Bertrand Russell On Deterrence By Making ‘Freedom More Pleasant’

In ‘What I Believe,’ an essay whose content–selectively quoted–was instrumental in him having his appointment at the City College of New York revoked¹, Bertrand Russell wrote:

One other respect in which our society suffers from the theological conception of ‘sin’ is the treatment of criminals. The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support….The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective….the prevention of crime and the punishment of crime are two different questions; the object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent. If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present.

Russell was a logician, so he cannot resist making a simple logical point here: if you want prison to represent an uncomfortable alternative to ‘the world outside’ that constitutes an effective deterrent to crime, you have two choices: make prison conditions much worse, or make the state of ‘the world outside’ much better. Our reactions to the world we encounter rely on contrasts and conditioning; it took a princess used to the utter luxury of royal palaces to find the pea under the pile of mattresses unbearable; the parched wanderer in the desert finds the brackish water of a dusty oasis the sweetest nectar of all. It is not inconceivable that many who are used to endemic and grinding poverty, hunger, and violence might find prison not such a bad alternative, and find that its supposed terrors, when viewed from afar, are entirely lacking in deterrent effect. (That sad old saw about criminals committing crimes in order to get three square meals and a roof over their heads perhaps bears repeating here.)

Unsurprisingly, the vindictive and retributive mentality of societies informed at heart by the “theological conception of ‘sin’,” entirely unconcerned with the actual and effective amelioration of social ills, chooses the former of the options listed above. Moreover, the emphasis on retribution acts as a powerful distraction from clear thinking on what might have made criminals act the way they did–perhaps if ‘the world outside’ were improved, some of the causal chains leading to the commission of crime could be disrupted.

Note 1: The details of this shameful scandal and its gross violation of academic freedom  are still worth reading after all these years (especially because, as the Steven Salaita affair reminds us, academic freedom remains under assault.) Paul Edwards‘ ‘Appendix’ in Why I Am Not A Christian (Allen and Unwin, New York, 1957) contains the sordid and infuriating details. Edwards’ essay is in turn based on The Bertrand Russell Case (eds. Horace Kallen and John Dewey, Viking Press, 1941).

Waiting for Jury Duty: Crowd Observation Notes

A curious fact about the crowd enduring the interminably long wait to be called for jury duty selection  at Brooklyn’s State Supreme Court building today was how its interactions slowly began to resemble those of passengers on an airliner stranded on an airport tarmac.

Before lunch, some folks had already dozed off (I had taken a nap myself thanks to a 0530 AM rising induced by my daughter’s wails); many others sported the ubiquitous pair of headphones (tinny notes of hip-hop, metal and dance music could be heard issuing from these);  some had laptops open on their, er, laps, and indulged in either entertainment or work; some played cards; and yet others read newspapers, books, and magazines.

It was a garden variety crowd in waiting; patient, occupied,  indulgent of the judicial system’s call on them to perform their civic duty. (The orientation video, though hokey in many ways, was also curiously moving in its sincerity.)

But after lunch, despite having sought and procured nourishment qualitatively and quantitatively better than that available on the floor’s vending machines, the mood was more disgruntled. Some, like me, wondered whether we’d be called for a second day of waiting (this query was loudly answered with indignant “No way!”s); some muttered about the wages lost for the day and refused to find solace in the news that they would be paid $40 per day of jury duty;  some veterans were telling war stories of much longer waits ‘back in the day’; one young man struck up a conversation with the young woman sitting next to him and seemed to be keeping her reasonably well entertained with his quip-a-minute manners. Little groups had started to form; boredom and exhaustion was writ large on most faces, threatening to turn at any time into full-blown irritation.

One gentleman paced about, complaining about how he had exhausted the bag of tricks he had bought with himself to keep himself entertained; his work was taken care of and he had finished reading his book. On hearing this, a young woman spoke up, “I can loan you a book to read if you want.” Our hero was suitably responsive, “Sure, what kind is it?” The young woman almost giggled, “Do you like Shakespeare? I have Romeo and Juliet if you want.” A little nonplussed, the seeker of  diversions quickly recovered, “Sure, what the heck, hand it over. I’ll give it a read.” The young woman beamed, reached into her bag, and did so.

An hour or so later, the master of ceremonies for the day walked out, pulled the microphone to her and wished everyone a good afternoon. The waiting throng answered in unison; it was like being back in grade school. When she made the announcement that we could go home, that we had fulfilled our jury duty service requirement for the next eight years, a loud cheer broke out.

A few minutes later, I had left the courthouse, my certificate of service secure in my backpack; my civic duties were done for the time being.

Childcare duties still remained, but at that moment, they seemed considerably less tedious.

Anders Behring Breivik: An Argument Against The Death Penalty

Anders Behring Breivik has complicated matters for us. Most killers like him are not brought to justice; they kill themselves or are killed in the fracas following their murders. They do not create the opportunities that Breivik has created for us to think about appropriate punishments for those accused of heinous crimes. Breivik is now on the stand, equipped with a megaphone with which to articulate his homicidal world view. And one prominent reaction–at least in the US–to the cold-blooded pronouncements of this racist mass-killer is, ‘If anyone deserves the chair (or the injection or whatever) it’s this guy’.

But I think Breivik provides us with a very good argument against the death penalty. (Norway does not have the death penalty; it is unclear at this point what the maximum sentence for Brevik could be.)

Breivik committed his murders in the service of an ideology: quite simply, he was killing on the basis of principle. These principles had as their consequence the conclusion that some people deserved to die, that their actions–or intellectual subscriptions–made them unworthy of living. The death penalty functions in much the same way: We take retribution, we seek to deter, we ensure the killer does not kill again. No matter what the motivation, the killer has died for his actions. And in order to make this happen, a massive, often opaque, expensive, and cumbersome machinery of policing and law swings into action; the state deploys its considerable energies and monies to make this come about. But in doing so, the state and its criminal justice resembles nothing quite as much as it does the killers that it puts to death. For in so acting, the state has acted to instantiate some ideology or the other: perhaps that of retribution, perhaps that of a theory of deterrence growing out our criminological theorizing. The death penalty is these ideologies put into effect and brought to bear on some human being.

The law makes distinctions in its reckonings of homicide by distinguishing the premeditated murder from the crime of passion, by distinguishing conspiracy from second-degree murder. It is the deliberateness of the killing that makes the conspiratorial or premeditated murder more punishment-worthy. In carrying out the death penalty, the state and its people engage in an act of pre-meditated killing, carried out for a purpose, to make a point. We can dress it up in retribution or deterrence but it remains premeditated killing. (Declarations of war lead to mass murders too.)

So send Breivik to jail; lock him up; prevent him from impinging on the freedoms of others; don’t let him interrupt the lives of others, or disrupt the projects that people have made for themselves; study him in a pyschiatric ward if needed in order to understand how this mind works; but stay away from the business of ‘putting to death’. The moment that step is taken, the state and Breivik land up in the same docket: they are both guilty of taking deadly action on behalf of an argument, of killing for the sake of principle.