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On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

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So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Another relevant topic I’ve written about in several previous posts is the concept of free will.  This is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.

Conclusion

In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.

The illusion of Persistent Identity & the Role of Information in Identity

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After reading and commenting on a post at “A Philosopher’s Take” by James DiGiovanna titled Responsibility, Identity, and Artificial Beings: Persons, Supra-persons and Para-persons, I decided to expand on the topic of personal identity.

Personal Identity Concepts & Criteria

I think when most people talk about personal identity, they are referring to how they see themselves and how they see others in terms of personality and some assortment of (usually prominent) cognitive and behavioral traits.  Basically, they see it as what makes a person unique and in some way distinguishable from another person.  And even this rudimentary concept can be broken down into at least two parts, namely, how we see ourselves (self-ascribed identity) and how others see us (which we could call the inferred identity of someone else), since they are likely going to differ.  While most people tend to think of identity in these ways, when philosophers talk about personal identity, they are usually referring to the unique numerical identity of a person.  Roughly speaking, this amounts to basically whatever conditions or properties that are both necessary and sufficient such that a person at one point in time and a person at another point in time can be considered the same person — with a temporal continuity between those points in time.

Usually the criterion put forward for this personal identity is supposed to be some form of spatiotemporal and/or psychological continuity.  I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the question of which criterion is correct has already framed the debate with the assumption that a personal (numerical) identity exists in the first place and even if it did exist, it also assumes that the criterion is something that would be determinable in some way.  While it is not unfounded to believe that some properties exist that we could ascribe to all persons (simply because of what we find in common with all persons we’ve interacted with thus far), I think it is far too presumptuous to believe that there is a numerical identity underlying our basic conceptions of personal identity and a determinable criterion for it.  At best, I think if one finds any kind of numerical identity for persons that persist over time, it is not going to be compatible with our intuitions nor is it going to be applicable in any pragmatic way.

As I mention pragmatism, I am sympathetic to Parfit’s views in the sense that regardless of what one finds the criteria for numerical personal identity to be (if it exists), the only thing that really matters to us is psychological continuity anyway.  So despite the fact that Locke’s view — that psychological continuity (via memory) was the criterion for personal identity — was in fact shown to be based on circular and illogical arguments (per Butler, Reid and others), nevertheless I give applause to his basic idea.  Locke seemed to be on the right track, in that psychological continuity (in some sense involving memory and consciousness) is really the essence of what we care about when defining persons, even if it can’t be used as a valid criterion in the way he proposed.

(Non) Persistence & Pragmatic Use of a Personal Identity Concept

I think that the search for, and long debates over, what the best criterion for personal identity is, has illustrated that what people have been trying to label as personal identity should probably be relabeled as some sort of pragmatic pseudo-identity. The pragmatic considerations behind the common and intuitive conceptions of personal identity have no doubt steered the debate pertaining to any possible criteria for helping to define it, and so we can still value those considerations even if a numerical personal identity doesn’t really exist (that is, even if it is nothing more than a pseudo-identity) and even if a diachronic numerical personal identity does exist but isn’t useful in any way.

If the object/subject that we refer to as “I” or “me” is constantly changing with every passing moment of time both physically and psychologically, then I tend to think that the self (that many people ascribe as the “agent” of our personal identity) is an illusion of some sort.  I tend to side more with Hume on this point (or at least James Giles’ fair interpretation of Hume) in that my views seem to be some version of a no-self or eliminativist theory of personal identity.  As Hume pointed out, even though we intuitively ascribe a self and thereby some kind of personal identity, there is no logical reason supported by our subjective experience to think it is anything but a figment of the imagination.  This illusion results from our perceptions flowing from one to the next, with a barrage of changes taking place with this “self” over time that we simply don’t notice taking place — at least not without critical reflection on our past experiences of this ever-changing “self”.  The psychological continuity that Locke described seems to be the main driving force behind this illusory self since there is an overlap in the memories of the succession of persons.

I think one could say that if there is any numerical identity that is associated with the term “I” or “me”, it only exists for a short moment of time in one specific spatio-temporal slice, and then as the next perceivable moment elapses, what used to be “I” will become someone else, even if the new person that comes into being is still referred to as “I” or “me” by a person that possesses roughly the same configuration of matter in its body and brain as the previous person.  Since the neighboring identities have an overlap in accessible memory including autobiographical memories, memories of past experiences generally, and the memories pertaining to the evolving desires that motivate behavior, we shouldn’t expect this succession of persons to be noticed or perceived by the illusory self because each identity has access to a set of memories that is sufficiently similar to the set of memories accessible to the previous or successive identity.  And this sufficient degree of similarity in those identities’ memories allow for a seemingly persistent autobiographical “self” with goals.

As for the pragmatic reasons for considering all of these “I”s and “me”s to be the same person and some singular identity over time, we can see that there is a causal dependency between each member of this “chain of spatio-temporal identities” that I think exists, and so treating that chain of interconnected identities as one being is extremely intuitive and also incredibly useful for accomplishing goals (which is likely the reason why evolution would favor brains that can intuit this concept of a persistent “self” and the near uni-directional behavior that results from it).  There is a continuity of memory and behaviors (even though both change over time, both in terms of the number of memories and their accuracy) and this continuity allows for a process of conditioning to modify behavior in ways that actively rely on those chains of memories of past experiences.  We behave as if we are a single person moving through time and space (and as if we are surrounded by other temporally extended single person’s behaving in similar ways) and this provides a means of assigning ethical and causal responsibility to something or more specifically to some agent.  Quite simply, by having those different identities referenced under one label and physically attached to or instantiated by something localized, that allows for that pragmatic pseudo-identity to persist over time in order for various goals (whether personal or interpersonal/societal) to be accomplished.

