Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, March 14, 2014

the position of power

In this interview, the philosopher Rebecca Roache speculates about the future of punishment:

It’s one thing to lose your personal liberty as a result of being confined in a prison, but you are still allowed to believe whatever you want while you are in there. In the UK, for instance, you cannot withhold religious manuscripts from a prisoner unless you have a very good reason. These concerns about autonomy become particularly potent when you start talking about brain implants that could potentially control behaviour directly. The classic example is Robert G Heath [a psychiatrist at Tulane University in New Orleans], who did this famously creepy experiment [in the 1950s] using electrodes in the brain in an attempt to modify behaviour in people who were prone to violent psychosis. The electrodes were ostensibly being used to treat the patients, but he was also, rather gleefully, trying to move them in a socially approved direction. You can really see that in his infamous [1972] paper on ‘curing’ homosexuals. I think most Western societies would say ‘no thanks’ to that kind of punishment.

To me, these questions about technology are interesting because they force us to rethink the truisms we currently hold about punishment. When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us. And more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether punishments like imprisonment are only considered humane because they are familiar, because we’ve all grown up in a world where imprisonment is what happens to people who commit crimes. Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set them free? When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments – the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future.

To me, the key to these speculations may be found in one word in the first sentence quoted: “allowed.” To speak of prisoners as “allowed to believe whatever [they] want” while in prison is to speak of human thought as the rightful property of the State, which it may then entrust to us — but may also withhold from us if there is, as when withholding religious texts, “a very good reason.”

Understand: I am not saying that Roache is simply advocating thought control as a means of punishment or rehabilitation of lawbreakers. I am, rather, noting that her language crosses a vitally important line — the line that separates two radically different ideas about whom or what human personhood belongs to — without her demonstrating any awareness whatsoever that she has done so. It is natural and normal to her to talk as though states can do what they want with human minds and simply must decide what would work best — what would have the optimal social effects. (This is yet another mode of rationalism in politics.)

There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?

This is the danger for all of us who have some wealth and security and status: to imagine that the punitive shoe will always be on the other’s foot. In these matters it might be a useful moral discipline for philosophers to read the great classics of dystopian fiction, which habitually envision the world of power as seen by the powerless.