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


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.


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.

Crime and Human Rights (22): Blame Is So 20th Century

Blame is useless in criminal punishment. We don’t need it. Rather than blaming the criminal, as we so often do, we should pay sole attention to criminal actions. It’s those actions that are the problem. Crimes are bad – i.a. because a lot of crimes result in rights violations – and whether criminals are bad is of secondary importance. What we need to do is put an end to rights violations and crimes. In order to do that we have to focus on actions: on the consequences of certain harmful actions, and on ways to prevent them from occurring in the future.

Blame doesn’t help us to stop harmful actions. At least not immediately. (One could argue that blame teaches people about morality, but that’s a longterm goal). What does help, in some cases, is a focus on character. However, the purpose of this focus on character is not to build a case for blame. An understanding of a criminal’s character – of his or her general viciousness or dickishness – can help us avoid future crimes and rights violations because this understanding can tell us something about the need for incapacitation. A bad person poses a higher risk of recidivism than someone who has made a mistake or has committed one intentional evil act. However, this punishment of incapacitation isn’t the result of the criminal’s blameworthiness. The only reason to incapacitate a criminal is the risk of future harmful actions.

What we tend to do is the opposite. If we speak about a criminal’s character, it’s usually because we want to blame the criminal beyond what we would normally think is necessary. There are at least three stages of blame: people are blamed for doing something wrong accidentally or stupidly; people who do something wrong intentionally are blamed somewhat more; and people who do something because of their nasty character are blamed even more. (In criminal trials it’s common that judges take into account past actions as either aggravating or mitigating circumstances).

We often want to impose additional blame on someone who has done wrong and has a history of doing wrong because we believe that blame should be about character. Bad people should receive more blame than people who do one thing wrong. If two people commit the same crime but one does it because he or she is a bad person and the other for opportunistic reasons for example, then the former should receive more blame simply because he or she is a bad person. A bad character is worse than one bad intentional act.

What I want to do is sever the link between blame and character, and use a person’s character not as a source of blame but as a means to assess the likelihood of future wrongdoing and to avoid crimes and rights violations. Rather than use people’s character as a source of blame – which is very hard anyway given what we don’t know about genetics, early childhood experiences etc. – we should do character assessment, to the extent that it is possible, because it teaches us something about the need for incapacitation as a means to avoid harmful actions.

Obviously, this has consequences for the types and severity of the criminal punishments we can impose. (A person’s character or habitual behavior shouldn’t be an aggravating circumstance in itself, irrespective of the need for incapacitation). However, what I’m arguing here may have consequences beyond the realm of criminal punishment. It may be true that we blame too often and too much in general. A child who is blamed for wrongdoing may thereby learn the rules of morality; a worker who is blamed for misconduct may become a better worker, etc. But we should admit that we usually don’t have a good reason for blaming people. People’s intentions are hard to figure out. And it’s even harder to judge someone’s character, except in a few extreme cases. We’re also in the dark about what drives people: are their actions really the result of blameworthy choices, or is there something deeper such as their genetic make-up or early experiences that makes them do what they do? Hard to tell, and yet blame seems so easy.

More posts in this series are here.

Crime and Human Rights (21): A Proposal For a Better System of Criminal Punishment

Like many of you, I’m in favor of a radical overhaul of our criminal justice systems. We’ve made tremendous progress over the centuries, and yet the way we treat criminals today is still an abomination for which future generations will rightfully scold us. I was therefore pleasantly surprised – initially at least – to learn about a revolutionary proposal coming from Rebecca Roache. There’s a write-up here, and the headline sure grabs the attention: “Prisoners could serve 1,000 year sentence in eight hours”. The proposal:

Future biotechnology could be used to trick a prisoner’s mind into thinking they have served a 1,000 year sentence, a group of scientists have claimed.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache is in charge of a team of scholars focused upon the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Dr Roache claims the prison sentence of serious criminals could be made worse by extending their lives.

Speaking to Aeon magazine, Dr Roache said drugs could be developed to distort prisoners’ minds into thinking time was passing more slowly. “There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence,” she said.

