Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Punishment: Deterrance vs. Moral Aversion

Classes start in 307 days.

I am still working on Dr. Boonin's book, The Problem of Punishment.

In previous posts, I presented what I am now calling a moral aversion theory of punishment. The purpose of punishment is to create moral aversions.

I then explained how this theory fits within Dr. Boonin's own definition of punishment.

In Chapter 2 of his book, Boonin looks at utilitarian theories of punishment and aims to show that they fail to justify punishment. He is continuing to provide excellent arguments that are dramatically improving my level of understanding of the current understanding, not only of the philosophy of punishment specifically, but moral theory in general.

Here, I am looking at some of the claims that Boonin makes regarding utilitarian arguments for punishment and his objections to them with an eye on what moral aversion theory adds to that debate.

Part III: Consequentialist Theories of Punishment.

Moral aversion theory has am immediate implication for the costs and benefits of punishment. It points to a new set of benefits – the establishment of a moral aversion and its good consequences.

Utilitarian defenders of punishment have traditionally looked at three major categories of consequences. There are the consequences to the person being punished - which are generally negative and provide a reason not to punish. These are matched up against specific deterrence (preventing the person being punished from committing future harms) and general deterrence (preventing people other than the agent from committing similar harms). Whereas the benefits of specific and general deterrence are greater than the costs of specific harm, punishment is considered justified.

Boonin provides a number of arguments against this formula. In many cases of punishment, the person punished is able to commit future harms - on other prisoners at least. More importantly, he argues how this formula also sometimes justifies punishing the innocent. A particularly objectionable form of punishing the innocent is punishing the children of those who are guilty since it may provide a stronger deterrence than punishing the guilty person themselves.

Moral aversion theory offers another benefit to punishment. This benefit functions much like general deterrence, but is different in some significant ways.

On standard deterrence theory, let us assume that an act is punished by a fine of $1000. Let us assume that the agent holds that his chances of being caught are 5%. This means that the deterrence value of this law is $50 (or 5% of $1000). If he can gain something worth $60, then the fine provides inadequate deterrence and the agent would – and perhaps even rationally should – perform the illegal action.
Assume now that an agent acquires a moral aversion such that, “I wouldn’t do that even if you paid me $1000.” Let us keep the assumption that the agent believes that she has a 5% chance of getting caught. This further fact is irrelevant. The agent who is so averse to performing an act that she would not do so for $1000 is not going to care whether or not she gets caught.

In fact, in cases where the chance of getting caught drops to zero, we lose the deterrence value of punishment entirely. The only thing we have to keep the agent honest are her moral aversions – the fact that she has acquired such a dislike for performing acts of that type that she will not perform an act of that type even if secrecy can be guaranteed.

When we add the value of moral aversions to the value of specific and general deterrence, we have even stronger reasons to engage in punishment.

However, this, in itself, is not going to address the problem such as punishing the innocent. Secretly punishing the innocent would be one of the ways that we can create these moral aversions - since punishment works not only on those who are punished but those who discover it. It may even be the case that punishing the children of those who are guilty has such an impact on the reward centers of the brain that this, too, would provide a reason for these types of vicarious punishment.

So, we still have a problem with a consequentialist justification for punishment - a problem that I will take up in my next post.

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