What’s It Like To Live Without Illusions? Tough, And It Sucks

illusion

About 6 months ago, I decided to do a bit a self-experimentation. I tried to identify as many of my illusions as I could, and then see if I could lose them one by one. Readers of this blog – those who are still around – may have noticed one of the first: that this is an interesting blog. I stopped writing after decades of what often seemed like talking to a wall. After all, if few other people like what I do, then why should I? Wisdom of the crowds, and such. But that’s hardly the most important illusion I tried to get rid of. (“Tried”, since here I am, writing again…)

Over the last years, I read a lot about free will, blame and moral responsibility. My writing on human rights made me conscious of the harm we inflict on each other while trying to hold “wrongdoers” to account: capital punishment, mass incarceration, police brutality and so on are well-documented human rights violations, but the interesting thing about them is that they imply beliefs – in the minds of the perpetrators – about victim accountability and responsibility. The belief that people should be held accountable for their misdeeds – and should suffer for them – wraps around another belief: that people possess some form of free will.

The growing consensus in the fields of psychology and neurology (including evolutionary psychology, brain imaging and the study of systematic biases) is that free will is an illusion. “Illusion” is probably too strong a word in this case, but the literature has certainly convinced me to be more generous to “wrongdoers”. Not only should we avoid harsh punishment for consequentialist reasons – we do more harm while punishing people than the good that may come from often imaginary deterrent and protection effects – but also because punishment has become little more than an overly theatrical way of blaming people who seem decreasingly blameworthy.

finger_wag_hypnosis

So let’s say that in general I’ve tried to rid myself of the illusion of judgment. Negative judgment at least. I try to no longer blame people for their shortcomings. (Sorry for the split infinitive here, but let’s face it: grammatical rules are often used as a theatrical means of blaming people and of signalling our own superiority relative to the blameworthy. Communication is about understanding, and if rules can assist in understanding then they are good. If not, lose your illusion.)

Avoiding blame may seem dangerous: if we no longer blame people for their mistakes and misdeeds, then how will they learn and become better people? Is mutual improvement also an illusion that should be abandoned? I don’t think so. But there’s a large space between blame and indifference. You can tell people about their mistakes without judgment. It’s tricky, but doable.

What about positive judgments? Do I no longer appreciate beauty, music and art? To the extent that beauty is an illusion, that’s probably the hardest one to shed. A sensation of beauty just comes over you, unexpectedly. You can’t fight it or reason yourself away from it, as you can with free will. You can try to tell yourself that a beautiful body is just a bag of bones, meat and human waste made to look appealing because bodily attraction has helped humanity to survive during our difficult early evolution. However, you often can’t keep fooling yourself into believing this, at least not in the sense of immediate, intuitive belief.

What about music? As an adolescent I became enchanted by Wagner and I started to read a lot about him, including a lot of critical stuff arguing against his method: how silly it is to use leitmotivs, as if we can’t see that Wotan comes on stage and need to hear his tune as well; how Wagner did not respect “classical” rules of composition; how repetitive he was; how loud, bombastic and Teutonic; how the German language was unfit for opera, especially when littered with alliteration. And so on. All of this made me doubt, and I almost gave up being a Wagnerian because of it. But I couldn’t. The music is just magic, and it blows you away no matter how much you rationalise against it, at least if you’re open to being blown away. The beauty of it may be an illusion. In the narrow sense that you get tricked by a cunning and scamming composer. Or in the broader sense: beauty is no more than brain stimulations that have developed over the course of human evolution because individuals who are receptive to these kinds of stimulation are happier and therefore more likely to survive.

wagner quote

So far so good, you may say. Get rid of the noxious illusions, if you can, and keep the pleasant and harmless ones. Good work Spagnoli! But then why do you tell us that it sucks? Because illusions are like faces in things. Once you train yourself to see faces in things, you start to see them everywhere. Same for illusions. Friendship starts to look like an illusion. You try to ignore your friends to see whether they really care about you. Do they show you that they care by asking you why you ignore them? Nah. They just ignore you back because you’re being such a dick.

And then there’s LOVE: there’s a long history of love bashing. Do we really love the people we love? Why do we love that particular person and not another one? Seems a bit arbitrary to us all, at some points in our lives. Just admit it. It could just as well have been someone else. What is love really? Perhaps not a lot more than just another evolutionary adaptation inherited from early humans who were frail and needed to stick together in small family type groups that cared for each other and their offspring in a hostile prehistoric environment. Maybe. But if so, then love is no longer relevant since that kind of frailty has been largely overcome. Love is reduced to companionship and sex, both of which I’ve argued may be just as illusory (albeit in a pleasant way as long as you manage to avoid thinking below skin level.)

