Category Archives: philosophy

Book review: In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos, part 2

So last week (actually, it’s getting closer to two weeks ago now) I wrote the first half of a book review of the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. I concluded by asking whether punishing criminals for the sake of punishment was the best that we could do as a society. I’ll look into answering this question now.

As a society, we don’t really spend a lot of time actually thinking about free will. Do we have free will? Are we completely responsible for our choices, or are our decisions caused by other factors, or is it a combination of the two? The concept of free will has never been scientifically explained. If you accept that scientific assumption that everything is caused, it would follow that your thoughts are caused by something, possibly something external, possibly other thoughts, possibly the way your brain is put together, possibly some combination of all those. If you were able to follow all of the causal chains back far enough, you would end up with a set of causes all of which are external to you. Therefore, your thoughts are caused by external factors and there is no such thing as free will. (I have seen arguments that suggest that suggest that quantum effects in the brain produce stuff like consciousness and free will. I feel that these are based on a poor understanding of quantum mechanics. Quantum fluctuations produce random behaviour, not rational, conscious behaviour). So, if rational thought would suggest that we don’t have free will, why do we continue to implicitly assume that we do?

In the essay “Free Will, Determinism, and Self-Control” in The Philosophical Legacy of Behaviorism, Bruce Waller suggests that one reason is so that we can hold others morally responsible for their actions; they deserve the punishment that they get. I’ll look at a non-criminal example from the essay, that of a woman who doesn’t leave her abusive husband. A psychologist might see her refusal to leave as being a learned behaviour (“learned helplessness”), which she learned in childhood as a result of inescapable suffering. We can’t blame someone for having a traumatic childhood, so how can we blame them in this scenario? Yet we often do blame the victim, seeing the woman as being “weak” and so deserving to continue living a miserable existence. This also serves as an handy excuse to avoid trying to understand the victim and the causes of her behaviour better, which in turn makes it easier to avoid helping her and to ignore any role we, either individually or as a member of society, might have in her predicament.

One can look at criminal behaviour in the same way. The antisocial tendencies that cause criminal behaviour can often be traced to a defective upbringing (in some cases, defective genes may also play a role), which is something that the criminal couldn’t control. So why do we insist that we should lock the criminal up and throw away the key?

This belief probably comes from our caveman heritage. We are hard-wired to be outraged when someone does something wrong and satisfied when that wrong is punished. Back when humans were “cavemen”, this was probably a trait that helped us to survive. A readable summary of this can be found in the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner.

In the days of hunting and gathering, when someone did something that hurt the tribe or its members, there wasn’t any good way of trying to rehabilitate him, nor was there any good way of segregating him from the rest of the tribe if he didn’t want to be segregated. The only way of hoping to achieve these aims was to punish the person. Perhaps for serious infractions the perpetrator would be killed, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t commit any more crimes. Other punishments for less serious infractions might in some cases discourage future antisocial behaviour (they might not in other cases, but there isn’t any better alternative). One could also hope that the punishment would serve as a deterrent for the other members of the tribe. Nowadays, one would hope that we could put systems in place that would allow us to do better than cavemen.

Furthermore, claiming that people are “responsible” for their criminal behaviour allows us to ignore any role that we might have in creating this behaviour, so that we don’t have to think about how we, either individually or collectively, might be responsible for creating criminals, perhaps through our toleration of poverty and other social ills, unwillingness to help those in need, lack of moral standards, lack of support for incompetent parents, indifference or even cruelty toward those that we meet each day, lack of respect for the law in our own day-to-day behaviour, etc.

I think that, if we want to advance as a species, we need to leave these caveman notions behind. Hard as it will be, we need to suppress our instinct calling for wrongdoers to be punished. Instead of dragging criminals down, we need to make people’s lives better. This can be done by working to prevent crime in the first place, to rehabilitate the criminal, and to replace punishment by restitution—having the criminal try to fix what he broke as far as possible. “Don’t get mad, get even”.

So, I feel that Moskos’ premise in In Defence of Flogging, while not without merit, is flawed. Instead of finding different ways to punish criminals, we should look at removing punishment from the criminal justice system, without neglecting deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution. Corporal punishment doesn’t accomplish any of the last four aims, so it doesn’t have a part in my view of the corrections system of the future.

In order to serve the purposes of incapacitation and/or deterrence, prison sentences may still be required in some cases. However, there still is the problem of 2.3 million people currently in prison in the United States. Reducing sentences only to what is required to deter or incapacitate, while substituting activities aimed at rehabilitation and restitution for the rest of the sentence may help. Perhaps a technological solution could help as well. We already have various monitoring devices often worn by those under house arrest and/or probation. We might want to look into smarter devices that play a more active role in restricting the actions of the wearer. Perhaps a device could be created that causes physical pain when the wearer is doing something they shouldn’t. Perhaps a device could be created that physically restricts the wearer in various ways in various situations in order to force compliance with terms of sentencing. Perhaps even some sort of chip could be implanted in someone’s brain (kind of like Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that would prevent them from doing various off-limits activities. The big question is: Will people think of these devices as immoral, either because they torture wearers or invade their brains, or would it be seen as a humane alternative to prison sentences? I don’t know. This is something that’s worthwhile to start talking about, though.

