On the Subject of Punishment

I was watching One Life to Live a few days ago. I thought that my neighborhood was rough! These people are absolutely amazing! First of all, I think that Llanview has the lowest per capita rate of obesity. I think this is due, in part to the fact that that town must have the highest murder rate in the nation. I think that people don’t eat alot because it’s difficult to run from a building that is about to blow up on a full stomach. The last time I watched, which was well over a year ago, I think that Tod was in jail. When I watched againa few days ago, he was in the poke again. I don’t think he’d always been there. I think that maybe they released him and he tried to kill someone else this time. Either way, I was awe-struck by how often the people of this one town seem to commit crimes. I shouldn’t say crimes. People in this town don’t jaywalk, they commit murder. It must pay in that place to be a prison guard. Which got me thinking about the whole prison system here. I live in California. And, since our state is in the hole for more money than God can think of, the subject of prisons and whose going (or who gets released) comes up quite often. Recently, former Manson girl (I guess she’s a little old to call her a “girl”), Susan Atkins, requested compassionate release due to the fact that she is sufffering from terminal brain cancer. The idea is, is that given her condition, she’s no longer a threat to the people of the state of California. Needless to say, she was denied. At least I think she was. Anyway, the question is, though, is there a point when a person is no longer a threat? That, and the idea the a person has been punished enough, which is what some who argued for Atkins’ release suggested. I was listening to the DVD commentary for the movie Pink Flamingos, and John Waters was talking about the Manson gang, who had, in part, influenced his earlier work. He said that it had been many years since the members who committed the murders, and that some had managed to realize what they had done and (and I’m making some conjecture here) were capable of living among normal people again. Waters asked how long is long enough? That is, is there a point where a person has been punished enough for their crimes? I think that John Waters’ questionis a good one. But I’ll add this: Is there a point when punishment becomes counterproductive? Our idea of putting people in prison is fundamentally connected to the idea of justice. It is just not only that a person be punished for what they’ve done, but also that they realize themselves . the harm that their actions caused to others. Oops, We’ve already hit our first wall. Justice has some degree of subjectivity, especially when it comes to the degree of remorse on the part of the perpetrator. Well, assuming that we can somehow figure out someone’s motivation or thought processes, let’s continue to look at the matter. First things first: We might ask what’s the purpose for the law? What’s the nature of the crime? And what amount of punishment is proportional to the crime and what the law allows? Also, we need to consider the motivation of the agent, as motivation often detrmines the degree of punishment. Ok, we’ve got some preliminary questions to juggle around. But, we need to remind ourselves that the idea of justice isn’t just punishment (unless you’re a fan of Thrasymachus, then it’s perfectly fine), but to remedy injury and to make the victim and agent whole. It’s to set things right morally as well as placing the bad guy in a time out with bars. So, given that the aim isn’t to inflict harm on those who do harm, we realize that we cannot exclude others from the moral universe on the grounds that they hurt other people. We are still morally obligated to them, and we, even when we are punishing them, owe them equal moral consideration. So, what then is the right punishment? And, more importantly, when are we inflicting moral harm on those we punish? But first, a brief history lesson on punishment in California. During the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson enacted his “Great Society”, which was meant to improve the lives of the underclasses of society. In addition to civil rights legislation, care was to be taken to see that the lives of America’s underpriviledged would not end up… well… lousy and poor and enevitably in prison. The focus of the criminal justice system was rehabilitation. But, by the early1970s, many Americans began to think that Johnson’s”Great Society” had failed to deliver on its promises. Crime rates rose and the people demanded that the government do something to stem the rising tide of crime. The 1970s began the reverse of the policies stressing rehabilitation in favor of tougher sentencing for criminals. The goal was to keep criminals away from the publc for as long as possible, so the public began to demand longer prison sentences for offenders. In 1977, CA passed the Determinate Sentence Law, which instituted mandatory sentencing and increased the state’s prison population. The demand for toughter sentencing came to a fever pitch in the 1990s as the public saw the state unable or unwilling to get tough on violent crime. The public saw the state’s prison system as a “revolving door” through which violent “career” criminals were simply passed through and released to commit more crimes. Examples of laws passed during the 1990’s include Proposition 184, the “3 strikes and you’re out” law, which passed with an overwhelming 72% of the vote, and Megan’s Law, which aimed to keep sexual predators away from children (by the way, in the wake of Prop 184 and Megan’s law, California’s crime rate dropped by 44%). That’s my poly sci degree right there! So the aim of incarceration