Punishing the good

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Should you punish people for wronging others, or for making the wrong call about wronging others?

For example:

  1. A newspaper sends me annoying emails all the time, but suppose that empirically if they didn’t behave like this, they would get markedly fewer subscribers, and may not survive. And suppose their survival is in fact worth a little annoyance for a lot of people, we all agree. Such that if I was in their position, I agree that I would send out the annoying emails. Should I resent them and unsubscribe from their paper for their antisocial behavior, or praise them and be friendly because overall I think they made the right call?
  2. Suppose Bob eats beef, which he thinks makes him feel somewhat better and so be better able to carry out his job as a diplomat negotiating issues in which tens of thousands of lives are at stake. He also thinks it is pretty bad for the cows, but worth it on net. Suppose he’s right about all of this. Five hundred years later, carnivory is illegal and hated, and historians report that Bob, while in other regards a hero, did eat beef. Should the people of 2521 think of Bob as an ambiguous figure, worthy of both pride and contempt? or should they treat him as purely a hero, who made the best choice in his circumstances?

I have one intuition that says, ‘how can you punish someone for doing the very best thing they could have done? What did you want them to do? And are you going to not punish the alternative person, who made a worse choice for the world, but didn’t harm someone in the process? Are you just going to punish everyone different amounts?’

But an argument for the other side—for punishing people for doing the right thing—is that it is needed to get the incentives straight. If Alice does $100 of harm to Bruce to provide $1000 of help to Carrie, then let’s suppose that that’s good (ignoring the potential violation of property rights, which seems like it shouldn’t be ignored ultimately). But if we let such things pass, then Alice might also do this when she guesses that is only worth $60 to Carrie, if she cares about Carrie more than Bruce. Whereas if we always punish Alice just as much as she harmed Bruce, then she will take the action exactly when she would think it worth it if it was her own welfare at stake, rather than Bruce’s. (This is just the general argument for internalizing externalities – having people pay for the costs they impose on others.)

This resolution is weirder to the extent that the punishment is in the form of social disgrace and the like. It’s one thing to charge Bob money for his harms to cows, and another to go around saying ‘Bob made the best altruistic decisions he could, and I would do the same in his place. Also I do think he’s contemptible.’

It also leaves Bob in a weird position, in which he feels fine about his decision to eat beef, but also considers himself a bit of a reprehensible baddie. Should this bother him? Should he try to reform?

I’m still inclined toward punishing such people, or alternately to think that the issue should be treated with more nuance than I have done, e.g. distinguishing punishments from others’ opinions of you, and more straightforward punishments.

One response to “Punishing the good

  1. Shouldn’t you just distinguish the content of the opinion from the punishing effect?

    “Bob is contemptible” may be punishing and punishing may be reasonable. But the content of the opinion is false.

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