Frej Klem Thomsen, ‘Rescuing Responsibility from the Retributivists – Neuroscience, Free Will and Criminal Punishment’ (Podcast)
Do advances in neuroscience threaten the idea of free will, and if so, what practical implications does this have, for instance when it comes to criminal responsibility and punishment? In a stimulating talk at the Uehiro seminar (the podcast of which is available here), Frej Klem Thomsen, assistant professor of philosophy at Roskilde University, discussed the answers that the prominent American neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen have proposed to those questions . Briefly put, Greene and Cohen predict that cognitive neuroscience will make it increasingly apparent to everyone that (as some philosophers have argued centuries ago already) there is no such thing as free will as commonly understood. This, they add, will shift the approach to punishment in criminal law from the current “retributivist” one to a consequentialist one – a change they also judge desirable, on the grounds that the current approach relies on intuitions they take to be scientifically untenable.
Advocates of even the mildest gun control reform in the US were dealt a serious blow yesterday, as the Senate failed to enact an expansion of background checks for gun purchases online and at gun shows. Some have been quick to gloat over the result, while others were taken aback that the Senate could so blatantly ignore the will of the American people. A number of polls have indeed shown massive support for background checks on gun purchases (upwards of 90%) – according to one survey, the proposal is even more popular than kittens. This level of support predates the Sandy Hook massacre. Political analysts will go to great lengths to explain how such a popular measure was voted down (the strength of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying efforts play a large part, no doubt), but we can also ask whether it should have been – in particular, independent of the merits of the bill, whether politicians should not have flaunted the will of the people. Continue reading
Some researchers in the US recently conducted an ‘experiment in the law as algorithm’. (One of the researchers involved with the project was interviewed by Ars Technia, here.) At first glance, this seems like quite a simple undertaking for someone with knowledge of a particular law and mathematical proficiency: laws are clearly defined rules, which can be broken in clearly defined ways. This is most true for strict liability offences, which require no proof of a mental element of the offence (the mens rea). An individual can commit a strict liability offence even if she had no knowledge that her act was criminal and had no intention to commit the crime. All that is required under strict liability statutes is that the act itself (the actus reus) is voluntary. Essentially: if you did it, you’re liable – it doesn’t matter why or how. So, for strict liability offences such as speeding it would seem straightforward enough to create an algorithm that could compare actual driving speed with the legal speed limit, and adjudicate liability accordingly.
This possibility of law as algorithm is what the US researchers aimed to test out with their experiment. They imagined the future possibility of automated law enforcement, especially for simple laws like those governing driving. To conduct their experiment, the researchers assigned a group of 52 programmers the task of automating the enforcement of driving speed limits. A late-model vehicle was equipped with a sensor that collected actual vehicle speed over an hour-long commute. The programmers (without collaboration) each wrote a program that computed the number of speed limit violations and issued mock traffic tickets. Continue reading
Covertly filming shocking animal abuse in the meat industry (and other industries involving animals) is a common tactic of animal welfare charities such as the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Animal Aid, and PETA. The footage is generally obtained by workers for the charities who gain employment at slaughterhouses, farms, laboratories and the like; and it has been instrumental in prosecuting abusers and applying pressure on meat producers to improve welfare standards, as the New York Times reported at the weekend.
The same article also reports a disturbing response to this practice by several US states:
They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.
Those who flout this so-called ‘ag-gag’ legislation may, among other things, be placed on a ‘terrorist registry’.
A British nurse has been arrested for claiming online to have eaten two women, with the police digging up his garden. This is the latest twist on the Gilberto Valle case, where a New York policeman stands accused for plotting to kidnap, rape, murder and cannibalize women. The case hinges upon whether the disturbing online discussions between Valle, the nurse and others are actual evidence of planning crimes, or just vivid shared fantasies. When should we act when encountering disturbing fantasies?
Unsurprisingly, the Australian Crime Commission has found widespread use of performance enhancing drugs in sport in Australia and the involvement of organized crime in its distribution.
I have given many arguments for why it would be better for athletes, spectators and sport to liberalise laws currently banning performance enhancing drugs. I have also argued that they are likely to be involved in all sports – football, baseball, rugby, soccer, and so on, and not merely in athletics and cycling.
The Australian Crime Commission report suggests another reason to legalise drugs in sport – that would be the most effective way of reducing the involvement of organized crime in the doping market. As experience with recreational drugs has shown, bans inevitably fail, harm the user and invite crime. The way to put drug lords out of business is to legalise the substance.
When prostitution, alcohol, abortion or recreational drugs are banned, organized crime moves in to deliver the desired product or service. The best to deal with these issues is not through some fanatical moralistic war but through legalization, oversight, regulation, monitoring and harm reduction.
When will we learn?