is twofold: 1) the punishment of criminals 2) protection of society Ok, but at what point can we say that those aims have been achieved? At what point does a punishment no longer fit the crime? At what point is punishment counterproductive? Under the rehabilitation model of punishment, the main objective of incarceration was that the prisoner learn 1) that their crime was “bad”, and 2) they should not only feel remorse, but learn from their crime(s). The prisoner is to be penitent for what he has done ( hence calling prisons “penitentiaries” or “reformatories”). The prisoner is releasable if he acknowledges his crime and shows (genuine) remorse for what he has done. He must be willing to change (reform) himself and lead a good, crime-free life as a moral, productive citizen. Nost of us would say that this is still a goal. We appreciate the fact when people own up to what they’ve done and acknowledge the harms that they have committed against their fellow citizens. The second aim of punishment, to protect the people from wrongdoers, especially those who are prone to recidivism, is important in that we cannot, even if a person says they are sorry for what they’ve done, continues to commit or shows a tendency to commit more crimes. But what about prisoners who are no longer a threat? What about a murderer who, because of an inoperable brain tumor, can no longer physically threaten (let alone carry out) a murder or other crimes? Is it fair to keep an elderly or infirm prisoner incarcerated even if we know that they are incapable of harming any other people? Perhaps it is not morally right for us to do so. Immanuel Kant, who is a fan of retributive justice including the death penalty, says that there is a poit when a punishment stops being fair (in proportion to the crime committed, of course). Punishment is to be just that. A punishment. If we say that we keep a prisoner behind bars because of some possible harm that he may do (or worse yet, we keep him past the point of being a danger to anyone), we have stopped punishing the criminal and slipped into a paternalistic view of the prisoner. In acting as a paernt, we are denying him his full ability to act as a free and rational (assuming that he is rational) moral agent. When we act paternalistically, we are denying the prisoner’s autonomy — his ability to act according to his own choices. He should be free to chose how he chooses to act, and deal with the consequences. If he is autonomous, he is free to exercise actions for which he is morally culpable. If we deny him of his autonomy, we use him as a mere means to our own ends, and deny him the opportunity to achieve his own ( this one isn’t that so far-fetched to many Californians, who often suspect that the reason why so many prisoners are denied their parole is to serve the ends of the prisons — which is a well-stocked prison is a great ws to generate a lot of $$$$). If we consider this from a more utilitarian view, we can easily see that the moral costs of keeping someone incarcerated beyond the point of usefulness is not only morally damaging, but psychologically harmful for the prisoner as well. Humans are social animals. In order for a human to properly function in society, he must have many and positive social contacts with other people. It doesn’t take a great deal of training to figure out that a prison isn’t the most psychologically enhancing environment for an individual to live. The longer a person spends in a psychologically damaging environment, the more psychologically damaged a person will be. If a person who spends too many years in prison is released, how well do you think that person will be psychologically? It seems that the less time that we can feasably sentence a person would be best. Second, it’s a fact that incarcerating people costs money. Prevention programs are often cheaper to manage and quite successful (that is, if they’re not suddenly underfunded due to budget cuts). Looking into alternative programs may be a good way to both save a buck and keep one less potentially damaged person from spending too much time in prison. Lastly, if we take a Rawlsian view of the matter, we can see where slipping behind Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” comes into play. Rawls says that, when we are thinking about what kind of system we should live under, we should forget what we know about ourselves. That is, we should forget our race, gender, economic status, etc. If we don’t know who we are, Rawls suggests, we are more likely to set up a social system (craeting a system that is just) that is beneficial to as many people as possible. Rawls says the aim is to extend as much freedom and opportunity to as many people as possible. According to this view, we should not want to keep prisoners incarcerated longer than is necessary on the grounds that we may, when the veil is lifted, be prisoners ourselves. Second, Rawls’ justice requires that we attempt to benefit the least among us. It’s difficult to argue that prisoners are not amoge the least among us. We should, instead of laying on the excessive punishments, extend the benefit of the doubt to the incarcerated, and give them many opportunities to gain a better footing in our society. Long, drawn-out, exesssive sentences are counter to a prisoner gaining any benefit in society. Maybe in Llanview, where jail cells do seem to be equipped with a revolving door, keeping Tod behind bars might be a good thing. But, I know that, if he’s not out by now, he’ll be out next week. Everyone will have forgotten that he’s a murder/rapist/all-around shady guy, and will welcome him back into the good graces of Llanview’s well-to-do. Maybe we should take a cue from the beautiful people, and give Susan a chance.