A second scenario would be to upload human minds to computers to speed up the rate at which the mind works … “If the speed-up were a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours … Uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time.” (source)

These innovations – or should I say imagined innovations since the technologies aren’t available yet – are defended on the basis of cost, humanity and proportionality.

  • Radically reduced prison sentences are cheaper for society, and more humane for the prisoner.
  • By tricking prisoners’ brains into believing that they serve a very long time while in fact only serving a short time, we’ll make it possible to offer them a life after prison.
  • By making it possible to impose very, very long sentences – or rather the chemically induced experience of very long sentences – one could make punishment truly proportional and retributive. Retribution is currently limited at life sentences (for those civilized countries that don’t impose the death penalty). When drugs will make it possible to impose sentences that last much longer than a lifetime, one can punish the very worst criminals proportionally to their crimes. Hitler could be locked up for ages. Roache writes about a particularly horrendous crime punished by an “almost laughably inadequate” sentence of 30 years in prison. “Sufficient punishment” is what this is about, and Roache is quite explicit in adopting the retributive and proportionality approach to justice.

There’s an obvious contradiction between these justifications. While it’s certainly good and humane to give prisoners a life after their sentences – no matter how long these are (or are perceived to be) – tricking people into believing that they are hundreds of years in prison is actually kind of cruel. And there’s no need for this cruelty. I’ve argued elsewhere that the role of retribution, proportionality and desert in criminal punishment should be strictly limited, and certainly not expanded as in Roache’s proposal. The number of months or years a person is to be imprisoned should be determined by the need to incapacitate him or her and to protect society from harm. Tricking people into believing that they have been in jail for thousands of years and then setting them free after a few hours will only create resentful human beings in the prime of their lives, willing and able to take revenge on the society that has punished them in this way. Of course, the endorsement of retributivism is not a necessary precondition for favoring the proposed technologies, and with some tweaking the technologies may actually do some good. We’ll see, perhaps.

More posts in this series are here.

Crime and Human Rights (19): Why Do We Impose Criminal Punishment?

It seems so obvious that we must punish criminals that we hardly think about the reasons why. And then when we do think about some of the possible reasons, we find that they are of dubious quality, and we start to wonder whether criminal punishment can be justified at all.

1. Retribution

The first reason that springs to mind is retribution: we impose punishment – i.e. pain, suffering or unpleasant consequences – because that is what criminals deserve. Punishment is a deserved and proportionate “repayment” for the crime that has been done. And indeed, the fact that wrongdoers deserve some form of proportionate punishment or unpleasantness seems to be a deep-seated intuition. But if we want to use this notion of retribution as a justification of criminal punishment, we need to define what exactly it is that a particular criminal deserves. Because if it turns out that we can’t decide, in a non-arbitrary way, what it is that a criminal deserves, then it’s useless to place desert and proportional repayment at the heart of the justification of criminal punishment.

And we can’t decide. We can’t determine which punishment fits which crime. Retribution naturally tends towards lex talionis (an eye for an eye). For two reasons: first because that is the easy answer to the question of deserved punishment, and second because of the origins of the word “retribution” (retribuere in Latin means to restore, to give back). However, the brutality of lex talionis is no longer acceptable these days, which is why retribution theorists have tried to find another, less brutal way of determining the deserved punishment. Proportionality is then considered to be a just retributive principle: the punishment must not be equal to the crime, but the gravity of the punishment must be proportional to the severity of the crime; more serious crimes should entail more severe punishments.

Proportionality, like the element of desert in the basic structure of retribution, is hard to argue with, but it’s also useless. It can justify any type of punishment because it doesn’t provide a non-arbitrary starting point or end point of severity. Hence, it fails to answer the basic question raised by retribution: which punishment fits which crime? If this question can’t be answered, then retribution can’t be a justification of criminal punishment.

True, retribution can still be used negatively: some punishments clearly don’t fit the crime, and are not deserved. A $10 dollar fine for a murder, or execution for shoplifting are examples. But a theory of punishment that can only say which punishment are not justifiable is clearly not a complete justification of criminal punishment. After all, such a theory doesn’t exclude the possibility that all punishments are not justifiable.

