What do we talk about when we talk about enhanced punishments?

What if science would provide us with new ways to handle convicted criminals? Philosopher Rebecca Roache, along with a team of scholars at the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics, has explored ways to create sentences worthy of sadistic criminals such as Hitler: Dr. Roache’s post on the Practical Ethics blog outlines how lifespan extension could enable life sentences spanning hundreds of years, while the technology of mind uploading could be used to create a simulated sentence of 1000 years of punishment, followed by few hundred years of rehabilitation – all in the matter of a few real-time hours. Psychoactive drugs could be adminstered to slow down the inmate’s perception of time and maximize experience of monotony. Also, robot prison officers could be employed to make the prison experience as unpleasant as possible, given that employing human prison guards necessitates keeping the prison humane enough for the personnel’s well-being. (Sic.)

As outlandish as they might seem, these ideas are far from new. In the cult TV show The Outer Limits, an episode called “The Sentence” deals with the invention of a virtual prison, designed to rehabilitate prisoners in record time; it backfires as the inventor himself is trapped in the machine by accident. Judge Dredd features the use of suspended animation as punishment. Science fiction examples abound, and seem to revolve around the question of whether these “enhancements”, designed with genuine process in mind, actually amount to superfluous torture.

When Dr. Roache’s research made news in The Telegraph, torture was what some readers were definitely thinking about: Twitter harassers have compared Dr. Roache to Josef Mengele, among other, equally unimaginative insults. One thing is sure: when Dr. Roache’s forthcoming paper on enhanced punishments is published, it is bound to attract a keen, although possibly not sympathetic, readership.

Sadly, it’s not that seeing the research of Dr. Roache and her colleagues as sadistic would be that far fetched: the blog post referred above, especially, strongly gives off that impression. Looking at the structure of the post, it opens with an emotional example of the torture of Daniel Pelka by his parents, described with enough detail that I actually kept putting off writing this piece because the imagery made me feel physically ill. Having given its readership an adequate adrenaline surge, it then claims that life sentence is not severe enough for Pelka’s sadistic parents, and argues that even death penalty would be letting them off too easy. After this, the blog post moves to describing various forms of enhanced punishment, which, to me, read as fantasies of maximizing inmates’ suffering via future technology. While the post mentions the debatability of said enhanced punishments’ humanity, this comes across as an afterthought.

I asked Dr. Roache whether utilizing the punishment enhancements she outlines really was the direction she believed we should take once the technology becomes available. She explained that her intention was to “assess the ethics” of enhanced punishments – not to endorse them. I do believe, like Dr. Roache, that the ethical use of developing technology in justice must be assessed before, not after its availability. Based on the information concerning her research available online at present, however, I have my worries – worries that I hope her forthcoming paper will alleviate. Dr. Roache stresses that should any of the methods she outlines be found inhumane, she will not advocate their development. However, her blog comments make it clear that she’s looking forward to finding punishments that would be more severe than the ones currently at use in the UK.

And that is what we really are talking about: do we need punishments as severe as possible? Is the invention of “more humane” forms of torturing inmates, such as via mind uploading, in our interest? No punishment can erase the hurt done to the victims of violent crimes. Will inflicting suffering on a violent criminal somehow make things better, perhaps by responding to our instinctual feelings of revenge or by reassuring us of some sort of a cosmic balance? I doubt it. Should the kind of technology that Dr. Roache postulates become available, I am positive that it could be used to serve humankind and prevent violence in ways much more efficient than severe punishment could ever be.

My stance on retributive justice is firmly a consequentialist one – I believe the justice system’s sole concern should be in minimizing further violence. Searching for more severe punishments, then, is countereffective in my opinion. The more severe prison conditions are, the less they allow the inmate to develop into a balanced citizen who feels no need or urge to violent behavior once released. I am not only critical of futuristic punishments, but find present prison systems – even the supposedly rehabilitation-based ones, such as Finnish and Norwegian prisons – morally flawed.

Which brings us to the very interesting question of present-day punishment. “Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set them free?”, Dr. Roache asks, in an interview for Aeon Magazine. “When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments – the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future.”

And this is where I and Dr. Roache agree. Science Fiction and other futuristic scenarios have long served as a mirror of our present-day world with our present-day values, spelling out the features of our society that we’ve grown so used to, we hardly see them anymore. Dr. Roache’s scenarios of future punishments are merely permutations and amplifications of our present-day retributive systems. They make visible the thirst for revenge that underlies much of the way we think about justice. And they spell out the need for change.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

3 thoughts on “What do we talk about when we talk about enhanced punishments?”

  1. Thanks for this. I take the criticism about the tone of the original blog. It was a highly emotional piece, written in the aftermath of reading those sickening reports about poor Daniel Pelka’s final days, and reflects my anger as a mother more than my views as a philosopher.

    The Aeon interview is the cool-headed version: with Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen, I’m trying to imagine the ways in which technology might (intentionally or otherwise) change punishment practices and consider the ethics. As we develop increasingly powerful technologies, the importance of ethically evaluating them before they’re made available for use in society becomes increasingly pressing – I’ve written an academic paper arguing for this (‘Ethics, speculation, and values’, available here: http://rebeccaroache.weebly.com/research.html).

    1. Thank you for your response. I can definitely emphatize with the emotional reaction to Pelka’s tragedy – as I said, reading about it made me physically ill, which may have to do with the fact that I have a small child myself.

      I think that both of us agree that retributive justice is best dealt with rationally rather than emotionally: we have long-term consequences to think about. With most violent crimes, many will bemoan that the rapist, murderer, etc. got off too easy – but, while knowing that the violent criminal will suffer, too, might soothe some wounds, they are better treated by therapy.

      As in your case, an emotional reaction to a current event might well drive one to study an ethical dilemma – perhaps, only to arrive at a conclusion that differs radically from the initial reaction. I’m definitely looking forward to reading your further research on the topic, and to seeing the difference between it and the initial blog post.

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