Rage With the Machines

First off, even though I’m a fan of the band (Rage Against the Machine), I still don’t quite get what the name means. I know that there’s “THE MAN” out there, and that I’m supposed to fight against him and his endeavor to bring on the New World Order, but …. wait, is that it? Anyway… I, being the fan of truly hideous entertainment, purchased season 1 of Knight Rider some weeks ago. It sat on my shelf looking at me looking at it, until I finally had some time to take it down and watch. Now, I used to really dig that show when I was a kid, but somehow all of my childhood memories paint things as being so much better than they really were. This show sucks ass! It’s not for the fact that the whole show is built around some dude who drives a talking car– it’s not for the fact that watching David Hasselfoff’s acting is something like getting kneed to the groin or having to eat your dog’s feces. It’s the wardrobe! Really, so far as the 80s went, clothes-wise, well… you know how when you’re talking to someone and they have this totally huge zit on their forehead and no matter how hard you try to pay attention to what they’re saying, you know it just won’t happen? Well, the clothes are like that. Big pimples. Especially “The Hoff”s” eighties poodle -doo. I was so distracted, unfortunately, that I almost missed the point — that is, a major philosophical point — in the show. Which brings me to the whole idea of machines. Former cop, Michael Knight, oops, Michael Long, is transformed into Michael Knight after being shot and left for dead by some shady underworld types. Because Long took a shot to the kisser, he is given a new face (it seems that the didn’t make sure that the original owner of that face was dead, but then, if they did it wouldn’t have allowed Hasselhoff to play his evil doppleganger Garth Knight), and is persuaded by the Knight Foundation to serve their purposes, which is, good for Long, fighting injustice. And more importantly, he’s given the keys to the sweetest, kick-ass black Trans-Am this side of My Mother the Car , the Knight Industries 2000, better known as KITT. The bitchin’ thing about KITT is the fact that he speaks! Yes, Michael Knight’s new “partner” is a talking car. But KITT is no ordinary car, mind you. He’s super fast, he’s a super computer, and he can jump without even so much as making the slightest skid mark upon landing. He’s a super car. KITT (with the voice of William “Mr. Feeney” Daniels), spares no opportunity to remind Michael that, despite his human-like qualities (his ability to converse rationally, his accidental sense of humor, the fact that he’s a smart-ass), that he’s not human. KITT is a car and he knows it. We know that he is a car. Yet, Michael and we, the audience, care for KITT. We worry when he is in danger, and we enjoy his company. To us and to Michael as well, KITT is more than a mere machine. He’s a trusted friend, a part of the family. But, this attitude seems a little odd. Sure, we have no problem including non-humans into our moral sphere — we do it with our pets and our so-workers and classmates, but we often draw a line when it comes to things that are really not human, like machines. But, we still feel a sense of moral attachment to things like KITT. KITT is no ordinary machine. He interacts with us, he seems to care about us, and in turn, we care about him. On more than one occasion, Michael endangers his own life to save his car. Let me repeat that he endangers his own life to save his car. To some viewers, Michael’s act seems a little, well, strange. Afterall, KITT is a car. If he is destroyed, he can be rebuilt. Michael Knight, however, is not rebuildable. If He dies, he stays dead forever. Which begs (in the colloquial, not philosophic sense) us to ask, is treating a machine like KITT, that is is the inclusion of a machine into our moral sphere (to the extent that we are willing to lay our lives on the line for a machine), extending to inclusion of non-humans into our moral sphere too far? Would we be including machines to our own peril? For most of the history of western philosophy, humans sat squarely at the top of all creation. From the Bible to Aristotle’s hierarchy, mankind’s (and more specifically males) natural place was that of ruler. According to Aristotle, animals were mere tools to serve man’s needs. A donkey was there to pull carts, a dog to keep watch over property, and so on. Man was to administer over the lower animals, and animals were to serve man’s will. According to Aristotle, this was because man (and he did mean man) was endowed with a rational mind. Man’s rational mind enabled him to control his lower, animal inpulses and desires (this is also why Aristotle thought that women were not naturally superior to men. Apparently, women have some sort of wandering uterus problem that makes them all crazy-like and unable in any way to control themselves or anything else. Anyone else have the feeling that Aristotle didn’t date much?). Anyway, where was I? Was I anywhere? Oh, yes, modern philospophy (and I mean modern as in 20th century) challenged the old notions of human superiority and brought in the animals. Starting with Darwin and his tehory of natural selection, modern thinkers rethought the idea that the natural order included mankind at its top. Philosophers such as Peter Singer suggested that we expand our moral sphere to include animals, due to the fact that animals, like humans, possess the capacity for suffering. So, my dog may be a mere machine, in the eyes of Descartes, but it is a machine that has the capacity to suffer. So, according to Singer and all the other animal rights loonies, he’s in. But, that’s it. Descartes saw animals