Signaling Fairness with Altruistic Punishment

Maintaining the Rules of Fairness with Signaling and Altruistic Punishment

Society is held together by many unspoken rules of fairness, and maintaining rules of fairness is messy but rewarding work. We don’t just advocate for fairness in our own lives, but will go out of our way to call out unfairness when we see it hampering the lives of others. We will protest, march in the streets, and post outraged messages on social media to call out the unfairness we see in the world, even if we are not directly affected by it or even stand to gain by an unfair status quo.

 

Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares some research studying our efforts to maintain the rules of fairness and why we are so drawn to it. He writes, “Remarkably, altruistic punishment is accompanied by increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain. It appears that maintaining the social order and the rules of fairness in this fashion is its own reward.”

 

This idea reminds me of Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain, where Hanson suggests a staggering amount of human behavior is little more than signaling. Much of what we do is not about the high-minded rational that we attach to our actions. Much of what we do is about something else, and our stated rationales are little more than pretext and excuses. Altruistic punishment, or going out of our way to inflicting some sort of punishment (verbal reprimands, loss of a job, or imprisonment) is not necessarily about the person who was treated unfairly or the person who was being unfair to others. It is quite plausibly more about our own pleasure, and about the maintenance or establishment of a social order that we presumably will benefit from, and about signaling to the rest of society that are someone who believes in the rules and will adhere to strict moral principles.

 

Troublingly, Kahneman continues, “Altruistic punishment could well be the glue that holds societies together. However, our brains are not designed to reward generosity as reliably as they punish meanness. Here again, we find a marked asymmetry between losses and gains.”

 

The second part of Kahneman’s quote is referring to biases in our mental thinking, connecting our meanness or niceness toward others with our tendency toward loss aversion. Losses have a bigger mental impact on us than gains. We might not be consciously aware of this, but our actions – our willingness to inflict losses on others and our reluctance to endow gains on others – seems to reflect this mental bias. We are creating social order by threatening others with loss of social standing at all times, but only with minimal hope of gaining and improving social standing. Going back to the Hansonian framework from earlier, this makes sense. A gain in social status for another person is to some extent a loss to ourselves. Maintaining the social order involves maintaining or improving our relative social position. Tearing someone down signals to our allies that we are a valuable team member fighting on the right side, but lifting someone else up only diminishes our relative standing to them (unless they are the leader who we want to signal our alliance with). Kahneman’s quote, when viewed through Robin Hanson’s perspective, is quite troubling for how our social order is built and maintained.
Shifting Away From The Drug War

Shifting Away from the Drug War

In the context of supporting the war on drugs, Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, describes most people as, “admirable people who have a series of understandable worries about the alternative. They support the drug war out of compassion for all the people they fear might become victims if we relaxed the laws. They are good people. They are acting out of decency.”

 

However, Hari believes that support for the drug war is actually more costly in the long run, and damages the lives of those who use drugs to an unreasonable extent. In the book, Hari looks at recreational drug users who don’t develop addictions and don’t generally cause a lot of harms through drug use. He compares these individuals to those who do develop addictions, and who contribute to crime and public health problems as a result of their drug dependencies. A key difference between the groups is that many of the people who develop addictions also have severe trauma in their lives. They are often isolated, have had adverse childhood experiences, and are suffering from physical or psychological pain without a supportive community to aid them. Not all harmless recreational drug users are free from pain and trauma, and not all addicts have a traumatic past, but the frequency of past trauma and ongoing psychological pain is a substantial difference between the two groups. Punishment and making life harder for drug addicts who have experienced pain hurts them and makes it more likely they will feel stuck and isolated, with no alternatives to alleviate their suffering besides the temporary relief of continued drug use.

 

The idea of punishment for drug use makes sense when we think about recreational drug users who we want to prevent from causing problems as a result of drug use. But those individuals, aside from contributing to an illicit economy, are not  contributing to the major drug use problems that we see. We can see this in our alcohol policy. Responsible recreational drinkers are not problems, but people who either have trouble consuming alcohol responsibly or simply chose not to consumer responsibly (perhaps college binge drinkers fit in both categories) do create problems for the rest of us. Helping an alcoholic is often understood as helping them develop a safe social setting where they can avoid alcohol or use it responsibly with people who understand their addiction and/or other alcohol challenges.

 

At another point, Hari writes, “We all want to protect children from drugs. We all want to keep people from dying as a result of drug use. We all want to reduce addiction. And now the evidence strongly suggests that when we move beyond the drug war, we will be able to achieve those shared goals with much greater success.” Moving beyond the drug war means that we will develop real, meaningful treatments and supports for drug addicts. It means we can have safe, legal drugs that people can use in supervised settings. It means that people with a history of drug use won’t be barred from ever finding even the most menial of jobs, and will be able to reintegrate back into society, rather than being forced out into situations where continued drug use is almost inevitable. Our approach to drug policy via the drug war has had disastrous consequences, and Hari encourages us to reconsider the path we are on.
Punishment Versus Compassion

Punishment Versus Compassion

An idea that Johann Hari explores in his book Chasing The Scream is that people with drug addiction need family and community support to get through their addiction, not punishment and castigation. Throughout the book Hari asks why people develop addictions, what do people do when they successfully get past an addiction, and what structures and systems work against recovery?