2. Deterrence

With retribution out of the way, we can now consider an alternative justification of criminal punishment. We may decide to punish criminals because in doing so we instill fear in other – potential – criminals and therefore deter future crime. Punishment is then a means to protect society against crime. It’s a stop sign. And, like retribution, this seems to be, at first sight at least, a convincing justification. Like it is intuitively correct that a criminal deserves some kind of punishment, it is also intuitively convincing that people, when faced with the risk of punishment, will have a strong incentive to abstain from crime.

However, we again see that the initial appeal of this justification doesn’t survive closer scrutiny. First, there’s a lack of conclusive empirical evidence for the existence of a deterrent effect. Even the strongest possible punishment – death – doesn’t seem to deter. Part of the reason for this is the fact that crime often isn’t a rational calculation of risks, costs and benefits. And when it is, low conviction rates may have more weight in the criminals’ calculations than the severity or unpleasantness of unlikely punishments.

Another reason why deterrence cannot justify criminal punishment is its inherent immorality: to deter is to use people as means to reduce crime, and that kind of instrumentalization is morally unacceptable.

3. Incapacitation

If we can’t deter, maybe we can incapacitate, and justify criminal punishment on that basis. Incapacitating a criminal allows us to protect society without instrumentalizing the criminal (we don’t use the criminal and his punishment as a fear-instilling mechanism; we simply keep the criminal away from his or her future victims).

Again, being able to stop criminals from reoffending is intuitively appealing, but it isn’t enough to justify a system of criminal punishment. If we should decide that incapacitation justifies criminal punishment, we’re still left with the task of deciding the type of criminal punishment it actually justifies. Which actions are necessary and just forms of incapacitation? Like retribution or proportionality, incapacitation leaves open a very wide array of possible punishments: cutting off the hands of thieves, house arrest, ostracism, banishment, imprisonment, chemical castration, etc. A theory that can’t help us to choose among those options can’t possibly be a complete justification of criminal punishment. Ideally, we don’t want a justification of punishment that allows all or most types of punishment. And again, the fact that some forms of incapacitation are clearly not acceptable isn’t ground enough for a justification based on incapacitation, like the fact that some punishments are clearly not deserved isn’t ground enough for a justification based on retribution.

4. Symbolic confirmation of social rules

Perhaps a more promising justification of criminal punishment is based on the social role of punishment. When we punish criminals for their crimes, we may not intend to give them what they deserve, incapacitate them or deter others; we may instead engage in a bit of theater. Which, by the way, is also one of the reasons for having public trials. The public condemnation of wrong actions is a symbolic confirmation of social rules, and this confirmation has an educational function. It teaches people the values and norms of society, in the hope that they internalize these values and norms through repeated public and symbolic confirmation. Furthermore, the punishment of crimes affirms not just certain values and norms (e.g. don’t steal or murder) but the necessity of peaceful social cooperation and therefore the necessity of society itself.

Like desert, protection, deterrence and incapacitation, these are all fine objectives. However, a justification of criminal punishment based on its symbolic role faces the criticism of instrumentalization, as in the case of deterrence. Especially when the stated objectives – affirmation of norms and society – can be reached through other means.

5. Signaling

And the same is true for the justification of punishment based on the need for signaling. Society, and especially the representatives of society, need to show that they care about victims of crime. However, they don’t have to do so at the expense of criminals. Still less acceptable is the use of punishment as a signal of authority. Punishment can’t be justified when it is merely a manifestation of power by those in charge.

6. Healing and pacification

Punishment can be justified as therapy for the victims of crime, their relatives and friends, and even society as a whole. It’s a fact that punishment gives some satisfaction to victims, and responds to their sense of justice. It can also channel anger and revenge away from the more disturbing forms of those emotions, thereby preventing street justice and vigilantism. However, there’s a disturbing circularity to this justification: because people expect punishment, we should administer it, but because we administer it people continue to expect it. Also, when trying to channel emotions such as anger and revenge into socially acceptable forms we unconsciously promote them, whereas maybe we should try to limit those emotions as much as we can.

7. Rehabilitation

The rehabilitation of the criminal in the sense of his or her moral regeneration is no longer a fashionable justification of punishment. For several reasons: it’s expensive, and it upsets our sense of equal justice (successful rehabilitation can imply a radically shorter sentence). Also, some psychiatric excesses have been successfully ridiculed in movies such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In any case, the point is moot whether or not rehabilitation can be a successful justification of criminal punishment, since society has practically given up on it.