And now for the most dangerous illusion of all: are you actually alive? You’re losing your friends and loved ones. You’re counting the times that you were ignored during meetings at work; that the girls on the bus didn’t look back at you; that you had to repeat yourself; that your email went unanswered. You remember the accident you were in as a child, and start to wonder whether you’re Bruce Willis. At best you come under the impression of slowly fading away, quite literally. Needless to say that this is dangerously self-destructive. From a medical perspective, it looks like an illusion or delusion. But it may just as well be the product of fanatical and self-reinforcing opposition to illusion.

How to get out of this trap? I’m not sure you can, but an old analytic philosophy trick seems to help: define your terms, analyse the meaning of words. If you feel overwhelmed by the loss of illusions, start to define “illusion”. You’ll probably notice that the term is vague and overly inclusive. Which would account for the tendency to see illusions everywhere. A precise definition of the word can help you get out of the anti-illusory maelstrom. Perhaps.

Capital Punishment, What Can We Hope For?

Emile Friant; Capital Punishment; 1908

Emile Friant; Capital Punishment; 1908

The death penalty is going out of style. Many people have many good reasons to be happy about that, and I’m among those who consistently advocate against this inhuman punishment. (Without losing sight of the many other forms of injustice perpetrated against – duly or unduly – convicted criminals).

However, it’s not going away fast enough. One can wonder why it’s still practiced at all, and hasn’t gone the road of slavery, torture, human sacrifice or similar remnants of the Middle Ages which, to the extent that they still exist, are mostly hidden in shame.

Instead of trying to answer this question, I’m going to ponder an easier one: when can we hope the death penalty will be abolished altogether? No way of knowing for sure, of course, but we can extrapolate some data sets. For instance, there’s the hopeful evolution of the numbers of countries that have outlawed the practice. So-called abolitionist countries can be divided into two groups: abolitionist in law or in practice. Depending on the source, there are about 100 countries that have no death penalty in their laws, and about 35 to 40 that still have laws but no longer apply them. That leaves about 60 so-called “retentionist” countries (some would prefer a less flattering qualifier). (Again according to the sources, there are about 195 independent countries in the world today).

Venezuela was the first country still existing in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, doing so by Constitution in 1863. Among the last countries were Russia, Argentina and Latvia (you can find the complete list here). The rate of abolition accelerated quickly over the course of the last 3 decades, as I show in this graph:

death penalty, number of abolitionist countries

As this is a case of exponential growth, we can extrapolate:

death penalty, projected abolition worldwide

If the trend over the last 4 or 5 decades continues, and the most recent flattening of the curve is just a glitch – two big “ifs”, I admit – then the death penalty will be illegal everywhere sometime around 2022.

Another, and probably more relevant set of data are the actual numbers of executions. It’s hard to get your hands on a long time series of reliable numbers for the word as a whole, partly because data on executions in China – by far the biggest killer – are notoriously incomplete. Still, if we graph the available numbers for some of the worst countries, and assume that secrecy isn’t becoming more of a problem over time (again a big “if”), then we get a similarly hopeful evolution for most countries:

numbers of executions China Iran Saudi Arabia United States

(source)

Were we to add a trend line as in the graph on abolition, then China would stop executing in 2017, which seems a bit optimistic. Saudi Arabia would stop in 2027. The US only in 2034. This neatly illustrates the limits of statistical analysis, since I’m ready to bet that the order will be exactly the reverse.

Declining popular support is a further indication of the demise of the death penalty:

popular support for the death penalty in the US

And not just in the US. According to some sources, a majority of Chinese think their government executes too many people, although a clear majority still favors the punishment in principle. (Needless to say that public opinion is difficult to measure in authoritarian countries, and may be affected by authoritarian practices and the relative paucity of public debate). Less than half of Britons, French and Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty. On the other hand, 55% of Brazilians and a stunning 85% of Japanese are in favor. (Source).

Capital Punishment (47): What’s An Acceptable Error Rate When Human Lives Are At Stake?

Based on the proven rate of exonerations among U.S. death-row prisoners in the past two decades

U.S. courts appear to have an error rate in capital cases of between 2.5 percent and 4 percent. (source)

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the U.S. in 1976, more than 140 men and women have been released from Death Row, some only minutes away from execution (source). That’s a not insignificant number of wrongful convictions. DNA testing has a lot to do with it, and one can see similar patterns in non-capital cases:

researchers examining biological evidence from hundreds of Virginia rape convictions between 1973 and 1987 determined that new DNA testing appeared to exonerate convicted defendants in 8 percent to 15 percent of cases. (source)

Taking into account that DNA evidence is not available in all criminal cases or in all types of crimes, the real error rate in U.S. justice is probably even higher. One can only imagine the rates in other, less developed criminal justice systems in other parts of the world.

