Art by Angela Su
One month ago I wrote a particularly sarcastic, critical review of philosopher Rebecca Roache’s ideas on futuristic torture and how it might affect our treatment of prisoners. Like a true philosopher Dr. Roache replied with a level head and agreed to do a followup interview.
From her previous work I was convinced Dr. Roache believes criminals must suffer, and I asked her seven of the toughest questions I could think of to call that into question. Her answers (and my response) are below.
André: You’ve clarified that you don’t condone these futuristic punishments. But almost all responses read you as supporting strong, unpleasant punishments—at least in general, if not these specific punishments. Do you think your interview and blog post come across as pro-punishment? Why do you think people read it that way?
Rebecca Roache: I suspect that part of it is because the distinction between philosophically analysing an idea and endorsing it gets lost when provocative philosophical research is reported in the media.
Something similar happened in relation to another paper I worked on (about engineering humans to mitigate climate change—there’s an interview about it here), although the lead author on that paper, Matthew Liao, bore the brunt of that attention. Another point is that, as I wrote in the blog post clarifying my views on this, I think the most interesting philosophical issues about punishment and technology relate to retribution, so we’re focusing on those issues. By ‘focusing on those issues’ I mean that in most (but not all) cases, we’re trying to see the issues from a retributivist’s point of view, and considering what the attitude of such a person should be towards certain interesting interactions between punishment and technology. If anyone takes that point of view to be my own, then that’s going to make me look like a strong retributivist.
A: When discussing a hypothetical unethical scenario, should a philosopher need to disclaim that they’re not in favor of it? Does disclaiming that add anything of value?
RR: For the author, disclaiming that they don’t endorse ethically objectionable views is valuable assuming that they don’t enjoy being taken personally to endorse those views, and assuming that they don’t want to encourage others to adopt those objectionable views by appearing to support them. Perhaps doing so is also valuable in that it might help prevent people viewing philosophy as a dangerous or amoral pursuit. As to whether philosophers should prudentially disclaim that they’re not in favour of these things, I think it would be useful to draw a distinction between clearly setting out the motivation for considering an idea, and adding some sort of explicit disclaimer to their work. Doing the latter would be overkill, I think: anyone who is misinterpreted having done the former has cause to complain if they’re misinterpreted by those who don’t read their work properly.
A: While some commentators read you as specifically endorsing futuristic torture, the main objection I raised was more basic: in considering each future technology, you seem to take it as a given that criminals should suffer. You repeatedly consider the limits on how much they should suffer, or the appropriate way to make them suffer—but for all the detail devoted to those questions, you spend very little time asking whether they must suffer at all. Do you believe justice requires suffering?
RR: Part of this question, I take it, is answered by my previous point about being interested in retributive issues. Retributivists believe that criminals should suffer some sort of deprivation, and that this deprivation should be proportional to the crime committed. Whether and when that deprivation must involve suffering is an interesting and difficult question, and is not one that we ignore. The answer, in part, depends on your definition of ‘suffering’. Is a vandal made to suffer when she is punished by being made to clean up her mess? Do people suffer when they are made to pay fines as punishment for parking violations? Or when they are placed under curfew, or simply asked to apologise? If they do, then we’re using a very broad understanding of ‘suffering’; one that roughly equates to ‘being made to do something that you’d rather not do’, or perhaps, ‘having one’s freedom or choice restricted’. Pure consequentialists about punishment will have no problem answering this sort of question: inflicting suffering is justifiable only to the extent that it is effective in bringing about the desired consequences of punishment. The question is more difficult (and hence more interesting) for retributivists. How can retributivists be humane while also issuing proportional punishments, especially in the case of criminals who have caused enormous physical and/or mental suffering to their victims? I’m still thinking about this.
A: On a related note, you said many rebuttals distorted your views by framing you as pro-futuristic-torture (which you aren’t). But as I review the responses to your work, many don’t seem to make that mistake at all. Rather, they seem shocked by how casually you (seem to) assume we must make criminals suffer. To many of these commentators, it doesn’t matter whether you prefer futuristic methods or current ones, more severe suffering or lesser suffering—they believe that our current justice systems are already too punitive, and that the ethical move is to focus on rehabilitation.
