Reconsidering the Ethics of Enhanced Punishment
Last summer, on this blog, Rebecca Roache suggested several ways in which technology could enhance retributive punishment—that is, could make punishment more severe—without “resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current UK legal system.” Her approbation of this type of technological development has recently been reported in the Daily Mail, and reaffirmed in an interview for Aeon Magazine.
Roache’s original post was, at least, a response to the sentencing of the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka, who was four when he died as a result of a mixture of violence and neglect perpetrated by his parents. They each received the maximum sentence possible in the UK, a minimum of thirty years in prison before the possibility of parole is discussed (and even then they might not get it). This sentence, Roache wrote, was “laughably inadequate.”
In a response to this inadequacy, she presented the following four technologies as possibilities for increasing the severity of punishment in such cases: 1) Lifespan enhancement: The use of lifespan enhancing technologies to extend lifetime sentences to several times the current average length of a human life; 2) Mind Uploading: The use of brain scanning software to upload prisoners’ minds into a computer, where we would be able so simulate—among other things—hundreds of years of hard labour in a relatively short period of time; 3) Altering perception of duration: The use of our knowledge of human psychology, or drugs currently being developed, to make the prisoners experience of the passing of time slow down considerably; 4) Robot prison officers: The use of robots rather than human prison guards to increase possible range of permissible ways to treat the prisoners (i.e., to put aside worries about the welfare of the prison officers when discussing treatment of prisoners).
As David Wallace’s comment on the original post clarified, it is not the use of technology to make prison sentences worse that is at issue here. He rightly pointed to many well-developed technologies that make a prisoner’s sentence significantly worse (“Whips and racks and branding irons, oubliettes and shackles and starvation diets…”) but that we choose not to employ. The question we are faced with, instead, is whether or not the particular technologies mentioned in the previous paragraph are permissible. It seems to me that they are not, for the following reasons :
First, as already mentioned, Roache’s approbation of the technologies is, at least in part, motivated by concerns about the current length of prison sentences for heinous crimes. More specifically, she believes they are insufficiently long to serve their retributive task. Given that the standard of care in prisons is—or, at least, aspires to be—quite good, prisoners who have committed heinous crimes will have a better quality of life than those they wronged. As a result of this fact, it may be the case that a sentence lasting the length of an average life (or considerable portion an average life) is insufficiently severe. That is, the more-or-less decent treatment of prisoners will ensure that they have not suffered enough compared to the severity of their crimes by the end of their sentence.
Now, if we take a purely retributive view of punishment, this may be an appropriate criticism. However, I doubt whether this is the right approach to take. That is, I am skeptical about the claim that there are crimes so severe that we should only consider punishment retributively—without, for example, also considering ways of lowering recidivism in cases where parole has been granted. It may be the case that there are people whose psychological makeup makes the prospect of rehabilitation very slim indeed. However, this is a different matter. In those cases we are concerned not with the crime itself, but the mental state of the criminal who committed it.
Even if we did take a purely retributivist stance on punishment, the restriction of liberty for 30 or more years will be quite a severe punishment indeed; one that is unimaginable to those of us who haven’t experienced it. The prospect of serving a sentence more than ten times the average length of a human life (in those countries with a high life-expectancy) is even more difficult to comprehend. Worries about personal identity aside, I can’t help but believe this is a grossly inhumane proposal. It is true that the life taken away by serving a prison sentence will never be the same as the life taken away violently. A prisoner still has the possibility of a decent quality of life despite incarceration. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the reduction of liberty for (potentially) the rest of one’s natural life is a severe loss. I have no concerns in maintaining that life-extending technologies combined with lifetime sentences would constitute a reduction of a prisoner’s quality of life sufficiently to claim that it was one no longer worth living. To put the point another way: Owen Schaefer mentioned in a comment to Roache’s original post that prisoners are not constantly trying to kill themselves; that even in the course of a life sentence many of them do not take (or attempt to take) their own lives. I believe this would change with the implementation of the aforementioned technologies.
Second, I believe there are serious reasons for concern with the types of time dilution technologies under discussion. Especially the pill—absent from the original post, but present in the Daily Mail article—that makes us experience the passing of time differently. The central concern is this: If it is our mental process that is speeding up, any possible external stimulus will not be able to keep up with our processing of it. (I imagine here that the speeding up of brain processes isn’t matched with an identical enhanced ability to act on that processing. If it was, then I believe we would be talking about enhancing prisoners rather than making their punishment more severe). But, if that is in anyway an accurate picture of the effects of such a pill, then we are not simply committing the person to a slowed prison sentence, we are confining them to their thoughts for however long the effects last. I have a hard time understanding how this isn’t a form of psychological torture. Similarly, Roache’s suggestion that with sufficient computing power we could sentence a criminal to 1000 years hard labour in a computerized world strikes me as equally dubious from a psychological perspective. Even though we needn’t worry about the physical harm such labour would cause (there would be none), that doesn’t mean we should discount the psychological damage. Such damage, I believe, would be real and severe. Indeed, I believe it would be sufficiently severe to warrant the prohibition of this form of punishment.
I don’t have principle that can tell us the difference between fair but severe punishment and torture. But I do believe that the technologies discussed above would constitute a form of torture, and, as such, ought to be prohibited.
 I will, however, leave aside: 1) The use of robotic prison guards, and 2) The use of lifespan-enhancing technologies in a projected future time at which such technologies are commonly used (to an extent that people feel entitled to them). The reason for the former exclusion is the lack of specificity concerning what would actually change. The reason for the latter exclusion—as was pointed out by Anders Sandberg in reaction to the original post— is that the question changes when the technology becomes widely available. (Roache also addresses this in the interview with Aeon.)
I’m grateful for discussion with Jacob Williamson on this topic.