23 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Impugning Punishment

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

Impugning Punishment

A couple wakes up from their shared bed in a beautifully decorated hotel-like room with windows over-looking the ocean. As they get up, they check their itenary for the day, which includes a visit to the massage parlor, the gym, a sauna, and a trip to the local museum. As they get ready for the day, they greet their neighbors walking by in the hallway outside their room, check the status of their e-business, and e-mail an application for parole to the parole board.

That's right; believe it or not, this scene is what the majority of prisons in Finland are like.

Thirty years ago, Finland became the first country to completely reverse its policy on handling citizens that broke the law. From its long-standing tradition of harsh punishment aimed at deterring crime dating to when Finland was still an apellate of the former Soviet Union, the people of Finland decided to switch tactics and follow one of the most liberal philosophies of justice in the world today.

In 1975, Finland passed its Sentences Enforcement Act, which stated in part that "the enforcement of sentence must be organized so that the sentence is only loss of liberty", and that "punishment shall be enforced so that it...promotes a prisoner's place in society." In addition, the Act stated that the conditions in prison must be similar to conditions in the rest of society. This dramatic turnaround changed Finland from one of the harshest to one of the most lenient of punitive systems.

But for the Finns, lightening the punishment of being in prison was not enough. They wanted to reduce their prison population dramatically.

So laws were enforced regulating how long offenders could spend in jail. Prisoners may be considered for parole after just fourteen days, and even those who violate parole and return to prison are eligble again after one month. And all first-time offenders are released after serving just half their sentences, with the rest let out after two-thirds.

But even more amazing is their policy of using fines in lieu of prison time. The vast majority of crimes which in the United States would result in a mandatory prison sentence are instead dealt with through a complex fine system which is based upon the offender's income.

In 2002, Anssa Vanjoki was forced to pay a fine of $165,000 -- for a speeding ticket. That's right; a speeding ticket. Doing 74 km/h (46mph) in a 50 km/h (31mph) zone doesn't seem like anything much -- after all, it's only 15 mph over the speed limit. But because Vanjoki is the multi-millionaire Vice President of the Nokia corporation, his fine was scaled to a sum that most would find outrageous. Yet the philosophy behind such scaled fines is one of equity; if a fine is imposed as a penalty, then the penalty should be equal under all who break the law. And whereas a $100 ticket might be a stiff penalty for someone of low income, for a multi-millionaire like Vanjoki, the only way to give a similar penalty is to increase the fine proportionally.

Some critics might think that all of this is nice in theory, but how does this kind of punishment affect the level of crime?

Before Finland's change, the state of the Finland law enforcement and prison system was similar to the St. Petersburg region in Russia. Their populations were similar, their law enforcement systems were simlar, they had similar crime rates, and their prison sentences were about the same. But today, whereas St. Petersburg employs 72,000 police officers, Finland gets by with only 8,500. Russian criminals are more likely to be punished with prison time, and their sentences are consistently far longer. Yet today Finland is much more safe: the murder rate in Russia is ten times that of Finland.

After thirty years of reform, crime rates are down. Repeat offenders are down, even for violent and sexual crimes. Finland's turnaround stance to rehabilitation rather than punishment worked, and the people of Finland are now blessed with one of the lowest rates of crime in the world.

(But please don't think Finland is by any means perfect in its dealings with criminals. Finland has compulsory service of citizens in its army, and has a habit of putting its own citizens in prison if they have conscientous objections to military work and are unwilling to work with any part of the Finnish armed services.)

It would be nice if other countries were to follow the Finns' example. But unfortunately, despite the mounting evidence that lighter punishment and a focus on rehabilitation actually helps to reduce crime, governments (and the people under them) have remained skeptical of such overly scientific theories.
To the Chinese, a common-sense approach of Striking Hard seems to obviously be much more effective, even though no scientific studies agree with the system.

Today, China kills more people than all other countries combined. The death penalty is imposed for murder, bank robbery, and even political corruption. There is no room for appeals; most executions come within days of the verdict.

