Monday, January 06, 2020

The Deterrence Theory of Condemnation

In our last exciting episode, I explained how the theory of condemnation that comes from desirism defeats the egoistic theory of condemnation.

This week, we are playing against the deterrence theory of condemnation.

I am employing Dill, Brendan and Darwall, Stephen (2014). "Moral Psychology as Accountability" in Moral Psychology and Human Agency (D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, eds.). Oxford.

Recall that the value of this article is found in the fact that it not only identifies the various theories of condemnation, of which the egoistic and deterrence theories are but two examples, but it then examines the empirical research to determine if the theory actually fits what people are doing when they condemn or punish. The deterrence theory of condemnation say that people engage in condemnation as a way of giving others a reason not to perform actions of the type being condemned. According to the authors:

The deterrence theory predicts that subjects will judge that a more severe punishment is appropriate when the potential deterrence benefit is high, and that a less severe punishment is appropriate when the potential deterrence benefit is low.

They then went on to discuss a number of experiments that show that this is not the case.

At once level, I do not think that the deterrence theory implies that greater potential deterrence implies greater punishment. We could probably get a great deal of deterrence against littering or jay-walking if we were to hang, draw, and quarter perpetrators. However, if we were to do this, the wrongdoing would be found in the hanging, drawing, and quartering of perpetrators far more than in the crimes that the guilty are thought to have committed. Even somebody who holds to a deterrence theory of punishment has reason to refrain from harsher punishment, even where it will do good, on the grounds that it will not do enough good to warrant the suffering that would be found in that punishment. So, this is a poor test for the deterrence theory.

However, it is relevant that this research shows that people will punish even when there is no deterrence effect because the punishment cannot in any way influence the agent's or anybody else's future action. This would be the case if an electrical shock were delivered against the perpetrator even though the perpetrator would have no way of knowing why he got shocked or to relate it to his wrong action.

According to desirism, people condemn in order to promote universally aversions to doing actions of the type being condemned. The deterrence effect of condemnation applies not only to the person being condemned, but to others who experience the condemnation as well - even when they experience it third hand or experience it as being inflicted against an imaginary or hypothetical character that has no home of being deterred about it. We cannot prevent the subject from telling his friends that, "I punished him, even though he has no way of knowing that it was me or why it happened." The telling of the story that those who perform of actions of that type merit some sort of harm promotes in others an aversion to doing acts of the type that the agent is punishing.

One problem with the deterrence theory is that it can not explain the condemnation of historical figures, fictional figures, or hypothetical figures in a story. Our condemnation is not going to change their action. Yet, we have reason to condemn them because of the effects of that condemnation on others in our community. Condemning a historical figure tells others, "do not be like him." Creating a story in which the villain gets it in the end - and the audience both within the story and observing the story cheer - tells viewers that they will be the recipient of the same type of attitude if they should act as the person the movie acted.

So, now, we have two problems with the discussion of the deterrence theory of condemnation. The first of these is that it does not consider reasons why agents might want to temper their condemnation for other reasons - it takes deterrence to be the only reason relevant to the amount of compensation. The second is that it does not consider the effect of condemnation on third parties. The third is that it considers only the effect of giving people a reason to avoid condemnation. It does not consider the effect of condemnation in promoting a simple aversion to doing acts like the type being condemned. I may refrain from taking property because I fear getting caught (and the punishment that would follow). However, the main reason that I do not take the property of others is because I have an aversion to taking the property of others. It is not something that I want to do, and it does not reflect the type of person I want to be. The effect of condemnation in promoting attitudes like this is missing from the discussion that Dill and Darwall provide.

It would actually be a mistake to call this a deterrence theory of condemnation. It is, instead, a moral education theory of condemnation - and not necessarily the education of the person being condemned. It can involve the education of anybody growing up in a community where actions of the type of in question are routinely condemned.

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