How to inflict huge costs kindly

Barbed tape at a prison

Some nice, calm razor wire. Image via Wikipedia

Peter Moskos wrote in favour of bringing back the lash as a form of punishment.

Robin Hanson responded:

Yup. The US spends vast sums to affirm its myths of greatness, such on arms to affirm our saving the world from nazis, communists, etc. and on med to affirm our gift of modern med to the world. You might hope we’d give up eventually as myths become obviously wrong, but this prison myth, that we are kind because we won’t flog, has lasted for two centuries in the face of consistently contrary evidence, and gives no signs of abating.  Could our military and med myths last that long?

I disagree. That we are kind because we don’t flog is no myth. In common use, whether you are kind or cruel is not about what happens to the person you are supposedly being kind or cruel to. It is about what your actions say about your psychology.

You can be perfectly kind while knowing strangers die far away for want of help. If strangers die in front of you without you responding, that’s much more of a problem because it says you have no strong emotional response to this. That’s a worrying characteristic in an ally, for whatever reason. You can be kind while you vote for policies that everyone knows will indirectly harm people, as long as you’re apparently motivated by the right feelings about the immediate, visible effects. Do the opposite, and you are a cold and heartless calculator. Not kind at all, even if your actions benefit abstract people somewhere.

Kind people respond to immediate, vivid things, but are less required to respond to more abstract ones, and should never do so at the expense of the vivid things.

Kind people are expected to have a stronger emotional reaction to seeing a person being bloodied and tortured than to seeing them sitting behind bars. I expect this is because the cost of imprisonment is stretched over a very long time, so only a tiny bit of it is ever immediate to the viewer.

So we are kind – in the sense of having appropriate emotional reactions – because we won’t flog. If being kind in this way is at the expense of prisoners, that is an abstract concern that kind people need not be upset by.

6 responses to “How to inflict huge costs kindly

  1. OK, yes, I agree, we are “kind” in the sense of signaling certain psych tendencies, even if into the sense of actually helping or not hurting.

  2. I must be un-empathetic. When I read in the news about the case in Singapore back in 1994 (an American teen was sentenced to caning for vandalizing a car — my immediate thought was “Good! Just and immediate!” rather than “Boy those people in Singapore are cruel” (It was less than ‘immediate’ due to the outcry, but still more immediate than a prison sentence would have been.)

  3. I wonder how much of Bob’s sensibility is due to things happening to strangers in Singapore being somewhat abstract and non-vivid.

    Also, for me, being caned is less vividly painful and damaging than being lashed. So I feel less against the Singapore caning than the suggestion that the kid up the street gets lashed rather than 6 months community service. I know that is probably wrong, but I wonder if others are on average consistently wrong in this same way.

  4. In psychological sense, I very much agree with your analysis. However, the viewpoint your reasoning is based on the fact that a social activity is decided purely because of human sentimental perception. Your analysis makes good sense at individual level and it could well justify a lot of social phenomena in modern Western society.

    What I could argue is that lashing, as a probably more visual and physical punishment to deter people from violating the law (or probably more likely to be abused by the authority), might have much higher symbolic deterrence for crimes that could normally deserve a a few month incarceration, as the physical punishment is, following your logic, more vivid and immediate to the potential criminals. In the end of day, the force of punishment is to deter people from violating the regulations for the benefits of the majority, rather than abusing and punishing criminals. But once the punishment must be enforced, it should well serve its purpose to deter convicts from committing the wrongdoing once again. Rationally we can’t just sympathize them at the very moment they have to be punished for the wrongdoing, those punishment shall be effective and not abusive.

  5. Pingback: Hidden motives or innocent failure? | Meteuphoric

  6. I dunno about that, Katja. I don’t think we have any cultural norm that kind people must respond to things happening in front of them. Do we ostracize people for not attending to the victims of vehicle collisions? How many people get out of their cars and perform first aid? Virtually none. How many people intervene in crimes in progress? Virtually none. “kindness” means something much more superficial, something more to do with manners and PC speech than anything else.


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