28 August 2007

How to overcome "bias"

To deter crime, why does the state not consider amputation as a form of punishment?

In many situations it would be better to impose a punishment of amputation than imprisonment. The fact that the U.S. justice system rejects amputation as a punishment is the result of an anti-amputation bias.

Amputation has two benefits over imprisonment. It’s cheaper for the state to impose and it doesn’t prevent the criminal from engaging in useful labors (such as parenting and working at a job) for long periods of time. To determine who should be amputated as opposed to imprisoned we need to consider the benefits to society.

Prison serves three purposes: deterrence, retribution and incapacitation. Fear of prison deters many would-be criminals from committing crimes. Fear of amputation, however, could do likewise. Imprisoning criminals can satisfy victims’ desires for vengeance and so make victims feel better. Amputating criminals’ limbs could, however, also satisfy victims’ desires for retribution. Finally, prison prevents imprisoned criminals from attacking people who are not in prison. The primary disadvantage of amputation is that it doesn’t result in the full incapacitation of criminals and so leaves them free to strike again.

Many convicted criminals, however, don’t pose a risk to society. Men convicted of securities fraud, for example, are frequently barred from the stock market and so their freedom won’t endanger society. Because of its far lower cost, the U.S. should amputate rather than imprison white-collar criminals.

Some would argue that it’s excessively cruel to amputate. But both prison and amputation impose costs on criminals. Why is one type of cost crueler than the other? If a convicted criminal is indifferent between receiving a certain type of amputation or being imprisoned for a given period of time then why would it be excessively cruel to amputate but not to imprison?

In the U.S. many prisoners face a significant chance of being raped by a fellow inmate. This high chance doesn’t seem to bother many people, and is often the subject of jokes. Yet our society considers it barbaric for a criminal justice system to amputate the limbs of criminals in ways that may well impose less physical and emotional costs than rape does. I find these conflicting moral views about amputation and imprisonment to be irrational.
(With apologies to James Miller.)

I am reminded of what I wrote here:

"Now then, let's consider the idea that it's okay to torture people if we suspect them of having information about criminal activities. While this may seem attractive and reasonable at first sight, I would personally argue that ... bla bla bla."

But really — that was meant to be ironic.