It’s extremely difficult to find an acceptable justification of criminal punishment. Hence, I strongly suspect that this is one of those social practices that seems perfectly normal and acceptable to contemporaries but also one for which we will be universally condemned by future generations.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of solid justifications, people start to look for other reasons explaining the persistence of the practice. There’s talk of the new Jim Crow and criminal punishment being used to maintain oppressive social structures. Maybe it’s time to reread Foucault.

Still, it’s uncontested that society can’t function and people can’t thrive without respect for certain norms, especially the norms included in human rights. Those norms are regularly violated, and a society has the right and the duty to enforce compliance. A rejection of this right and duty means tolerating victimization and rights violations. But if punishment isn’t the right way to enforce compliance, which is? We can’t just accept punishment and to hell with justifications, because punishments do impose costs, both on the criminals being punished and on society as a whole. Imposing costs without justifications isn’t the right thing to do. Also, an unjustified system of punishment will lack legitimacy and will therefore be ineffective, something which will further undermine its legitimacy.

Hence, we’re left with the following choice: look harder for a justification, or find an alternative, non-punitive system of norm enforcement (maybe a system that is able to prevent violations of norms). Only half-jokingly: why not give law-abiding citizens prize money?

More here.

Crime and Human Rights (18): The Cruelty of Life Imprisonment Without Parole

My dismissal of capital punishment on moral grounds shouldn’t be understood as implying that this type of punishment is the worst possible one or that I’m ready to accept any other sentence in order to avoid executions. Life imprisonment without parole (LIWOP), for example, is often advanced as a good alternative to capital punishment and a means to convince people to drop their demand for that sentence. That makes LIWOP seem almost benign, which it isn’t. It’s particularly cruel, for reasons I discuss below.

That is why I tend not to argue as follows: capital punishment is bad because there is a less cruel punishment available – LIWOP – that does much of the things capital punishment is supposed to be doing (incapacitation, deterrence etc.). I argue instead that there are other reasons, beside overreach, not to use capital punishment. However, this post is not about those reasons, but rather about the reasons why we should also not use LIWOP.

Of course, “death is different” and capital punishment is particularly cruel. But LIWOP is also cruel, albeit mostly for other reasons. In one respect, it’s cruelty is similar to that of capital punishment. It’s irrevocable. The absence of parole means that “life” really is “life”. Of course, there’s often the possibility of clemency or appeal. But given the general “tough on crime” mentality among politicians and prosecutors, clemency for LIWOP cases is very unlikely, as are possible extensions of the right to appeal.

We also see, in the U.S. for instance, that clemency is more likely to be granted in capital cases than in cases of LIWOP since LIWOP is supposed to be “so much less cruel” (although also in capital cases the frequency of clemency is going down, most likely for the same “tough on crime” reason). Also, appeal procedures are much more developed in capital cases than in LIWOP cases. And when there is a successful appeal in a LIWOP case – for example because of new evidence of errors in the handling of the case – then these new elements are much less likely to be considered important enough to review the sentence, again because LIWOP is so much less “cruel”. Some people even argue that it is better to get a death sentence in the U.S. than LIWOP, because the appeals possibilities and clemency success rates are much higher. Especially innocent defendants have a much higher chance of getting their names cleared and escaping their sentence when they are convicted to die. Talking about irony.

Why does irrevocability make LIWOP particularly cruel? Some people say that LIWOP is a death sentence without an execution date. That in itself, however, may not make LIWOP cruel – you could say that all human beings are under a death sentence without an execution date, by the simple fact of human mortality. Still, LIWOP is a sentence to die in prison. It removes any prospect of change, rehabilitation or redemption. Whatever the prisoner does during his sentence, nothing is going to make any difference. Society tells these people that whatever they do, however much they try to redeem themselves, society’s not going to care. It’s not a sentence without an execution date, it’s an execution without a date: we basically tell these people that their lives are over. And we show this by withholding recreational and educational opportunities. Those resources, we say, are limited and better spent on prisoners who will get out some day. So that makes redemption not only useless but also impossible. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: we believe that they are irredeemable, and hence we treat them in such a way that they become irredeemable. If you don’t think that’s cruel, check your moral compass.

