Friday, October 21, 2016

A Theory of Punishment

311 days until classes start.

I have officially started my project to have a paper written for Dr. Boonin on Punishment by the time I visit the philosophy department on November 4.

It is practice for writing papers as a graduate student. Dr. Boonin wrote a book on The Problem of Punishment which discusses a number of issues that I am interested in investigating. I am writing some of my ideas up as comments on the claims he made in that book.

I will let you have a peek at what I have gotten so far, and you can tell me if I am making any gross (or not so gross) errors - if you please.

Dr. Boonin 

I have read your book on punishment and find it to be a most excellent resource on the arguments that have been used with respect to this subject. It is quite well organized - even encyclopedic - as well as being exceptionally well argued.

In light of this, I would like to know your opinion regarding an argument for punishment that I did not see in your book - which I would like to present to you here. 

The view that I would like to present has consequentialist elements. However, I believe you would find that it fits more comfortably under the category of a "moral education" theory. However, it differs significantly from the moral education theory that you discussed in your book The theory you discussed approached the project of "moral education" as a project to upgrade the beliefs of the person being punished. The version of the "moral education" theory that I wish to present focuses instead on molding desires - not only the desires of the person punished, but molding society generally across a population.

A relevant difference between the two types of moral education can be found in the different ways in which beliefs and desires are changed. To change an agent's beliefs, we are ideally to use evidence and reason. However, evidence and reason are not the appropriate tools for changing desires. You cannot reason a person out of a love for chocolate milkshakes or into a fondness for baseball. There are activities that appear to look like reasoning. However, I will argue that, insofar as their impact is on desires rather than beliefs, something other than reasoning is going on 

The primary tools for changing desires are rewards and punishments. Here, I am referring to punishments in a biological sense – not in the moral sense. If an action results in an electric shock, for example, this shock is considered "punishment" insofar that it is something the creature has a reason to avoid, even though it carries with it no moral implications.

Praise and condemnation function as reward and punishment in this regard. Praise is something that people tend to experience as pleasant and that they seek for its own sake, so it functions as a reward. Condemnation, on the other hand, is something which people tend to be averse to experiencing and avoiding for its own sake - thus, counts as a punishment in this sense.

We can "persuade" somebody to like baseball in this sense - perhaps by pointing out elements in the game that the other person likes but did not know about, but also by praising the love of baseball while pointing out these features, and allowing this praise to work on the reward system of the agent.

The same applies to rewarding/praising such things as honesty, charity, and responsibility while punishing/condemning such things as dishonesty, theft, cruelty, and carelessness. These mold the desires not only of the agent being rewarded or punished, but the desires of people generally. This is the form of "moral education" that I wish to discuss.

The Reward System

Understanding this theory of moral education would benefit from understanding at least some of the basics of the reward systems in the brain.

The reward system primarily (though not exclusively) connects three regions of the brain – the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which is responsible for regulating the neurotransmitter dopamine, the nucleus accumbens which regulates wanting and pleasure, and the frontal cortex where an agent plans intentional actions.

The frontal cortex is responsible for conforming behavior to social norms. This is illustrated in the case of Phineas Gage – a railroad worker who survived having a tamping rod blasted into his skull, entering the jaw and exiting the top of his skull near the forehead. The accident inflicted significant damage to the frontal cortex. As a result, Gage, who had previously been known as a responsible and conscientious individual, became disposed to offensive and irresponsible behavior.

The hypothesis under consideration suggests that reward and punishment are used to influence behavior by impacting the reward center of the brain and, thereby, determining the rules that govern an agent's intentional action. It does not do this by altering beliefs or any other cognitive state. Instead, it does this by altering an agent's likes and dislikes. It creates in agents a desire to help those in need, or an aversion to taking the property of others without their consent.

Please note that I would love to have the opportunity to investigate these claims further. I do not have the backing for them that I would like. It is a part of my reason for wishing to attend graduate school that I may have an opportunity to look into these considerations further. In the mean time, it is, at best, a hypothesis. However, perhaps I can at least support the suggestion that it is worthy of additional investigation.

Reward and punishment – including praise and condemnation – are not limited in their effects to only the person rewarded or punished. It is also the case that those who witness rewards or punishments experience an effect very similar to that of the person rewarded or punished. Mirror neurons fire in the brain of a person who observes somebody suffer an injury, and the signal follows almost exactly the same mental pathways as they do for the person harmed. If one person experiences a blow to the hand, the observer will cringe and clutch his hand protectively as if it had been struck.

Similarly, empathy allows each of us to feel what others feel (at least in a normally functioning brain).

In fact, an agent does not even need to witness reward or punishment in order to experience some impact on her reward system. It is enough to hear about a case in which an agent had performed some deed and obtained a reward, or committed some act and been punished for it. The imagining is sufficient. As such, even a parable or a story is sufficient to teach a moral lesson – to alter the likes and dislikes of those who hear or read it, at least to some extent.

In all of these cases, rewards and punishment (including praise and condemnation) are used – not to alter an agent's beliefs about what is right and wrong – but to mold an agent's affective states. For example, by rewarding and praising honesty – and by punishing and condemning dishonesty – we cause agents to have a desire to engage in honest behavior and an aversion to acting dishonesty. These desires and aversions promote honesty – even in cases where honesty might otherwise have been to an agent's advantage. An agent, the observer, the individual reading or listening to a story having a moral lesson, comes to value honesty for its own sake, and not merely as a means to achieving other ends.

The learning of these social norms - the acquiring of these desires and aversions - is the type of moral education that I would like to examine.