad Philosopher Answers a Bad Question Badly

  1. Excellent. Indeed, ‘why create more suffering?’ should be the question if not THE question. But unfortunately professional philosophers these days are not always in the business of formulating a good question. As you rightly point out, there’s a long tradition for asking good questions, but alas, insofar as the public meter dictates the order of the day, what has become more important for professional philosophers, that is, the ones who get paid by a university, is how to make themselves visible, and not how to make their questions relevant. Relevance is claimed, mind you, and exponentially at that, but there’s very little of it established when opposing plain common sense. As we all know, making idiotic statements in the public domain also has a long tradition. Ergo, if you want to make it as a ‘successful’ philosopher, all you need to do is follow suit: Invent stupid scenarios, demonstrate with even stupider, yet entertaining, examples from cultural studies that you have no clue about, and you’re set. It’s good you’re on the road André. You don’t want to see what’s happening in the universities these days. There are forces that push the academics ahead that have very little to do with knowledge and compassion. Alas, again.

    • Thanks for this reply, Camelia. This in particular leaps out at me:

      what has become more important for professional philosophers, that is, the ones who get paid by a university, is how to make themselves visible, and not how to make their questions relevant.

      I couldn’t agree more. This is something that truly bothers me about our field today. While there has always been a certain amount of dreaminess in academic philosophy – which its critics are all too happy to seize on – I feel that since science has risen so powerfully to the center of most knowledge-seeking, philosophy has shifted from a let’s-answer-meaningful-questions discipline to a sort of warehouse for cool sounding thought experiments. That in turn has made it a lot less valuable to society than it could be.

      This is something I want to write about in more detail, and I’d be interested in discussing it more with you if you like. I’d find an exchange of ideas on this topic very helpful.

      • You’re welcome to send your thoughts my way. I have my own quarrel with this, and I can be pretty nasty in my observations. But I really think that we have an obligation to denounce the pretence to teaching by example, when neither the teaching nor the example is of any good. Ah, and I must say that I’ve developed a complete aversion towards the word ‘maximize’. I see an increase use of it by philosophers who think that talking business school and economics is a way of engaging with philosophy the interdisciplinary way, and thereby making philosophy relevant. But not everyone is fooled by what is really going on: sales, sales, sales, of the said philosophers’ books, and visibility, visibility, visibility, of the said philosophers’ egos.

  2. Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. Reading the quotes you provided of the interview had me repeatedly slack jawed and disturbed.

    Through reading and watching success stories of people with violent pasts, many times those stories involved outdoor recreation, building/creating (sometimes itself as the outdoor recreation), caring for other creatures (like farm animals or communal domestic pets), availability of personal space and time to really soak it all in – especially in a wilderness setting, and gardening (which has been a personal space for a number of success stories). Not only have many of those with violent pasts found refuge, healing, and been able to successfully reintegrate into human society, but many people of the general public have found these sorts of things to be very fulfilling to their overall well-being. Including those with physical/developmental and mental/psychological challenges. I think the whole of human society can benefit from learning how criminals can be healthily reintegrated into society. Prisons could be restructured and reconsidered to be a public service where professionals can trial different approaches to find what works, and these findings can then be applied where appropriate in society. I think this could instill a sense of purpose and belonging for those who’ve been removed from the rest of society. As it retains some form of human connection to the rest of society – by being able to help others while working on helping themselves. They can still be a part of us and feel positive about this transition in their lives, instead of feeling like a pariah and lose any interest in the society that has put them there. Which would makes sense for there to be disdain and repeat offenses when back in the society that had made them suffer. It merely continues the viscous cycle of revenge, or “an eye for an eye” as it were. By punishing how can we expect to not receive back what we taught? There are family lines with histories of violence for a reason. A more productive approach would be to figure out how to cease violent offenses at its source. With such an approach, prison sentences wouldn’t really be considered a solution, but a last resort.

    • Thanks Rua. I share your hunch about outdoor activities, building/creating, caretaking, and personal space (and dignity). You likely already know this, but there are some prisons in northern Europe built on that model, essentially acting more like secluded communes where convicts build their community rather than a traditional confinement. They’ve had spectacular results.

  3. Hi – bad philosopher here. I completely agree with you about all the questions you believe are important that the interview didn’t address. Had I anticipated the attention this would get, I’d have been at greater pains to emphasise that the point of the paper I’m writing with my colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen is not to cook up new ways of making people suffer, but to consider how developments in technology might interact with our punishment practices. That doesn’t just involve thinking up new methods of punishment, but also considering how technological developments might force us to question existing practices. (The point of my remark about life sentences was not that increasing prisoners’ lifespans might make their sentences more lenient and that this would be terrible, but that it’s actually unclear whether a longer life would make a life sentence more or less severe, and whether it would be permissible (I think not) to withhold lifespan enhancement technology from prisoners.) I don’t endorse any of the methods mentioned in the interview. That I haven’t engaged much with the online attention is due to the fact that I have only today returned from travelling, I’ve had virtually no internet access for nearly a week, and I’m overwhelmed with emails, tweets, and blog posts about the topic. I’m planning this week to write a blog post on my website responding to the most frequently-raised comments, questions, and concerns.

    In any case, I’m glad to have got people thinking about this issue, and it’s actually quite reassuring to see how much compassion there is, even if this often happens to manifest itself in unflattering remarks about me ;)

    • Thank you for replying! I do understand you’re busy and likely overwhelmed with the response. While I’m glad to know that you don’t stand behind the punishments described in the article, I will say I certainly wasn’t alone in reading you as being in favor of punitive justice generally, and potentially of developing new and harsher punishments. Nearly every commentator seems to have heard you that way.

      Understanding that you’re busy and it may take some time, would it be possible to ask you some followup questions? I’d like to clarify your position and can, of course, run a new post to more accurately reflect your views.

  4. Pingback: Rebecca Roache Discusses Futuristic Torture |   Rogue Priest

  5. Pingback: More cyborg justice: Roache on the future of punishment | Practical Ethics

  6. Pingback: Prison: Rehabilitation or Retribution? | Globe Drifting

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