 

Early in the book Hari references a conversation he had with pastor and civil rights activist Eugene Callender about singer Billie Holliday. Hari writes, “Callender had built a clinic for heroin addicts in his church, and he pleaded for Billie to be allowed to go there to be nursed back to health. His reasoning was simple, he told me in 2013: addicts, he said, are human beings, just like you and me. Punishment makes them sicker; compassion can make them well.”

 

Hari argues that community is the cure for drug addiction. He sees drug addiction as a consequence of trauma, pain, depression, adverse experiences, and a loss of a sense of togetherness. When people are isolated and don’t truly feel as though they are part of a larger community where they belong and where their lives and actions matter, then people can’t take personal responsibility, they can’t work for more, and they often turn to drugs to blunt the pain and fill the empty voids. What this means, is that addiction is a consequence of everyone’s selfish actions, it is not just a moral failing of the individual. Consequently, we all have a role to play in the recovery of those in our communities dealing with addiction.

 

What Reverend Callender noticed, as highlighted in the quote above, is that people dealing with substance addictions need support and guidance to get through their struggles. People turn to drugs in times of pain when they feel something lacking in their lives. Taking more away from them, limiting their ability to interact with a community, and pushing more challenges at them only worsens the underlying psychological stress and trauma that drove them to addiction in the first place. Punishment is harmful, whereas compassion and forgiveness is what gives people a second chance and encourages them to improve their lives. If we don’t treat people facing addiction with dignity and respect, can we ever expect them to treat themselves with the dignity and respect needed to overcome addiction?

Views on Criminality in the United States

In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander explains the ways that we have turned the prison system and our treatment of criminals into a modern caste system. She looks at the way we approach criminality and is critical of the open prejudice shown toward those who have been arrested or convicted of crimes. Her book was eye opening to me because of the way she looked at crime, who commits crime, who is punished for crime, and who seems to be able to commit crime without worrying about punishment. She is able to demonstrate with study after study that our system unreasonably targets minority populations and has different outcomes that limit individual’s futures and shapes the lives and communities in which people live.

 

I was particularly struck by the similarity that exists between those who commit crimes and are punished and pushed out from society and those who never commit crimes and manage to move through life with success. Alexander challenges this idea writing, “The notion that a vast gulf exists between ‘criminals’ and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about ‘them’.” White, brown, and black criminals are somehow viewed as the other and as a problem that we, the morally sound part of society, must deal with. We cast these individuals out because they are somehow flawed and unable to participate in society at a fundamentally humane level. But this idea is not backed by real evidence of behavior, especially as we have been increasing our sentencing for low level drug crimes and over policing minority neighborhoods.

 

Alexander continues, “Most Americans violate drug laws in their life-time. Indeed most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent under-caste.” We don’t seem to recognize how frequently the law is broken, particularly with drug laws, and how arbitrary our punishment and legal system can be. When we limit housing and limit employment opportunities to those who have been arrested, we limit the ability of people who were arrested to return to society and become a contributing member of society. We make up stories about those who were arrested so that we don’t have to confront the brutal fact that we arrest minority populations at far greater rates than we should, and our stories help us feel justified in our actions and morally superior to other people. Ensuring that everyone in society can advance and ensuring that we can have robust and supportive communities means that we must re-think our criminal justice system and re-think what it means to be a criminal.

Bias, Race, and Sentencing

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains how racial bias has impacted our criminal justice system, particularly in regard to prosecutorial discretion. Our nation has begun to realize that arrest rates for black and white people are motivated by race, but we have work to do to address bias and race relations beyond initial arrests.  How we prosecute and charge individuals who have been arrested is incredibly consequential and can still be impacted by racial bias. How we view someone once they have been arrested often determines the level and type of justice the individual receives, and we do not always base our judgements on rational facts. Alexander highlights this by quoting a study conducted by George Bridges and Sara Steen that was published in the American Sociological Review. Alexander writes, “In the state of Washington, for example, a review of juvenile sentencing reports found that prosecutors routinely described black and white offenders differently. Blacks committed crimes because of internal personality flaws such as disrespect. Whites did so because of external conditions such as family conflict.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, race influences how we see other people. If we think someone is like us or has a similar background to us, we are more likely to associate with that individual and feel more inclined to give that person a break. If we feel that the other person is not like us and we feel somehow threatened by the other individual, our natural tendency is to protect our tribe by being more punitive of the other. Many of the decisions about who we will charge with what crimes are made outside of the courtroom by individual prosecutors. Before a judge has had a chance to review a case and before anyone has heard evidence in a trial, prosecutors can decide whether to drop a charge, whether to seek full penalties, or whether an individual can take a plea bargain to avoid a trial. The power of the prosecutor is addressed in Alexander’s book, but what she first describes is how our experiences and our conscious and unconscious biases affect the way we see the world and how emotional biases tie into the ways we make decisions.