such as dogs and cats as mere machines. They serve us just as any artifact that a man creates with his own hands serves his needs. According to Aristotle, artifacts such as art and technology fall outside of nature and are mere tools meant to serve man’s needs. We can see why modern philosophers include animals — they fear, they feel pain, they bleed and suffer as any human. But, KITT is a machine. He knows that he is a machine. But, we see that KITT has something that other machines do not — an ability to interact with humans on a human level. I was watching an episode of Star Trek: TNG not too long ago. The episode had to do with whether Data was a person. In the episode, Captain Picard argued that the argument that Data was not a person because he is a mere machine falls apart in light of the fact that humans, if you look at ourselves from the biological level, are also mere machines. We are machines, just of a different type, Picard says. Instead of wires, we have veins and arteries. Instead of oil and lubricant, we have blood. But if you lay out the systems side by side, they are more the same than different. What made Data human, Picard argued, was not hois physicality, but his psychology. Data was self aware, intelligent, and (perhaps) possessed consciousness. According to Picard, Data was a sentient being who, despite being a machine, had what we would, in any other circumstance, humanity. I think that, if we look at KITT, we might say the same. KITT, like Data, is self aware. He refers to himself as “I”, and is aware of his place in the environment. He is intelligent (more so than any human). As the show progressed, KITT’s character became even more human-like, expressing complex emotions such as anger, sorrow and compassion. KITT, in some instances, is more human than some humans. It is worth noting here that this is also a point expressed by Singer and others. The idea that animals should not be included in our moral sphere because they lack human qualities such as complex human emotions, includes some animals such as chimpanzees (and some dogs and cats), and excludes some people, such as the mentally handicapped persons. This gets us to a very nagging and really hard question: what makes humans unique? The essence of the question is what makes us human? Back in the day, computers were just mere computing machines. They did exactly as their programmers wanted them to do. Unfortunately for us, many modern computers already perform functions that human brains can do. Computers can solve complex problems, and learn, as when in May 1997, the computer Big Blue formulated a winning chess strategy to beat champion chess player, Gary Kasparov. Anyone who has played a video game knows that the computer can be a formidable enemy — especially when you are aware of the fact that, as you play, the computer is learning from your playing style ( and figuring out how to defeat you). The fear that underlies this fact is what Captain Picard asked Dr. Maddox to consider in that episode of Star Trek, which is the possibility that a computer may become conscious of its own existence. Nevermind mere Datas of even a C-3PO, our fear is Wargames‘ “Joshua” or The Terminator’s Skynet — the computer that becomes self aware, figures out what the problem is (read:us), and immediately sets out a plan for total and permanent human destruction. Ok, let’s not go quite that far, but let’s consider the computer that becomes conscious. If it does, then what is it? I think that we can no longer call it a “mere” machine. We often think of ourselves as evolving, namely because we gain knowledge and wisdom as we grow. This idea is often connected to the idea that our conscious minds possess more than our mere physicality. Our minds, being self-aware, possess something transcendent — a soul. Is it possible for a computer to gain a soul? Still, let’s not go there. We can’t even figure out if humans, let alone any car or android has a soul. Think of this as food for thought. Or at worst, a warning of a grim future. But let’s get back to KITT. KITT, although he insists that he does not, has emotions. And for many, the ability to possess and exhibit emotions is enough for inclusion into our moral sphere ( this is why we often give human qualities to our pets). The ability to express even rudimentary emotions is enough for inclusion. But still, for many people, even those who support animal rights, animals are just that — animals. Not human. Although we don’t want animals to suffer, they aren’t us. That is, they aren’t humans. Many humans feel that there is something unique about humans that (still) place us apart (if even only slightly) from other animals. Perhaps what lurks behind our need to separate ourselves from animals (and I’m assuming talking cars) is some sort of Nietzschean fear of losing ourselves morally. It goes, I think, like this: Nietzsche spoke of the degradation of Man by the overtaking of master morality by slave morality. This takeover upsets the natural order and plunges humanity into the abyss (culturally, morally, etc.). Naturally, man lords over animals and machines ( master morality). Our machines are our slaves. The fear is that, if we elevate machines to our level, we lose our place — our place becomes meaningless. If all is equal, then all loses its value! Men are no more than machines. Lowly, crappy machines to be discarded when they lose their usefulness. Worse to come is the venerated machine that gets to dictate the fates of men. It’s like being bossed around by your dog or wife. Totally unnatural! Which reminds me of a scene in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There’s the scene where C-3PO is in the droid factory. He sees the machines making other machines and is disgusted by what he sees. He calls the whole scene “perverse”. 