Since your work does not focus heavily on rehabilitation, are they really then distorting your view? Do you feel that this is a valid objection to your approach to these technologies?
RR: As I’ve said, a lot of this work involves considering a retributive view. That involves starting from the premise that the aim of punishment is to impose a deprivation. I am less interested philosophically in rehabilitation than in retribution. I don’t mean that I think rehabilitation is unimportant, just that it doesn’t raise the most interesting philosophical issues. One rehabilitation-related issue that I do raise in the paper is the question of whether radically extended lifespans might improve rehabilitation rates: it might be possible, over the course of a centuries-long prison sentence, to reform and rehabilitate the sort of criminals who are currently thought to be impossible to reform and rehabilitate (say, 80-year-old psychopathic serial killers). But, even here, it’s the retribution-related questions that are most interesting, such as: Would it be fair to keep a criminal in prison for hundreds of years on the off-chance that we could reform him? Might that result in a disproportionately severe punishment, especially given (at least initial) empirical uncertainty about whether such reformation attempts would be successful?
As for whether I casually assume we should make criminals suffer, this is far from being the case. This is probably the aspect of the paper that I find myself constantly returning to and thinking hardest about, so there is nothing casual about my views here. I’m not a strong retributivist, in that I don’t believe that retributive aims are the only relevant aims of punishment, and I’m not in favour of ‘sinking to the level of the criminals’ by inflicting ‘eye for an eye’ type punishments—but neither am I dismissive of retribution. I have the intuition that a punishment system that focused purely on rehabilitation or other desired consequences would be naïve, unsatisfactory, unjust, and likely to backfire. (More on this in my answer to your final question, below.) What counts as an appropriate level of deprivation for criminals, and why, is something I’m still considering.
A: Long before this interview you wrote a more speculative blog post about these technologies. That blog post got a similar negative reaction. You later said you wrote it as an emotional response after reading about a terrible child murder, and that it wasn’t balanced philosophical work. But now that you’ve done extensive work on the subject, the recent interview seems to be an expansion of the same basic ideas—and received almost identical criticism.
Does your Aeon interview then reflect a balanced philosophic evaluation? Why does it arouse the same basic anti-retribution reactions as the earlier, less developed piece?
I think that the problem with that first blog post is that I didn’t make adequately clear the issue I was interested in exploring. Part of the reason I didn’t make it clear is that it wasn’t clear in my own mind—although it is, I think, revealed in some of my remarks on the blog and in the comments that follow it.
That issue is as follows. An important retributive idea is that punishment should be proportional: it should fit the crime. There are some crimes, such as torturing and then murdering a child, to which it is difficult to respond with a truly proportional punishment, given laws about what punishments can be inflicted on criminals. In our current UK justice system, the most severe punishment available is a very long prison sentence. There is, I think, a very obvious sense in which being subjected to a prison sentence of thirty years is less of a deprivation than being subjected, as a four-year-old, to prolonged torture, denial of basic needs, and eventual murder by the people who owe you protection and tenderness (as was Daniel Pelka in the case I considered in the blog).
This ‘very obvious sense’ has to do with my hunch that, if offered a choice between the two, nobody would choose the latter. The sheer length of the prison sentence inflicted in such cases is perhaps partly due to an attempt to translate a shorter period of intense suffering into a longer period of lesser suffering in order to make the punishment fit the crime—but I think this case, given that nobody would choose Daniel’s fate over that of his murderers, illustrates that it’s not always possible to perform such a translation. If it were, we should expect people to be ambivalent about which options to choose, or perhaps to have a roughly 50:50 split between those who would choose Daniel’s fate and those who would choose his murderers’ punishment.