Alexander continues, “The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead is viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few of his friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted. In a social climate where drug dealing is racially defined.”

White, middle-class, college men are one of the social groups that is the most likely to use drugs, but the rates of arrest and prosecution for male college drug users far lower than the rate at which this group uses drugs. Alternatively, black men in our country make up a smaller percentage of the population and of overall drug users, but are arrested and prosecuted at much higher levels. Our nation is much more likely to assume that white college men make honest mistakes in college and will behave better in the future, allowing white college men to face fewer consequences for crimes related to drugs and other offenses. Alexander’s argument in the quotes I have shared is that we view black people as more dangerous and threatening, and we associate their crimes with personality flaws which makes us more likely to arrest and punish them. Other groups however, which may be more likely to violate drug laws and other laws, we view as having more potential and we see individuals as having made an honest mistake and deserving a second chance. We must be honest about the crimes we punish people for, and we must recognize when we are reacting to an individual based on appearance and racial bias as opposed to reacting to the crime itself.

This reminds me of a few events from the recent world. Marijuana legalization has been gaining steam across the country, but our nation’s Attorney General has instructed federal law enforcement officers to be more strict in following federal marijuana laws. Despite race being a manufactured concept, a congressional representative recently said that it was important to maintain marijuana restrictions because black people reacted to marijuana so negatively, as if there was a true biological difference between white and black people that made them more susceptible to addiction to marijuana. This comment came at about the same time that Alabama won the national championship for college football. The day after Alabama won, a meme was shared across the internet. The photo featured a high school picture from a future white pro football player next to a high school picture of a current black Alabama football player. The two were the same age, but the Alabama player was much more physically developed in high school, more muscular, and much larger. Seeing the photo, a colleague of mine remarked, “Yep, that’s a man right there.” But in reality these were two young boys. One may have looked older and his physical size and development may lead us to ascribe more maturity to him, but he still had the mind of a junior in high school. I share this just to demonstrate that many people across our nation see black people as different from white people, and see black people as being older and than white people. In the case of the congressman, we see a white man generalize a group of people with no scientific backing, and in the case of my colleague we see physical size create an image of black people that not fully representative of who the individual is.

Continuing Punishment

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker addresses the problem of recidivism in the United States criminal justice system, and asks if society should be doing more to reduce the rates of people continuing crime after serving time and facing subsequent arrests. Many people return to prison after completing sentences for non-violent crimes and the ideas about why and the solutions put forward to reduce relapse into negative behavior are varied. Booker argues that our system is currently not set up in a way to help re-integrate prisoners and that the system creates larger burdens for minority and poor individuals.

 

Booker writes, “People have themselves to blame for their decisions; that is undeniable. But don’t we have a legal obligation to structure a system that is balanced, not savagely slanted against minorities and the poor?” He focuses on the personal responsibility for our decisions and actions, but shows that our decisions and actions do not take place inside a vacuum. Society is a contributing factor, and how we structure our system can in many ways shape how people respond and whether negative actions and behaviors seem to be worth the cost or seem to be the only option one has. Booker continues, “Don’t we have a moral responsibility to offer redemption to someone who has paid his debt instead of unyielding retribution against him and his family?”

 

We are in a challenging place where many of our jobs are becoming service and technology jobs focused on our mind and not on our physical strength. As we move in this direction, our jobs require that we handle more sensitive information and have more interactions with the people that a business depends on. In these jobs, integrity is important, and employers increasingly avoid hiring people that have been arrested. Previous convictions serves as a measuring stick for integrity. As jobs move away from physical labor, we end up with fewer opportunities for those who have past convictions.

 

Many government programs also require background checks for individuals and felony or misdemeanor charges can make someone ineligible for things like housing assistance. As a result, individuals who may struggle to find a job also end up being ineligible for government assistance and are stuck in a situation where their only option appears to be more criminal activity.

 

These individuals may have more opportunities than turning to continued criminal activity, but in a world where everything seems to be telling them that they are no longer a worthy human being, it can be understandable that  someone slips back to crime. The way we treat people who have been arrested often does not align with our beliefs that everyone deserves a second chance. The system as it is set up now does offer some supports for those who have been arrested and need help re-joining society, but our actions seem to show that we would rather isolate those who have been to jail rather than help them re-join society, change their behaviors and actions, and have a second chance. At some point we must look at where we have drawn the line between personal responsibility for negative actions and behaviors, social responsibility for crime and recidivism, and acceptable and appropriate punishment. I believe that at some level we don’t actually care about those who are arrested, and instead choose to draw a line in the moral sand because punishing those who are less moral than we are allows us to feel good about ourselves. In this view, the punishment of others is not about those who have done wrong at all, it is simply about making ourselves feel superior.

Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.