Opponents of capital punishment such as myself have to issue a mea culpa here. Our opposition has undoubtedly forced many more people into LIWOP. The number of LIWOP cases in the U.S. has risen dramatically, while the number of executions has fallen. One in every 35 prisoners in the U.S. is currently serving LIWOP (that’s about 41,000 people). This is the perverse and counterproductive result of well-intentioned activism. (See here for more counterproductive human rights policies). And it’s likely to become even more perverse: LIWOP cases, which tend to become more numerous as an alternative to capital punishment, don’t offer the same resources in terms of legal representation as capital cases, because people think there is less at stake, even when that’s clearly not true. Hence, a higher risk of miscarriages of justice, which are then harder to put right because of the lower probability of clemency and the less developed appeals procedures that also result from the idea that less is at stake.

So, what’s the solution? Well, obviously life with the possibility of parole. An argument in favor of LIWOP when compared to LIWP is that LIWOP is necessary for reasons of incapacitation. That is indeed a worthy goal of criminal punishment – if not the only goal -and some people do indeed deserve to be incapacitated for a very long time, perhaps even permanently. However, LIWP can also produce permanent incapacitation – by withholding parole when necessary – and can do it better because it can limit it to those prisoners for whom it can be shown, on an ongoing basis, that they are still dangerous. LIWOP means taking a decision about dangerousness once and for all, and then forgetting about the prisoner. The problem is that you can’t, at the moment of sentencing, make the decision that someone is going to be dangerous for the rest of his or her life. We simply don’t have the knowledge for such decisions. Psychology and psychiatry are not advanced enough yet, and will probably never be. Dangerousness has to be monitored continuously. People do change, except of course when the prison regime is such that they don’t get the opportunity or when the sentence is such that they don’t get the incentive.

And existing problems with parole (incompetent or lenient parole boards) are not a sufficient reason to favor LIWOP over LIWP. They are a reason to do something about those problems.

A country overview of the use of LIWOP is here and here.

Crime and Human Rights (17): A Criminal’s Human Rights, Some Q & A

1. Does the necessity of enforcing the law and ensuring compliance with the law justify extreme forms of punishment?

No. It’s not because you have committed a crime that you lose all your rights. The severity of criminal punishment should remain within certain bounds, and the need to be tough on crime doesn’t give you permission to do whatever it takes to be tough on crime. Most laws will never be respected in all cases anyway. A fetishistic attitude towards law enforcement isn’t helpful or necessary. Reasonably good enforcement is good enough. Convicting or deterring the marginal criminal is not a benefit that outweighs the harm done to the rights of criminals by the systematic imposition of extreme punishment (and extreme punishment has to be systematic if it is to have the required deterrent effect; punishing only one criminal in an extreme way won’t do any good, and some say that even systematic punishment has no deterrent effect).

2. If extreme punishment is not allowed, is it allowed to punish like with like?

Again, no, and for the same reasons as those given above. Lex talionis is unacceptable. Human rights are not conditional upon respect for the law, and the fact that punishment inevitably leads to some rights restrictions doesn’t imply that criminals lose all their rights.

3. But if criminals, by being criminals, don’t forfeit their human rights, how can one justify punishments such a incarceration or monetary fines which incontestably violate criminals’ human rights?

Those punishments can be justified, not as violations of rights but as limitations of rights. We need to limit the rights of criminals in order to stop them or deter them from violating the rights of others. In this respect, criminals are not treated differently from someone who yells “FIRE” in a crowd.

4. Is it justified to impose more severe punishments for the same type of crime on people who are more difficult to deter?

No again. Like the need to deter or stop crime doesn’t trump the human rights of criminals, it also doesn’t trump the rule regarding equality before the law.

There’s a related post here about the human rights of Adolf Hitler. More posts in this series are here.

