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.

Types of Human Rights Violations (8): Active and Passive Violations

You can violate someone’s rights, or you can let violations occur. You can kill, or you can let someone die. Someone’s rights are violated either because you did something, or because you didn’t do something; either because of what you did, or because you refrained from doing something; either because you acted, or because you omitted certain actions; either because you caused this violation, or because you allowed this violation to happen.

All these phrases say the same thing: you either actively or passively violate someone’s rights. I agree that these are two distinct types of rights violations. The distinction is similar to the distinction between negative and positive duties. Active rights violations imply a negative duty to forbear or refrain from doing what would otherwise cause a rights violation; passive rights violations imply a positive duty to do something so that a rights violation does not occur.

The distinction is often understood as entailing different levels of moral blameworthiness, but I think this can be misleading. In criminal law, for example, the punishment for killing is often more severe than the punishment for letting someone die. However, the difference in blameworthiness is hard to see in many cases. Take the following example: one man A poisons his wife B, and another man C fails to take his wife D, who has taken poison by accident, to the hospital. (I’m stealing this example from Jonathan Bennett). If this is all the information we have, I guess many of us would not say that C is less blameworthy than A. Letting die is equivalent to killing, at least in this case.

When people argue for a moral difference between committing and omitting, it’s not the difference between types of actions – positive/negative, causing/allowing etc. – that counts, but intention. A probably had the intention of killing, while C may simply have been confused or in panic. If we attribute the same intention to both A and C – A gives the poison to B because he hates her, and C fails to take D to the hospital because he hates her and profits from the occasion – then the difference between the cases disappears, as does the difference in blameworthiness – and the difference between active and passive violations.

Arguments for a difference between committing and omitting can be based on intention, but then it’s intention that makes the difference, not the types of actions. After all, A may have poisoned B unintentionally, while C may have intentionally refrained from assisting D. The distinction between types of actions – positive and negative – doesn’t therefore seem to carry much weight.

Perhaps it can be rescued by looking at the cost element. Active violations are often judged more immoral than passive violations because it’s generally easier and less costly to refrain from acting than it is to help. Hence, failure to refrain – i.e. actively doing something – is more blameworthy than failure to help – i.e. remaining passive. And yet, this is not always true. Let’s take the same example and modify it a bit. If A poisons B and wants to do this, and C involuntarily fails to help D who’s taken poison accidentally, then it’s true that A is more blameworthy than C: A could have easily refrained from giving B the poison, whereas C would have had to overcome his panic, carry D down the stairs, drag her into his car etc. C may even be forgiven altogether for his failure to help. However, what if A killed B because B had threatened to kill his mother, and C let D die because he hated her? The cost to A of refraining would have been very high, higher than the cost to C of not letting D die.

Again, like in the case of intention, cost can be used to differentiate blame, but it’s cost and not type of action that differentiates.

To conclude: the distinction between active and passive types of rights violations is real, but one should be careful when attaching different levels of blameworthiness to these types.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (53): Some Problems With Theories of Justice That Are Based on Desert

Some theories of justice claim that justice is mainly about giving people (or letting people keep) what they deserve. These theories are opposed to other types of theories about justice, such as those that claim

  • that people should have what they are entitled to have (or have a right to have)
  • that people should have equal shares (of goods, opportunities, luck etc.)
  • or that people’s outcomes should be distributed so as to produce the best aggregate outcome (as in utilitarianism).

These distinctions aren’t always as clear as that, and one could argue that deserving behavior generally maximizes the utility of aggregate outcomes or that people deserve equal shares or equal rights. However, the goal of desert based theories is usually to argue in favor of some form of inequality. Usually this is inequality of wealth, income or financial compensation for effort and success, but it can also be inequality of praise, punishment, positions, admiration etc. I’ll focus here on desert based theories of justice that argue that justice requires inequality of wealth.

Take a look at this quote:

When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six; he of course finds himself miserably distressed. He accuses the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a family. He accuses his parish for their tardy and sparing fulfillment of their obligation to assist him. He accuses the avarice of the rich, who suffer him to want what they can so well spare. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society, which have awarded him an inadequate share of the produce of the earth. He accuses perhaps the dispensations of providence, which have assigned him a place in society so beset with unavoidable distress and dependence. In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which his misfortunes originate. The last person that he would think of accusing is himself, on whom in fact the principal blame lies, except so far as he has been deceived by the higher classes of society. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population

Ideas like these have become somewhat unfashionable, but the basic idea of desert is still very powerful. Many of us accept that inequality of wealth or income is to some and perhaps even a large extent the result of effort, and that justice requires that we respect the results of deserving actions. We also believe that it is wrong to reward laziness or willfully bad decisions. Hence, there are some powerful and widely shared intuitions that makes desert theories rather appealing. Equality based theories that do not provide space for desert seem to be bound to reward laziness rather than effort. And because they reward laziness they create incentives to settle in it. As a result, one runs the risk of creating a permanent and quite large “parasite” class that lives off the efforts of the deserving elements of society. That seems unjust to those deserving elements, but also to those who are undeserving since the latter are not really given an incentive to be deserving: if they are compensated for their laziness and bad decisions, then they are never encouraged to work and decide rationally, and in a sense they are therefore treated unfairly as well.