Of course, miscarriages of justice are particularly painful in capital cases where we are not just talking about wrongful convictions but also wrongful executions. The latter will be less numerous than the former given the sometimes extended periods of time between conviction and execution, time which can and sometimes is indeed used to expose miscarriages of justice. Still, we have to assume that there’s also a significant number of wrongful executions: DNA is not always available – it depends on the circumstances of the homicide – and other means of proving innocence are not always successful even when lawyers have years to do their work.

This is why I believe that any error rate, however small, should be unacceptable in the application of capital punishment. You cannot correct a wrongful execution. You can, to some extent, correct a wrongful imprisonment: you can release people, even if you can’t give them back their lost years. You can’t bring people back from the dead. Given the evidence of error rates, it must be beyond doubt that the criminal justice system in the U.S. – and elsewhere as well – has executed innocent people. The most prominent known cases are those of Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham. And nothing Scalia or any other delusional proponent of the death penalty believes changes the facts.

It’s my opinion that capital punishment as such is unacceptable, even if the error rate were 0, but an error rate higher than zero makes it all the more unacceptable. And it should make it unacceptable even for proponents of capital punishment. After all, if you think that an error rate of, say, 2% is OK, then why not 2.1? 2.2? And so on. Human life loses all value once you accept an error rate, however small, and most if not all proponents of the death penalty are motivated by their love of human life.

More posts in this series are here.

Capital Punishment (46): “Looking Deathworthy”

That’s the provocative title of a new paper showing a correlation between the likelihood of receiving a death sentence and the perception of having a stereotypically Black appearance:

Researchers previously have investigated the role of race in capital sentencing, and in particular, whether the race of the defendant or victim influences the likelihood of a death sentence. In the present study, we examined whether the likelihood of being sentenced to death is influenced by the degree to which a Black defendant is perceived to have a stereotypically Black appearance. Controlling for a wide array of factors, we found that in cases involving a White victim, the more stereotypically Black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.

We already knew that both the race of the victim and the race of the defendant influence capital sentencing. Black defendants are executed more often than they should be in a system that pretends to treat all equally before the law and that ostensibly denies that racism should be allowed to determine judicial outcomes.

Now it seems that there’s a subgroup of African Americans who are treated even worse, namely those people who are perceived to have a stereotypically Black appearance (e.g., broad nose, thick lips, dark skin). People apparently associate those stereotypical physical traits with criminality. No surprise that this bias isn’t limited to capital cases:

Even with differences in defendants’ criminal histories statistically controlled, those defendants who possessed the most stereotypically Black facial features served up to 8 months longer in prison for felonies than defendants who possessed the least stereotypically Black features. (source)

Some more evidence is here. This form of bias has been called colorism, and it has effects way beyond the criminal justice system.

More posts in this series here.

Capital Punishment (44): The Retribution Argument Against Capital Punishment

Retribution is the last refuge of those seeking to justify capital punishment, given the failure of other arguments (deterrence, incapacitation etc.). Retribution is a punishment that fits the crime: the severity of the punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the crime. Intuitively, therefore, retribution should justify capital punishment for murder. Only death is a punishment that is as severe as murder. The Latin origin of the word “retribution” indicates that something should be given back or returned: someone “gives” death and hence death should be returned.

However, in theory, retribution does not necessarily mean that the punishment has to be strictly equivalent to the harm caused by the crime: some claim that retribution simply means that we must punish severe crimes more harshly than less severe crimes. Yet we see in practice that capital punishment as punishment for murder is defended on retributivist grounds.

Retributivists, ancient and modern, have always been lured by one or another form of lex talionis. (source)

There’s often an element of desert introduced in retributivist arguments. A murderer should be put to death because this punishment fits the crime, and because this punishment fits the crime, the murderer deserves to die.