Crime and Human Rights (16): Gun Rights and Gun Control, Again

I didn’t feel I needed to comment on the recent Colorado shooting. Although this blog is about human rights it deals with the topic on a rather abstract level and it’s not my purpose to keep track of and discuss every major rights violation. However, the Colorado incident – as usual in such cases – has rekindled the old debate about gun rights and gun control, and since this debate is suitably general and abstract I should maybe reiterate my stance on the issue (a previous post is here).

The right to own and use a gun or many other types of firearm is viewed by many Americans as a right that is equivalent to other constitutional rights such as the right to free speech and to freedom of religion. This view seems to be exclusively American. International human rights law doesn’t include the right to own, carry or use firearms, and neither do other national constitutions (at least to my knowledge).

Gun rights have resulted in widespread gun ownership in the US (almost 200 million guns are in private hands, and according to the most recent Gallop poll 47% of Americans own a firearm). Which in turn has, according to many, an effect on violent crime in the US. Americans kill one another at a much higher rate than do residents of comparable western European nations, and they use firearms more frequently to do so (some countries in the developing world, and especially in Latin America have even higher murder rates in general and higher rates of gun deaths in particular). This gap with other western countries persists despite a roughly 40 percent drop in the US homicide rate in the last 15 years or so. It’s not hard to imagine the possibility of a causal link between these two facts about the US.

Of course, incidents such as the Colorado shooting occur in all countries and there’s probably no reason to assume that strict gun control and the limitation or abolition of gun rights would stop such incidents from happening. But the discussion we’re having is whether the freedom to possess firearms and the resulting massive ownership of firearms is likely to result in a larger number of firearm deaths. Intuitively, one would say yes. If there are more guns around, chances are higher that more of them will be used, and if more of them will be used, more of them will be used against people. There’s also some evidence that the presence of guns makes men more aggressive and hence more likely to use them.

Gun rights advocates point at a number of countervailing arguments. What about the argument that guns and gun rights can’t be blamed for murder rates because those rates have dropped sharply in the last decades while gun laws are far looser than they were twenty years ago? Well, I guess nobody claims that guns and gun rights are the only cause of high murder rates. More effective law enforcement, cultural changes etc. did reduce gun death rates and crime rates in general, but none of this proves that those rates wouldn’t have dropped even further if gun laws had been stricter. The fact that gun death rates remain high in the US even after the recent downward trend may indicate that guns are at least partly to blame for those rates.

And what about the deterrent effect? The argument is that more guns mean less crime. At first sight, that sounds convincing: when potential criminals know that there’s a high probability that their potential victims carry or possess guns, they may think twice before deciding to go ahead. Still, if this is true, then there must be something horribly wrong with the American psyche: if even a supposedly massive deterrent effect still produces crime rates that are higher than in other comparable countries that don’t have the same deterrent, then one shudders at the thought of what would happen when guns were to be removed from American society. I for one can’t accept that the American mind is like this.

Then there’s the old saying that guns don’t kill people, that people kill people, and that we shouldn’t obsess over inanimate pieces of metal. However, by the same logic we shouldn’t try to ban atomic weapons or biological weapons. True, banning weapons of any kind won’t do a lot to diminish humanity’s inherent tendency towards aggression (although it may do something – see the remarks above). Ultimately, aggression needs a cultural, educational and psychological revolution. But while we wait for that, it may not be a bad thing to take some of the tools of aggression away from the hands of some aggressors.

And finally, there’s this rather weird argument: liberal Americans who try to take away people’s guns alienate these people from liberal causes.

In 2010, I drove 11,000 miles around the United States talking to gun guys … and I met many working guys, including plumbers, parks workers, nurses—natural Democrats in any other age—who wouldn’t listen to anything the Democratic party has to say because of its institutional hostility to guns. I’d argue that we’ve sacrificed generations of progress on health care, women’s and workers’ rights, and climate change by reflexively returning, at times like these, to an ill-informed call to ban firearms. (source)

I guess I’m not the only one who finds this hard to believe. As if rural white men would suddenly vote Democratic and accept women’s rights and the lot if only we let them keep their firearms. Chances are that people who like firearms are the kind of people who also don’t like progressive or liberal causes. The claim that they won’t vote for politicians supporting those causes merely because those same politicians look like they want to impose gun control – and not because they simply don’t like those politicians – is rather too far-fetched for my taste.