Apart from this moral or even moralistic objection to theories that don’t make room for desert, there’s the economic argument that they can’t provide stable prosperity. Not only is there a non-productive underclass in an economy without unequal rewards for desert, but the productive class will not put up very long with what it sees as unfair transfers from its productive surplus to others who don’t deserve those transfers (which is the basis of the “going Galt” mythology). This rejection may even lead some to the conclusion that transfers are bad in general, including transfers to the so-called deserving poor (those who don’t have themselves to blame for their poverty). However, things may even get worse than that: rather than rebel against transfers to the undeserving (or deserving) poor, people will stop being productive in the first place because absent rewards for productivity they no longer have an incentive to produce. It’s obvious that prosperity will be impossible under those circumstances, as will – a fortiori – egalitarian transfers of prosperity. So it seems that egalitarian theories of justice are economically self-defeating if they don’t temper their egalitarianism with desert-based concerns.

All this would seem to make it very hard to argue against desert based justice, but that’s not really the case. However appealing the notion of desert, it has its own problems:

  • First, desert based theories seem to be too unforgiving. A small lapse in effort in your youth may have disastrous long-term consequences. An intuition that’s equally strong as the one in favor of desert says that it’s not fair to make people suffer decades after a youthful error.
  • Also, desert based theories are sometimes excessively cruel. Imagine a person starving to death because of her lack of effort and desert: does this person not have a legitimate claim to assistance, despite her irresponsible actions? Does anyone really deserve to starve to death, even if it’s completely and utterly her own fault? But if not, then desert is not sufficient as a criterion of justice and some egalitarian rules have to come in (for instance a rule based on the equal right not to starve to death). Purely desert based theories of justice have some hard bullets to bite.
  • And they also run the risk of promoting big government: if we have to reward desert and avoid transfers to the undeserving, then the government has to determine who is who. In other words, the government has to monitor people’s efforts and decisions in order to see whether their poverty is really undeserved and whether transfers are in order. That can’t be anything but very intrusive. Moreover, it’s probably going to be a failure since the information requirements are huge and difficult to meet.
  • And even if we would accept such an intrusive government for the sake of desert, we would still be left with some very hard decisions. Take the case of someone who is systematically unable to find a decent job. Suppose we can determine that she is indeed not very industrious in her search (we have records about her activities). Is that enough to claim that she is undeserving and therefore not entitled to transfers? Maybe her lack of effort is not really her free and conscious choice but the result of her upbringing, of long-term employment discrimination against people of her color, of some unknown genetic deficiency, of alcoholism developed during childhood etc. How are we to know?
  • Of course, we can confidently determine desert in some cases. Poor children and the severely handicapped almost certainly don’t deserve their predicament and no amount of effort will allow them to help themselves. But we tend to overstate our ability to detect desert. We’re usually too quick to blame and praise. And we’re eager to withhold assistance for people who we believe don’t deserve help but whose lack of desert is only apparent because we lack detailed information about those people’s biographies and endowments. Likewise we’re eager to compensate people whom we admire but whose accomplishments are only apparently the result of their own efforts (after all, not even the greatest genius can do anything without a tight web of support, including infrastructure, national defense etc.). Desert based theories of justice and the practices that they inspire are insufficiently attentive to biographies and to natural and social endowments (or a lack thereof), partly because we rarely have full knowledge of those biographies and endowments. Of course, we can err in the opposite direction and put too much emphasis on endowments, in which case we lapse into determinism. Choices matter, and therefore desert matters as well. The point is simply that desert is often very difficult to determine, and acting on the basis of uncertain desert can be harmful, especially if goods, punishments etc. are distributed accordingly.
  • Suppose we are able to know, in general and not exceptionally, who is or is not deserving. Then we still face the fact that we somehow have to decide which activities and pursuits are deserving, and there as well we can err. There’s a notion called “marketable skills”. What if someone’s skills are not marketable (maybe someone is a philosopher)? That person may be very deserving and may invest enormous effort in her pursuits, but is still living on the brink of starvation. If her pursuits are correctly viewed as undeserving or perhaps even immoral by society, then she won’t have a legitimate claim to transfers. But what if we are wrong? What if we should reward the pursuit but don’t? And I don’t have to show that we are regularly mistaken in the way in which we differentiate between deserving and non-deserving or less-deserving activities. Just look here. Proponents of desert based theories of justice might answer that we should simply be careful and thorough when determining which pursuits and outcomes are deserving or not. But that won’t solve the problem because there’s likely to be permanent controversy about the nature of deserving pursuits and outcomes. People with different worldviews will have different ideas about desert.

More about desert here (and more about overpopulation here). More posts in this series are here.