The first two weeks of 2013 were marked by a flurry of news articles considering “the new science” of pedophilia. Alan Zarembo’s article for the Los Angeles Times focused on the increasing consensus among researchers that pedophilia is a biological predisposition similar to heterosexuality or homosexuality. Rachel Aviv’s piece for The New Yorker shed light upon the practice of ‘civil commitment’ in the US, a process by which inmates may be kept in jail past their release date if a panel decides that they are at risk of molesting a child (even if there is no evidence that they have in the past). The Guardian’s Jon Henley quoted sources suggesting that perhaps some pedophilic relationships aren’t all that harmful after all. And Rush Limbaugh chimed in comparing the ‘normalization’ of pedophilia to the historical increase in the acceptance of homosexuality, suggesting that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation would be tantamount to condoning child molestation.
So what does it all mean? While most people I talked to in the wake of these stories (I include myself) were fascinated by the novel scientific evidence and the compelling profiles of self-described pedophiles presented in these articles, we all seemed to have a difficult time wrapping our minds around the ethical considerations at play. Why does it matter for our moral appraisal of pedophiles whether pedophilia is innate or acquired? Is it wrong to imprison someone for a terrible crime that they have not yet committed but are at a “high risk” of committing in the future? And if we say that we can’t “blame” pedophiles for their attraction to children because it is not their “fault” – they were “born this way” – is it problematic to condemn individuals for acting upon these (and other harmful) desires if it can be shown that poor impulse control is similarly genetically predisposed? While I don’t get around to fully answering most of these questions in the following post, my aim is to tease out the highly interrelated issues underlying these questions with the goal of working towards a framework by which the moral landscape of pedophilia can be understood. Continue reading
New York City contemplates using aerial drones for surveillance purposes, while North Korea buys thousands of cameras to spy on its impoverished population. Britain has so many cameras they cease being newsworthy. The stories multiply – it is trivial to note we are moving towards a surveillance society.
In an earlier post, I suggested surrendering on surveillance might be the least bad option – of all likely civil liberty encroachments, this seemed the less damaging and hardest to resist. But that’s an overly defensive way of phrasing it – if ubiquitous surveillance and lack of privacy are the trends of the future, we shouldn’t just begrudgingly accept them, but demand that society gets the most possible out of them. In this post, I’m not going to suggest how to achieve enlightened surveillance (a 360 degree surveillance would be a small start, for instance), but just outline some of the positive good we could get from it. We all know the negatives; but what good could come from corporations, governments and neighbours being able to peer continually into your bedroom (and efficiently process that data)? In the ideal case, how could we make it work for us? Continue reading
Some researchers have fingered a surprising culprit for the crime wave that ended in the 1990s: lead, mainly from leaded fuel. We know that lead leads to development difficulties in children, and in country after country, lead emissions closely mirror the crime rate 23 years later – after those children have grown up into mature, irresponsible adults.
A nice story – only problem is, people aren’t very interested in it. We prefer to tell stories about actual human villains, morality tales with clear blame and praise and entertaining situations (contrast the amounts spent fighting terrorism versus road accidents). Lead causing crime just isn’t sexy.
So to combat this universal human tendency, that causes us to misdirect our efforts and our focus, I propose we should treat Lead as an human-like villain. In its oily lair, the demon Lead rubes its metallic hands together in glee, imagining the millions of children whose developments it is stunting, and the thousands of young men it tipped into criminality, and the wailing of their victims. It plots further increases of its empire of crime, and gnashes grey teeth in frustration as heroic regulator squeeze its powerbase out of the air, the fuel, and the water.
You should already feel your emotional priorities shifting. This alternative visions should enable us to give Lead the attention it deserves, in comparison with other lesser threats with more appealing stories. Use our story-biases in the service of good – we can feel the appropriate amount of joy when we triumph over Lead; emotions, not just reason, are needed to keep up our motivations in dealing wit these threats.
And then the demon can be joined in its dark imaginary lair by the vicious Vampire Malaria, the Zombie-Lord of the Road Traffic Accident, and the bloody Psychopathic Death Cult of Cardio-Vascular Diseases. To arms, good citizens of the world, against these sinister anthropomorphised and correctly prioritised threats!
On the morning of December 14th, 20-year old Adam Lanza opened fire within the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adult staff members before turning his gun on himself. In the hours that followed, journalists from every major news station in the nation inundated the tiny town, and in the days that followed, the country as a whole started down a familiar path characterized best by the plethora of ‘if only-isms’.
It began in the immediate hours following the shooting: if only we had stricter gun control laws, this wouldn’t have happened. This is perhaps an unsurprising first response in a country that represents 4.5% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s civilian firearms. Over the next few days, as a portrait of the shooter began to emerge and friends and family revealed that he was an avid gamer, a second theory surfaced in the headlines: if only our children weren’t exposed to such violent video games, this tragedy never would have occurred.  And just in the past few days, public discourse has converged on the gunman’s mental health, the general conclusion being that if only we had better mental health services in place, this wouldn’t have happened. (The National Rifle Association [NRA] even tried to jump on board, suggesting that “26 innocent lives might have been spared” if only we had an armed police guard in every school in America. They seem to be the only ones taking themselves seriously.) Continue reading