3PO’s attitude reflects the classic philosophical view of the roles of man and machines. Machines are mere tools to be used by me to create, not as devices of creation themselves. A machine who creates, according to this view, would be considered unnatural. If we enter a day when machines have evolved to the point that they are indistinguishable from people, we would have something to worry about — the ursurpation of man’s role. I’m not exactly talking about armies of T-2000s walking around, but there is a fear that, if a machine can do the work faster and more efficiently than any human, then it may be the human who becomes obsolete. As of now, a machine need a human for its creation. Cars may be built by robots in a factory, but if you trace back the line of creation, you’ll run into a human in there somewhere. Many people say that our ability to create is what sets us apart from other animals. A monkey can draw on a canvas or a robot can put a Toyota together at the factory, but real creativity is born in the mind of a human. That’s true right now, but if a machine gains consciousness, we may very well see feeling, creative machines, who create art, not because they downloaded a pattern or calculated what would be aesthetically pleasing, but created a truly inspired piece of art as any human would create. If machines can do everything people do, the real question is what purpose will we serve? This makes me think about that movie Maximum Overdrive. If you haven’t seen this movie, consider yourself lucky. But, long story short, the story involves a machine takeover. The machines literally rise up and turn on their masters. Theres a scene in the movie when this woman is screaming at the big rigs parked outside of a diner “We made You!”. She, I think, expresses the sentiment than many humans would feel towards even the smartest, most human machine. A machine is a product of man. Anything beyond the world of man as creator disturbs the natural order of things. It may “feel” or “create”, it may speak in the very erudite voice of William Daniels, and look like Cherry 2000, but all in all, it’s a machine. It is a tool and should remain so. And this may be fine so long as the most advanced computer still needs a human creator or operator, or if Data or KITT remain anomalies. Throughout the run of Knight Rider, the only other talking car was KARR, the other car that was built by Knight Industries that belonged to that Garth guy that I mentioned earlier. And throughout the run of Star Trek :TNG, there was only Data, his “brother” Lore, his “daughter” Lal (who malfunctioned and had to be dismantled), and Dr. Soong’s ladyfriend who had no idea that she was an android. I forgot her name. Anyway, as Captain Picard said to Maddox, our real problem comes when the smart machine stops being the anomaly. Picard asks Maddox, what if there are a thousand Datas? a million? A million KITTs could be as easily a curse as a blessing. If machines can create, humans may not only end up fighting obsolescence, but also searching for justification. So, in the future, the big question may be answering why we are here. And this may not be too far off. But, perhaps what we should fear isn’t replacement with machines or even searching for justification for the human race. The future may not be one of moral inclusion as merging with machines. Futurist Ray Kurzweil says that there may come a day when computers will surpass us in intelligence and “irrevocably alter what it means to be human” (Rolling Stone issue 1072, “When Man and Machine Merge” by David Kushner). Kurzweil says that superintelligent nanotechnology will eventually merge with people, getting rid of diseases, making us smarter, and storing our memories as well. Kurzweil says that it totally possible that humanity will become obsolete, as people interact and become dependent more and more on machines. If you don’t think we’ve already started, some futurists say, think look at your cell phone, your ipod, pace makers and your dog’s implant meant to identify him if he gets lost. According to some, the merge between man and machine, what they call “The Singularity”, has already begun. However, Kurzweil says that we need not worry about becoming obsolete (although he says it’s not beyond the realm of possibility). Kurzweil says that the future will be ” a human-machine civilization… we’re not obsolescing ourselves — we’re extending ourselves”. There are detractors, however, who believe that “The Singularity” is more science fiction as science probability. Biologist Thomas Ray says that it is unlikely that computers will advance enough to meet the point of “The Singularity”. Philosopher John Searle says (and I love this), “I think the Singularity is demonstrably bullshit… but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s very thrilling”. So what do we think? What does thnking about KITT or Data or my cell phone’s ring tones mean for us morally? What it means it that we, humans will face a future that will call us to alter the way that we think about life and what it means for something to count as a fellow living being, entitled to all the rights that we feel that we and other beings are entitled to. As the human race evolves, so to does our moral sphere. To many of us, KITT is considerable for inclusion, at the very least. For a few more, he is not only considerable, but fully included as we would include any being that we care about or for whom we feel lorally obligated. The Singularity may be a festering pile of bullshit, but then, when has that ever stopped a thought experiment? Possible worlds, anyone?