Time and Punishment

Author : Armand Vespertine

An article by Rebecca Roache has gained some notoriety among futurist circles recently. In this article Roache speculates on how anticipated technologies like life extension, mind uploading and Human modification might be used to punish criminals. The main source of controversy has been that the tone of the original article made it seem that Roache was in favour of using advanced technology to torture prisoners in ways that were never before possible. Roache has since insisted that the article is merely speculation and that she does not necessarily support any of the penal methods she discusses.

Regardless of Roache’s intent, I believe that the outrage the article has provoked is not misplaced. Transhumanists, at least of the Kurzweil variety, tend to be a rather Utopian lot. They generally assume that future technology will only be used for good, and that that good will be equally distributed. They often fail to seriously consider all of the ways future technology might be abused or misused, and the profound and prolific misery that would result.

Any serious discussion about the future of technology must consider the risks and abuses of that technology so that we may better protect ourselves from such dangers. Technology is and always has been a double edged sword, and refusing to acknowledge that reality only puts us in peril.

Roache first discusses life extension being used as a punishment in and of itself. I seriously doubt any society where life extension was a privilege would ever use public resources to imbue its most heinous criminals with immortality. That’s insane on the face of it. But assume for a minute a future society where indefinite life extension was not only possible but inclusive in Universal Healthcare. If immortality is a right of every citizen, does the state ever have the right to deny it to criminals? Would allowing criminals to age and die of natural causes constitute an execution?

Most countries in the developed world, with one major and obvious exception, have eliminated the death penalty. Cruel and unusual punishments are typically viewed as barbaric, and I would hope future societies share these values. In an age where life extension is a Human right, allowing a criminal to age by denying them their proverbial golden apples would likely be comparable to starving them death. Even if they do practice capital punishment, old age would likely be considered far too inhumane as a means of execution.

But if they don’t execute major offenders, then the question remains what is to be done with them? I agree that imprisoning immortals for a few decades seems inadequate, but imprisoning them for eternity seems harsh and impractical. In a world with indefinite life extension, I think the very concept of prison needs to be rethought. As Roache points out in her article, the moral values we hold sacred require that prisoners have a certain standard of living that can sometimes be higher than that which they inflicted upon their victims. Since prisoners are not tortured or even really deprived, their only real punishment can be said to be their loss of freedom. I’m sure that any red blooded American who holds freedom as their most cherished value would indeed consider the loss of freedom to be a severe punishment. In actuality however I expect that mere incarceration is minor compared to the plethora of gruesome tortures that could theoretically be inflicted on someone.

Since our prison system can hardly be considered retributive, what then is its main purpose? I would say that the purpose of prisons is to segregate dangerous individuals from the general population to ensure they do not harm or kill innocent people. I believe that rehabilitation would be a far more cost effective strategy of preventing crimes than keeping immortal criminals incarcerated indefinitely.

As our understanding of Human biology and psychology increases, it is becoming more and more obvious that criminals often suffer from some sort of defect, most often a lack of empathy or impulse control. When medical science advances to the point that indefinite life extension is a reality, it should also be possible to correct the faulty biology that would incline an individual towards criminal behaviour.

I do presume that government mandated body modification will be controversial, just as chemical castration of sex offenders is today. Nevertheless, I believe that many criminals themselves would prefer rehabilitation over being locked up for eternity. Public officials would certainly favour it since it would be so much cheaper.

For those of you who believe in retributive justice, that criminals must suffer in proportionality to the suffering they caused, ask yourselves if that’s really the best use of your taxes. Public funds should be put to the most efficient use possible. Why should criminals be incarcerated at the public’s expense when they can be rehabilitated and then sentenced to community service to recoup the cost of their treatment? Restorative justice is not only more humane and compassionate than retributive justice, it’s cheaper. I also believe rehabilitation would be safer in the long run. If an immortal is to be kept in prison indefinitely, then he is statistically likely to escape at some point during the centuries, eager for revenge.


But Roache brings up an alternative to physical incarceration in her article. She proposes using mind uploading, or simply tampering with the brain directly, to subject criminals to virtual prisons and distort the passage of time. Brief incarcerations could be made to feel like centuries. In this instance I must object to retributive justice not on practical grounds, but on moral ones.

I believe in objective morality, that you should treat others as you would have them treat you and that anything that violates this tenet is immoral. Murderers do not wish to be murdered, rapists don’t want to be raped, thieves don’t like being stolen from and slave owners are glad they’re not slaves. Empathy is thus key to moral behaviour, as is mercy. Revenge is wrong because the perpetrator of the original crime is denied mercy. If you did something wrong, you would like to be shown mercy.

What Roache is suggesting is ‘an eye for an eye’ type of penal system. I firmly believe that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Inflicting suffering upon a criminal in no way alleviates the suffering of their victims. You cannot undo suffering by causing suffering. Taking vengeance on wrong doers does not undo their crimes. The type of involuntary modifications Roache is suggesting would be a severe infringement on an individual’s self-autonomy and should be considered a Human right’s violation. On that principle alone it should be considered unacceptable, even for our worst criminals. No one should be sentenced to an eternity in virtual Hell.

The question still remains what is to be done with dangerous criminals who cannot be reformed. If it is ethically impermissible to deny them immortality or exile them to a virtual hell, yet impractical and risky to keep them incarcerated forever, what then should we do? It’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer. There is no Utopian solution here, for there are no criminals in Utopia .Often in reality the best we can do is choose the lesser of two evils.

I will not say definitively what form of punishment is the lesser evil, but I will say that a compassionate justice system should always strive for the lesser evil. We should try to heal the damage caused by crime, not deal out an equal amount of damage in recompense. If a person must be incarcerated for any length of time for the public good, they should not be made to suffer. If we treat our criminals like monsters, then both of us will only become more monstrous. But if we show them compassion, mercy, and love, then we might just end up with a few less monsters.

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  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think
    I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me.
    I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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