So, given this “natural” tendency of retributivists to favor capital punishment for murder, how can it be possible to construct an argument based on retribution against capital punishment, as the title of this post suggest? Thom Brooks has made a highly interesting attempt here. It’s based on a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff ( in US v Quinones):

What DNA testing has proved, beyond cavil, is the remarkable degree of fallibility in the basic fact-finding processes on which we rely in criminal cases. In each of the 12 cases of DNA-exoneration of death row inmates referenced in Quinones, the defendant had been guilty by a unanimous jury that concluded there was proof of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and in each of the 12 cases the conviction had been affirmed on appeal, and collateral challenges rejected, by numerous courts that had carefully scrutinized the evidence and manner of conviction. Yet, for all this alleged “due process”, the result in each and every one of these cases, was the conviction of an innocent person who, because of the death penalty, would shortly have been executed (-some came within days of being so-) were it not for the fortuitous development of a new scientific technique that happened to be applicable to their particular cases. (source)

This should even convince retributivists that capital punishment has to be rejected. Even if you adopt the moral rule that murderers deserve to die you, shouldn’t apply the death penalty in practice because you can’t be certain that a particular defendant is really guilty of the crime and hence deserves to die. And there’s no point arguing that the systematic use of DNA testing gives you this certainty: first, it’s not always possible to use DNA tests, because the crime has to be of such a type that DNA traces are potentially available, and even if they are potentially available they may not be actually available; and second, we don’t know if DNA testing is accurate enough and won’t be discredited in the future.

You could also argue that the same lack of certainty is the case for all types of crime, and that rejecting capital punishment because of a lack of certainty implies rejecting criminal punishment tout court. Not quite: all other types of punishment allow for the possibility to correct mistakes resulting from uncertainty. Capital punishment rules this out.

And there’s another kind of uncertainty that militates against capital punishment and that should convince retributivists to reject it. The desert of a criminal is usually based on more than mere physical evidence of his actions. Intent also plays a part. Take the case of someone who caused the death of someone else by his actions – and let’s assume that we are certain about this, e.g. we have DNA evidence and we know that no future scientific developments will cast doubt on this evidence – but did not intend to kill. Many would argue that he doesn’t deserve to die. However, intent is impossible to prove because it requires reading someone’s mind, and hence we can never be certain that someone intended to kill. A desert based argument for capital punishment is void if desert includes intent.

Capital Punishment (43): Some Facts About Decapitation

It used to be a common practice, but today only a handful of countries still execute criminals by way of beheading (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and perhaps one or two other countries).

Assuming that decapitation occurs in a “civilized” way and that it doesn’t take a number of blows or cuts to the neck in order to sever the head from the body – which, in practice, is not always a correct assumption: does the brain remain conscious for a few seconds after a clean and quick decapitation? There are many historical reports of decapitated heads showing facial movements or even the attempt to speak right after decapitation. It’s not clear what to make of this, since facial movements can just as well be spasms.

However, experiments with rats have shown brain activity after decapitation. Sure, there’s no way to be sure that this is true for the human brain as well – since “further scientific observation of human decapitation is unlikely”, in the words of Alan Bellows. Still, the rat experiments are suggestive:

[R]esearchers connected an EEG machine to the brains of rats, decapitated them and recorded the electrical activity in the brain after the event. [They] found that for about four seconds after being separated from the body, the rats’ brains continued to generate electrical activity between the 13 to 100-Hertz frequency band, which is associated with consciousness and cognition, defined as “a mental process that includes thinking”. (source)

The circulatory system delivers oxygen to the brain so that it can carry out its functions. When suddenly deprived of oxygen or blood after a clean and quick decapitation – or after several severe blows to the neck with a knife, sword or axe, before full decapitation – the brain’s function deteriorates rapidly, but perhaps not instantaneously. This would imply that individuals, after suffering a clean and quick decapitation, can still think, perceive, feel and suffer pain and anguish during a few horrible seconds after which the brain, which itself receives no trauma during decapitation, stops functioning because blood loss causes unconsciousness and death.

A related story is here. More on beheadings here. And on capital punishment here.

Capital Punishment (42): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics, Ctd.

The so-called deterrent effect is one of the main arguments in favor of capital punishment. I’ve argued many times before that the data we have don’t support the existence of this effect. Some of the data even suggest the possibility that instead of a deterrent effect, capital punishment has a brutalization effect (because it sends out the normative message that violent retaliation is the normal response to ill-treatment and that the sanctity of life is a naive moral ideal).

The following quote nicely summarizes the difficulty of proving the deterrent effect:

I would like to know how a statistical study, no matter how sophisticated, can possibly tell us the subjective motives for acts that were never taken and, moreover, how it can do so with the specificity of telling us approximately how many people did not do what they otherwise would have done under different circumstances. Where are these people? And, more importantly, how would we recognize one if we happened across him or her? (source)

Of course, people who want to disprove the deterrent effect also face this difficulty, but I assume we can agree that the burden of proof is on those who want to use the effect as an argument in favor of capital punishment. And that turns out to be a very heavy burden in this case.

Anyway, even if deterrence could be proven and even if we could establish with some certainty that every execution saves n lives – as some have argued, oblivious of the difficulties pointed out in the quote above – then we would still have good reasons to reject capital punishment.

More here.