“The Persons Problem” and a “Speciation” Analogy

I came up with an analogy that I thought was very fitting to this concept.  One could analogize this succession of identities that get clumped into one bulk pragmatic-pseudo-identity with the evolutionary concept of speciation.  For example, a sequence of identities somehow constitute an intuitively persistent personal identity, just as a sequence of biological generations somehow constitute a particular species due to the high degree of similarity between them all.  The apparent difficulty lies in the fact that, at some point after enough identities have succeeded one another, even the intuitive conception of a personal identity changes markedly to the point of being unrecognizable from its ancestral predecessor, just as enough biological generations transpiring eventually leads to what we call a new species.  It’s difficult to define exactly when that speciation event happens (hence the species problem), and we have a similar problem with personal identity I think.  Where does it begin and end?  If personal identity changes over the course of a lifetime, when does one person become another?  I could think of “me” as the same “me” that existed one year ago, but if I go far enough back in time, say to when I was five years old, it is clear that “I” am a completely different person now when compared to that five year old (different beliefs, goals, worldview, ontology, etc.).  There seems to have been an identity “speciation” event of some sort even though it is hard to define exactly when that was.

Biologists have tried to solve their species problem by coming up with various criteria to help for taxonomical purposes at the very least, but what they’ve wound up with at this point is several different criteria for defining a species that are each effective for different purposes (e.g. biological-species concept, morpho-species concept, phylogenetic-species concept, etc.), and without any single “correct” answer since they are all situationally more or less useful.  Similarly, some philosophers have had a persons problem that they’ve been trying to solve and I gather that it is insoluble for similar “fuzzy boundary” reasons (indeterminate properties, situationally dependent properties, etc.).

The Role of Information in a Personal Identity Concept

Anyway, rather than attempt to solve the numerical personal identity problem, I think that philosophers need to focus more on the importance of the concept of information and how it can be used to try and arrive at a more objective and pragmatic description of the personal identity of some cognitive agent (even if it is not used as a criterion for numerical identity, since information can be copied and the copies can be distinguished from one another numerically).  I think this is especially true once we take some of the concerns that James DiGiovanna brought up concerning the integration of future AI into our society.

If all of the beliefs, behaviors, and causal driving forces in a cognitive agent can be represented in terms of information, then I think we can implement more universal conditioning principles within our ethical and societal framework since they will be based more on the information content of the person’s identity without putting as much importance on numerical identity nor as much importance on our intuitions of persisting people (since they will be challenged by several kinds of foreseeable future AI scenarios).

To illustrate this point, I’ll address one of James DiGiovanna’s conundrums.  James asks us:

To give some quick examples: suppose an AI commits a crime, and then, judging its actions wrong, immediately reforms itself so that it will never commit a crime again. Further, it makes restitution. Would it make sense to punish the AI? What if it had completely rewritten its memory and personality, so that, while there was still a physical continuity, it had no psychological content in common with the prior being? Or suppose an AI commits a crime, and then destroys itself. If a duplicate of its programming was started elsewhere, would it be guilty of the crime? What if twelve duplicates were made? Should they each be punished?

In the first case, if the information constituting the new identity of the AI after reprogramming is such that it no longer needs any kind of conditioning, then it would be senseless to punish the AI — other than to appease humans that may be angry that they couldn’t themselves avoid punishment in this way, due to having a much slower and less effective means of reprogramming themselves.  I would say that the reprogrammed AI is guilty of the crime, but only if its reprogrammed memory still included information pertaining to having performed those past criminal behaviors.  However, if those “criminal memories” are now gone via the reprogramming then I’d say that the AI is not guilty of the crime because the information constituting its identity doesn’t match that of the criminal AI.  It would have no recollection of having committed the crime and so “it” would not have committed the crime since that “it” was lost in the reprogramming process due to the dramatic change in information that took place.

In the latter scenario, if the information constituting the identity of the destroyed AI was re-instantiated elsewhere, then I would say that it is in fact guilty of the crime — though it would not be numerically guilty of the crime but rather qualitatively guilty of the crime (to differentiate between the numerical and qualitative personal identity concepts that are embedded in the concept of guilt).  If twelve duplicates of this information were instantiated into new AI hardware, then likewise all twelve of those cognitive agents would be qualitatively guilty of the crime.  What actions should be taken based on qualitative guilt?  I think it means that the AI should be punished or more specifically that the judicial system should perform the reconditioning required to modify their behavior as if it had committed the crime (especially if the AI believes/remembers that it has committed the crime), for the better of society.  If this can be accomplished through reprogramming, then that would be the most rational thing to do without any need for traditional forms of punishment.

We can analogize this with another thought experiment with human beings.  If we imagine a human that has had its memories changed so that it believes it is Charles Manson, has all of Charles Manson’s memories and intentions, then that person should be treated as if they are Charles Manson and thus incarcerated/punished accordingly to rehabilitate them or protect the other members of society.  This is assuming of course that we had reliable access to that kind of mind-reading knowledge.  If we did, the information constituting the identity of that person would be what is most important — not what the actual previous actions of the person were — because the “previous person” was someone else, due to that gross change in information.