The Chinese government calls this policy "Strike Hard". The philosophy is one of instilling fear -- those convicted are paraded in the streets before they are shot. And strangely, independent surveys continue to find that a large pecentage of the Chinese population actually supports these practices -- some reports find the approval rating of Strike Hard to be as much as 97%. But, if anything, crime has merely risen since the adoption of the Strike Hard policy.

Yet China is not alone in such practices. The United States has a history of severe punishment, which although psychological instead of physical, still ranks with many of China's unscientific policies.
The philosophy of justice in the United States is one of locking up criminals and forgetting about them.  It is a long-standing policy that has much support from the American people. This philosophy is most easily illustrated in the case of supermax prisons.

Pelican Bay is a supermax is prison on the coast of California. Inmates at Pelican Bay are kept locked in solitary cells for twenty-three hours a day. By law, they are required to receive one hour a day of exercise, but this is done indoors with only a chin-up bar and a track for running, and as always, the prisoner is left alone there. Prisoners never receive eye contact with each other. The only time they have human company is when they are searched for weapons.

Prisoners at Pelican Bay may not participate in work or in furthering education. TV and radios are prohibited. Books are allowed, but only if someone sends them a book -- no libraries are available. Showers are limited to ten minutes three times a week. There are no windows. The lights are left on 24 hours a day.

Misbehaving inmates are sometimes put into 'strip cells', with temperatures left at fifty degrees and only boxer shorts to wear, with no bedding; but if they're really unlucky, they are chained spread-eagle and naked to concrete beds.

Inmates regularly go mad in these prisons.

It should be noted that crime in the United States has continually risen for as long as data has been collected, and at a faster rate than every other industrialized nation except China.

But supermax institutions, as horrible as they may be, do not have much force when spoken of, because we are so very used to the idea. More apalling might be the case of the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America".

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, Arizona, has some pretty old-fashioned ideas of punishment. The jails he runs are specifically designed to break inmates through psychological torture -- but this is not a supermax, where only overly violent offenders are sent; this is the regular, everyday jail that the least offender in Phoenix is sent to when convicted.

Convicts work in chain gangs on the main streets of town, and sleep in tents despite the desert conditions. Recordings of Frank Sinatra are played twenty-four hours a day, and meals are served cold twice a day, consisting of bologna sandwiches day in and day out. Inmates are forced to wear pink underwear, and misbehaving inmates have to don pink handcuffs, too. Yet the cost of running Arpaio's jails are tremendous, costing millions in taxpayer money on settlements in court for overly severe conditions. And the crime rate has risen dramatically since the institution of Arpaio's tough jail policies.
But, to be fair to those who think such tough rules should follow the common-sense idea of lowering crime rates, it is possible that Phoenix's rising crime is more due to Arpaio's mismanagement of law-enforcement funds; recently, he spent massive taxpayer money on a publicity stunt rounding up prostitutes while twelve unsolved execution-style murders in the county remained unworked on the books.

But nothing said so far is quite so impressive as Japan. Japan has by far the lowest imprisonment rate in the developed world, and the lowest crime rate. The rate of armed robberies is a hundredth of the US rate.

The secret is that Japan uses shame as an alternative to jail, much like Finland uses fines. In Japan, for most crimes, one can get out of jail sentence by publicly apologizing to the offended, the offended's family, and the offender's own family. Communities are regularly visited by the local police, with at least two visits to each household twice a year -- not for inspections, but just as a reminder of how important law and order is in the Japanese community.

But when a prisoner does go to prison, conditions are harsh. Short, but harsh. The average sentence is only two years, even including violent crimes; but imprisonment includes such penalties as sitting for a week on one's knees for misbehaving. Leather belts and manacles are common, and inmates are marched for hours in parades around the city, forced to show their face to the society that they wronged.