Hopefully these measures will save money. Some of the savings should be earmarked for crime prevention, but in a smart way. Too often we try to prevent crimes in ways that don’t really prevent crime. Much the “war on drugs” involves arresting drug dealers, but as soon as the authorities do that, someone else sets up shop and we’re back to square one again. It would be much more effective to put money toward treatment programmes for addicts and make it very easy for addicts to get treatment. This would likely prevent a lot of thefts, prostitution, and other crimes that addicts commit to get money. We could undertake similar “smart” approaches with other crimes.

With luck, a combination of all these approaches would both significantly reduce crime and increase national productivity.

Watson and Jeopardy!

Not exactly current news, Watson’s appearance on Jeopardy! I’ve had
exactly a month as of today to think about it, and here’s what I think.

I used to watch Jeopardy! all the time back in the 1990s or something like that.  I haven’t really watched it much in the past 15 years or so, although I did tune in for special events like Ken Jennings winning a zillion games in a row a while back.  I only watched some parts of the Ken Jennings/Watson/Brad Ritter match back in February.  I tuned in for the last part of Monday’s episode and the first part of Tuesday’s, but the show seemed more like an infomercial for IBM than a game show, and I’m not a big fan of IBM.  I didn’t watch on Wednesday.  Of course, I didn’t need to tune in to find out the result, namely that Watson won, since it was so well-publicized.  Incidentally, it seems funny to me to name a computer after Thomas Watson, who is the same person that said in 1943 that “There is a world market for maybe five computers,” but I won’t pursue that idea further.  What I am interested in looking at was the following points.

It’s pretty obvious that the reason why Watson won is not because it is “smarter,” however you define that, than the competition, but rather because it’s a lot faster on the signalling button.  I’m not really sure what the configuration was for Watson’s signalling button, but regardless of what it was, the signalling path had to be a lot faster than it was for the two humans. Their brains aren’t hooked up directly to the signalling button; rather, their brains have to register that the question has finished being read, and then the brains need to send slow electrical impulses to the fingers, which then need to move to activate the signalling button.  So, this achievement just demonstrates how electronics are faster than the human brain (which everyone already knew), not that computers are better at answering questions than humans.

Next point.  To start, I believe that it was Marvin Minsky who said something along like “AI is anything that we haven’t done yet”.  It’s a relevant quote, since it illustrates that, once we understand how to do something, it isn’t anything special.  So, on the one hand, we probably shouldn’t discount Watson’s “achievement” solely based on the fact that a machine managed to do it and therefore it isn’t all that special, but on the other hand I think there’s a lot of room for improvement for machines.  Take the Final Jeopardy! answer on Tuesday for example.  I don’t remember exactly what the answer was anymore, but the category was “U.S. Cities” and the answer was something along the lines of “One of this city’s two airports is named after a World War II flying ace; the other, a World War II battle”.  Watson answered (queried?) “What is Toronto?”  To me, this shows a significant defect in the machine’s semantic representation of the answers and questions.  First of all, what human would provide that answer?  I’m sure that anyone, no matter how smart or dumb they are, would at least provide an answer that is a U.S. city.  If you had a highly advanced semantic map, you would realise that the answer has to be a really big city; even a city as large as Toronto only has one international airport (unless maybe you count Hamilton airport as serving Toronto).  New York?  No, its airports are named after a president and a mayor.  Los Angeles?  No.  So you might get to Chicago, and just stumble on the right answer that way.  It appears that Watson answers questions in a way that is incredibly different from how humans do, and I think that could be a significant disadvantage for it.

During part of the “infomercial”, some IBMer suggested that people might want to use this technology for intelligent agents who answer people’s questions online or whatever.  I would doubt it.  First, how much will IBM want you to pay for this sort of technology?  If history is any precedent, this won’t come cheap.  It’s probably a lot cheaper to hire people in India to chat with a website’s users.  Second, it’s a lot easier to get people to understand search engine syntax and semantics than it is to get machines to understand people semantics.  Why would anyone want to type “What’s the best resource on the web about mathematical paradoxes?” or whatever subject matter you’re interested in, when it’s a lot easier, and most people know, to just type “mathematical paradoxes”.

One final point:  I think that machines’ accomplishments such as this one can’t be considered equal to that of humans until they are intentional.  In other words, until the computer chooses to show up to the Jeopardy! match, I don’t think that the accomplishment can be considered to be equal to that of a human.  We don’t crown a pitching machine as Cy Young Award winner or a cheetah as a gold medallist in sprinting, and I think the significant thing is that these objects cannot choose or appear to choose to attend the sporting events, so similarly, Watson’s accomplishment is not complete without Watson actually choosing to show up to Jeopardy!