These reflections suggest that Daniel Pelka’s murderers are not receiving a proportional punishment for their crime: their deprivation is less than his. Once, there existed options of more severe punishment methods, such as the death penalty or the infliction of physical pain, but such methods are outlawed in the UK because they are viewed as inhumane. A long prison sentence is the severest available punishment that is currently deemed humane (and hence permitted) in the UK justice system, and so retributivists must just accept that some very serious crimes are not punished proportionately. But, what if technology could offer means to increase punishment severity without immediately entering the domain of inhumane punishment? Would pure retributivists—and, again, I’m not one—be committed to endorsing such punishments? My initial sense is that they would. And deciding that they would is about as far as I got with that initial blog post.
Since writing that blog post, however, I have realised that things are less simple than they might initially appear. Using technology to tinker with current punishment methods might certainly change them, but it is not obvious how these changes affect the severity of those punishments, or at what point we cross the line (if there is one, and if we have not already crossed it with our current methods) between what is humane and what is not. I suspect that much of what we mean by ‘humane’ is ‘familiar’: consider that one common definition of ‘inhumane’ takes it to involve ‘unusual’ punishment. This makes it appropriate to question the humanity of our existing methods as well as novel ones, since it’s surely possible for a punishment method to be both inhumane and familiar, and for inhumane methods to become familiar over time without thereby growing more humane.
It’s actually quite horrifying that our current system allows people to be locked up when they are very young and never allowed out of prison alive. If it were possible to use technology to achieve the aims of punishment (whatever they are) humanely (whatever that is) and within a short period of time, so that criminals did not spend decades behind bars, then doing that would be better (for the individuals and for society) than locking people up for significant portions of their lives.
Whether it is possible—and what such a punishment would even look like—is a difficult question to answer. But, as a first shot, imagine the possibility of a drug that could induce in criminals an intense experience of empathy for the victim and remorse for the crime, such that these experiences were both morally appropriate responses to the crime committed, and sufficiently unpleasant for the criminal that retributivists would be satisfied that the experience of using such a drug constituted a deprivation comparable to a prison sentence. Perhaps—and I’m not certain of the answer here—giving such a drug to criminals would be more humane than sending them to prison. Perhaps criminals could be given the choice between going to prison for a long period of time or taking such a drug. Perhaps their victims, or the relatives of their victims, could have some say in what punishment method is used.
A: You’ve said that you are not a strong retributivist, but you add, “but I think the idea of desert is important.” Can you explain the basis for the retributive concept of deserved suffering? Clearly desert can be a source of consolation to victims (although some victims even of violent crimes speak against desert). But do criminals truly “deserve” punishment, or is that just the conceit of emotions running high after a crime?
RR: Desert is important not only in the context of punishment, but in the context of our interactions with each other more generally.
Let’s start by considering its relevance to punishment. Suppose that we’re all consequentialists about punishment, and that we’re not concerned about desert at all: our sole intention in inflicting punishment is to bring about certain consequences, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, etc. It might be that the most effective way to bring about those consequences would involve doing things like framing innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit, in order to make a public show of ‘punishing’ them and deterring others. Or sending serial parking violators to prison for many years so that we can be absolutely sure of reforming them.
If such a system were widely implemented, I’m not sure it could properly be called a punishment system at all. In fact, if we don’t care about desert and if all we’re concerned about are consequences—specifically, preventing criminal behaviour—why wait until people actually commit crimes before interfering with them? Why not, instead, take steps to prevent people from committing crimes before they offend, if we have reason to think it likely that they will do so?
Consider that a famous study links maltreatment of children who have a certain genotype to an increased risk of anti-social behaviour in adulthood. If we’re concerned about preventing crime, why not proactively incarcerate maltreated children with the relevant genotype in order to ensure that they don’t go on to commit crimes? Social workers could take maltreated, traumatised children straight out of their abusive homes, give them a genetic test, and immediately imprison them for life if they turned out to have the relevant genotype. This could be an easy, effective way to reduce crime.
Even so, I hope you’d agree that this idea is abhorrent, and the reason it is abhorrent has to do with desert.
Desert is not just about inflicting punishment on those who have done wrong, but also about not interfering with those who have done nothing wrong. Maltreated children do not deserve to be imprisoned when they have done nothing wrong, even if there are good reasons to believe that they will commit crimes in the future.