I will leave you with words of wisdom from one of the most intelligent moral philosopher mathematicians that I know (in short, the closest thing to a hero that I have):
When a man is suffering from an infectious disease, he is a danger to the community, and it is necessary to restrict his liberty of movement. But no one associates any idea of guilt with such a situation. On the contrary, he is an object of commiseration to his friends. Such steps as science recommends are taken to cure him of his disease, and he submits as a rule without reluctance to the curtailment of liberty involved meanwhile. The same method in spirit ought to be shown in the treatment of what is called 'crime'.
- Bertrand Russell
Join me next week as I explore the wonderful world of shit. Yes, you heard me right: shit.

Be well.

(Sources for this article include MCSO.org, Arpaio.com, CNews, Amnesty International, Pelican Bay Prison, The Wall Street Journal, and special thanks to Galafilm's "To Kill or To Cure" for inspiration.)

16 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Tackling Hedonism Head-On

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

Though there are many things in this world that are worthy of attention, only one issue may be discussed first in this column. And rather than using this initial pulpit to discuss politics, or the environment, or the subjugation of non-human animals, I wish to bring up the one issue that most directly affects all of my readers, regardless of their cultural background. It is the single thread that binds all peoples and transcends boundaries of time, place, and happenstance. In the view of many, it is the most important issue that we may ever discuss, and as such, I feel justified in dedicating my first substantial article to the idea. This topic, debated even back during the pre-socratics, is on human happiness.

Human happiness, as it is intuitively understood, is the individual state that all humans aspire to, regardless of their views on life. Plato argued that individual human happiness comes only with leading the good life, which he described as being part of a well-functioning (i.e., happy) society. Aquinas argued that this good life came about only through being pat of the most perfect well-functioning society: the kingdom of god. Rand argued that the good life comes only from living 'separately' from society, focusing on the individual as the largest unit capable of human happiness. Aristotle said the good life has nothing to do with it; the only way to truly be happy is to philosophize with friends. But in all these vastly differing opinions, one constant remains: achieving human happiness is always considered as one of the most lofty of goals.

The most likely reason for placing such emphasis on hedonism is that it is the only measureable moral entity that we may observe. Some, like Kant, have seemingly argued against human happiness as the most important of issues; but a more sophisticated view of human happiness soon reveals that even categorical imperatives that apply even when against the desires of the individual go against them are in actuality hypothetical imperatives in disguise: if you agree to follow my normative views, then you will do such and such, even if you do not desire to do so. In effect, the categorical imperatives that I believe in are in reality the same as the hedonistic values that I follow most closely. All morality, in fact, can be understood as nothing more than hedonism, albeit sometimes a sophisticated form of hedonism that takes into account more than just one's present state of happiness.

I've used a lot of loaded philosophical terms so far, but even though I need them in order to be completely specific with my words, please understand that it is certainly not neccessary to consult a dictionary of philosophy in order to know what I am talking about. Essentially, human happiness is a concept that we may all talk about, and, indeed, that we all should discuss.

What is human happiness? Clearly, it is what pleases us. But the word 'pleasing' is not exact enough to capture the true meaning of human happiness. True happiness arises from many different sources; not just the pleasures of the flesh, but also of the mind. Aristotle counted receiving respect from one's peers and even personal attractiveness in the eyes of others as qualities that contribute to human happiness. Maybe not all of us achieve happiness in the same way; personally, I do not think I could truly be happy without sexual gratification, for example. But others might disagree. Some might be perfectly happy as social outcasts, or even in being complete morons. But regardless of how we each achieve happiness, the achieving of it is certainly one of the foremost issues that we may each have to deal with.

In the past few years, I've undergone a complete reversal in my personality and outlook on life. Activism has slowly grown to become an important part of my life, and spreading my own emotive views on normative judgments has become something of a personal quest. It is, in effect, my method of achieving human happines. Nevertheless, I have retained my strict philosophical viewpoint in dealing with such issues, and as such have been forced to reconcile with the fact that there is no particular reason why my personal brand of morality should apply to any other.

