Monday, September 26, 2016

Recent Encounters on the Purpose of Punishment

336 days until classes start.

I have finished Philosophy Bites podcast.

The last podcast episode that I listened to was Gregg Caruso on Free Will and Punishment.

Caruso argued that free will does not exist; consequently, moral praise and condemnation are illegitimate - as is moral reward and punishment. Nobody has a choice over what they do - they are merely acting on the effects of their environment on their genetic material. Consequently, what they do is not to their credit, and they cannot be praised or deserve any reward. Nor can a person be blamed or punished for what they did wrong.

Caruso argues that there are two legitimate reasons for punishment. One is deterrence - to prevent a person from doing that which is harmful to others by threatening them with a cost. The other justification for punishment, which is the primary focus of this podcast episode, is to treat a wrong-doer as somebody who has an illness that makes that person a threat to society. He compares the confinement of prisoners as comparable to putting a patient under quarantine - something that can be done to a person without their consent, but which carries no implication of blameworthiness or being such as to deserve this harm.

This episode, posted on April 16, 2016, still makes no mention of the possibility that praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, might have a purpose. That is to say, the reason we have selected rewards as a response to some activity (and use praise as a type of reward), and punishment as a response to others (with condemnation working as a type of punishment), is because these activities have certain effects on the human brain, and people generally have reasons to create those effects.

That idea still seems to be unique to the philosophy that I present here in this blog.

On a related note, I am now about half way through Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. He, too, fails to see that praise and condemnation have a function - an effect - that explains and justifies their use. Smith wrote that gratitude is the natural response to benevolence and resentment the natural response to causeing harm. The impulse to reward comes from the attitude of generosity and to punish comes from resentment. Specifically, these responses are appropriate when impartial observers (not the agent who is actually harmed, and not the agent doing the harm) would have this response under normal circumstances to an act of benevolence or resentment.

Smith, however, does not investigate why it is the case that resentment and punishment is an appropriate response to wrongdoing as opposed to, let us say, clucking and flapping one's arm as a chicken. We look simply at the descriptive fact that people are disposed to respond to wrongdoing with feelings of resentment and an impulse to punish and judge, from this fact alone, that it is appropriate that they do so.

Where philosophers do look for the reason to reward or punishment only in their effects, they see this as providing an incentive or a deterrant to the evil action. That is to say, they are to enter into the agent's calculations before the fact as reasons to do that which will earn a reward, and as reasons to avoid that which will be punished. Yet, as Smith argues, we hold the agent who acts for the sake of reward much less favorably than we would hold the agent who provides a benefit out of simple generosity or a desire to help somebody in need. Similarly, Smith argues that the agent who acts like a properly motivated person would act merely to avoid punishment will get his wish in being undeserving of punishment, but one who warrants no praise either - as a person who acts in the pursuit of justice or forbears from some action because it is wrong.

Oh . . . I should mention as an aside . . . one of the provessors at the University of Colorado that I hope to study under, David Boonin, has a book out on The Problem of Punishment which may serve as an opening for presenting some of these ideas. I should add that book to my reading list.

Too little time!

And too little money. This book costs $110.00.

Okay, where was I before I digressed? Oh, yes, with the idea that reward and punishment work on the brain to alter desires and, thereby, to cause people to do that which is good or refrain from that which is evil, even when no actual reward/praise or punishment/condemnation can be expected.

NOTE: John Stuart Mill has this idea in his writing, in Utilitarianism, as I recall, though I cannot find the precise reference at this moment.

I have been giving thought recently to papers I may write in order to introduce some of my ideas to the philosophy department. Reading Boonin's book with an eye to writing a paper on the idea that reward and punishment - praise and condemnation - have a purpose in reorganizing the mind/brain to promote desires for that which is useful and aversions to that which is harmful - could be one of those papers.


FredT said...

Just to make you see what some of us think about academic philosophy...

Free will is a problem. Epictetus spells out what we have control over; ascent or choice, some desire (like), aversion (dislike) and motivation to act. Or was/is Epictetus just wrong? or just being ignored? So our free will is limited to these three little areas. So we have no free will outside these three little areas, but we have total control and responsibility within those three areas, which seems to be about right by my reasoning. So what is free will doing out of the areas that we have control?

Punishment is not about right nor wrong but transgression of laws written by control freaks.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Whatever you think about academic philosophy, you offered a philosophical position which it is best to evaluate by looking at the evidence both in favor and against.

Perhaps what you are objecting to is the practice of trying to discover which positions are supported by the best evidence and soundest logic. However, that is an odd thing to protest.

There is actually no evidence that we have any free will at all. However, it is not a problem because the institution of morality actually assumes that actions are caused by a mixture of beliefs and desires, that some desires are malleable, and that the social tools that can alter desires are reward/praise and punishment/condemnation. Thus, there are reasons to engage in these practices - to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

No sane person can doubt that the institution of punishment has been abused. However, that is no more of an objection to the points that I made above than the fact that water is used for waterboarding proves that it out to be banned and removed from every household.

FredT said...

Of course there is "no evidence of free will" when you/they look for free will where it does not exist. My whole point is that free will can only exist where we have control, and there should be no evidence beyond where we have control.

Can we each hold different opinions, and then change our opinions? Is that not evidence of free will within that which we have control? Free will is limited to that which we have control over.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You might find value in Boonin's book. It seems that he argues against punishment.

It is definitely something I need to take a look at.

Unknown said...

What is an "opinion"? It is just a form of belief, yes? And who is this "we" or "I" that you suppose has the control? Is your mind not under the direct influence of internal and external stimuli? Do "you" change your opinions willy-nilly or is it under the causal influence of new information? Are you in control of receiving that information? Are you in control of your brain forming new opinions based on that new information? So what is it you think you are "controlling"?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I think that it is also relevant to note that a thermostat controls the temperature in a room. It might even do so according to a set of criteria such as time of day (turning climate control off in the evening) and expected use (30 minutes before an event). Yet, it would hardly be considered an exercise of free will.

And, yet, is it any different when a person does that? Adjusting the thermostat when one is feeling warm or cold, or when expecting company (e.g., one's parents are coming to visit), or when first getting up in the morning or going to bed?