The point I am making here is that a society of people who cared about preventing crime but who did not care about desert would be terribly dystopic. Those who emphasise the consequentialist aspects of punishment generally also care about desert, at least implicitly: where achieving a desired consequence (deterrence, reform, etc.) must involve inflicting a deprivation (such as a prison sentence or a fine) on someone, consequentialists generally hold that society should restrict itself to inflicting deprivations only on those who have committed crimes. That is, the deprivations necessary to ensure deterrence and so on should be inflicted on those who deserve to suffer such deprivations; those who have not acted wrongly deserve to be left in peace. Desert, then, is important to consequentialists as well as to retributivists.
When I say that I think desert is important, I mean that I think desert must play a central role in any system of punishment. More generally, it plays a central role in our interactions with each other that have nothing to do with punishment. We apologise to those who deserve our apologies. We reward those who deserve reward. We thank those who deserve our thanks. Apology, reward, and gratitude are—like punishment—built around the concept of desert. Life would be very different if we rejected the notion of desert.
Philosopher Rebecca Roache. Photo via Oxford.
Has Dr. Roache answered all the objections to her work? I don’t think so, but it is clear that her interest in the topic is far more thoughtful than the original interview made it seem.
There are questions I’d like to see her engage more deeply: for instance, when she credits criticism to her audience not understanding philosophical analysis, she seems to neglect that the audience in question was that of Aeon Magazine, a philosophy-heavy outlet with an intellectual readership. Many of that site’s commenters made very thoughtful, careful points that deserve to be treated seriously. Likewise, I find it dubious whether we can force criminals to experience “deprivation,” as Dr. Roache says, without acknowledging that we are making them suffer. It seems hard to imagine any form of mandatory deprivation that does not entail suffering.
But the main cause of outrage—that Dr. Roache was apparently advocating high-tech torture of prisoners—seems misplaced. She’s clearly interested in these issues from the abstract perspective of what they tell us about our views on justice.
Personally I’m most interested in her take on just desert. “Deserving” punishment means, to me, the somewhat icky idea that bad people must suffer. Roache points out that desert also means innocent people must not. That’s an excellent and oft-forgotten point; but I also think the two ideas can be treated separately. If you believe the innocent deserve to be left to live their lives in peace—as everyone other than dictators does—you are not automatically committed to the idea that criminals must pay a price in pain. We can have fairness without revenge.
The reality is that not all crimes can be made up for in eye-for-eye fashion, so imagining more complex revenges is not fruitful. Adding more years to a prison sentence—even centuries—is not a way to even it out with a particularly horrific crime. In the Middle Ages we tried to even out such crimes with superbly horrific punishments, like being doused alive in boiling water, being burned at the stake or being drawn and quartered. But these gruesome fines, which give a guttural sense of satisfaction, are not permitted under our prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. That alone ought to tell us that “getting even” shouldn’t be permitted in general.
This followup interview has given me a much clearer idea of Dr. Roache’s intentions in her research, but no clear idea of her personal views on her subject matter. It’s obvious she doesn’t advocate torture, but not obvious what she does advocate. She’s very careful to pull back questions of justice, punishment and desert to the level of their philosophic interest, and not to comment on what she personally feels is the right course. That’s understandable for an academic discussing a sensitive topic, but I find myself wanting more from our ethicists. If someone’s discussing torture, I want to know where they stand. I’d hope that any serious depiction of futuristic sci-fi torture is meant purely to condemn our worst impulses, but Dr. Roache refuses to go that far.
I originally labelled Dr. Roache as a “bad philosopher” dealing with a bad question. Do I still think that? Our interactions since my original piece have made it clear that Rebecca Roache is a thoughtful person and a committed academic—everything one could ask of a philosopher. But her answers to all my questions also give me the sense that she essentially believes punishment, in some form, is a necessary part of justice. I understand that she sincerely wrestles with that idea, and she’s carefully avoided committing to it; but that only makes me feel that she’s had her gut instinct challenged, and is now uncertain of her moral compass.
I suspect that I’ll take great interest in Rebecca Roache’s continued work on this subject. But when she does finally reveal her conclusions—if she does reveal them—I also suspect I’ll disagree.