Retaining a responsible philosophical attitude while trying to get others to agree with my own moral beliefs is hard on my psyche, and ultimately damaging to my own happiness. But I cannot pretend that I know best when others could just as easily know better. Ultimately, my happiness would only be undermined if I were to ignore the philosophical examination that I by now am so used to participating in.

In the end, we're all hedonists. We have to be; there is no other moral-like property that we can observe.  I personally believe that humans can never be happy unless nonhuman animals are justly treated. As much as I may wish this to be a categorical imperative, in the end, it is merely how I feel. And I must recognize the same for others.

How another feels life should be (the culmination of which would be their own personal happiness high point) is no better nor worse than my own, at least as far as can be observed. Whether it is Bush further entangling the federal government, big business, and the Christian right; or Plato sacrificing the wants and desires of the philosopher king for the good of the republic; or even the small business owner taking advantage of each employee, client, and supplier because the capitalistic system allows him no better alternative to succeed, the moral views (and thus the personal human happiness) of every being is no more nor less likely to be better nor worse of any other.

Human happiness is a laudable subject. But there is no way of determining which person's views on human happpiness we should follow, not even our own. But the one thing we do know is that in the end, it all is nothing more than hedonism. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do, try to do what would be best for you. In the end, that is all we can do.

Until next week, where I will discuss the role of punishment in society, I bid you all adieu. Be well.

02 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Coming to New Beliefs

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

The question of morality is always a sticky one. What is or is not considered to be ethical changes with each person you ask. Nevertheless, it is clear that the vast majority of human beings agree on a few so-called 'basic' moral judgments, such as the undesirability of killing one's own family without any professed provocation. Why there is agreement on such matters is not entirely clear. Some would say it is a product of evolution, while others would use it as evidence of a defensible moral standard. Bur regardless of how one views the evidence, it cannot be denied that such widespread agreement on some moral judgments does in fact exist, and it is the job of the ethicist to attempt a determination of what exactly these moral judgments may be reduced to.

It is in this spirit that my column is dedicated. Not because I wish to impose my own normative claims upon the world at large, but because what is most worthy of attention in this world of ours is to take stock of reality itself, which we all too often gloss over; and morality is by far the most important of all glossed-over ideas. After all, addressing moral issues, even if it is just in determining whether or not normative claims exist, is the pre-eminent ideal that comes before all else, even the concept of god. As Plato so astutely pointed out, if one places god above morality, then whatever god happens to consider good would be okay. Since we would not follow a god whose morality differs wildly from our own, then we must consider morality to be even above god.

The thing about morality, however, is that (assuming a sufficient level of sophistication) no matter how hard one tries, no one can ever change what you may or may not consider moral, unless they do so with social brainwashing (such as school, parenting, or the like). Certainly, I in particular cannot affect (or effect, for that matter) your normative standards merely by employng argument. Indeed, it takes something considerably more theistic in nature in order to manage another's views on ethics.

Nevertheless, by starting with the preconceptions and prejudices on morality one already has, along with an ideal of logical consistency, I can use 'mere' argument to force one into a logical contradiction that may only be resolved by 'working out' one's own moral system, and perhaps realizing that what they believed all along means something that they had never fully comprehended it to mean at all.

Effecting change in this manner is not an ability that only I possess. We all have the capacity to argue out of a logical inconsistency, and improve one's vantage point of morality in the process. In fact, if normative standards do exist, then it is of paramount importance that we educate both ourselves and others to the existence of such a moral standard -- so not only do we all have this capacity for introspection, but it is right and just for us to employ that ability at every opportunity.

In future editions of this column, I will be showing much of what is worthy of attention, yet goes unnoticed by so many. I will be taking stock of reality itself, and showing how the reality of the world you and I live in does not always jibe with the moral standard each of us claims to possess.

In the meantime, may we all look closer to our prime beliefs, and act accordingly each day that we live our lives.

Be well.