Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.


1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

1000 Words, part 2

Part 1.

So far in pondering the nuances and consequences of the “Equality vs. Justice” image I’ve been focused on the people and their ability to succeed. The other type of consideration the nature of their goal(s).

What are they trying to see?

Despite the stylised, cartoony nature of the image, the background appears to be an actual photograph (albeit a very fuzzy one) of a baseball game. So, the goal of the three people relates to entertainment*. My intuition is that any measures to improve equality (of opportunity) should be prioritised on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—in other words, essentials before luxuries.

Why is there a fence in their way?

The obstacle in this case is an artificial one; someone has intentionally aimed to restrict their access to their goal (the baseball game). The implication is that these people are outside the stadium, but still want to see the game. The fence has been constructed for financial benefit (you have to buy a ticket to get in). Some people might construe this scenario as a form of piracy (enjoying content without paying for it). Regardless of the specific legal ramifications, I would argue that there’s very little (if any) moral transgression here, for the following reasons:

  • They’re not making money from it
  • Getting tickets may have been impossible, either because they couldn’t afford them, or the game may have sold out
  • There’s still an incentive to buy tickets—more comfortable, closer to the action, better view, etc.

The stadium owners may actually like having (small numbers of) fans able to watch like this, as it keeps them enthused about the “product” (baseball), and encourages thoughts like “one day, I’ll be able to get a front-row seat!”. It costs the owners very little, and helps out the disadvantaged.

What if the goal was negative?

For the sake of argument, maybe instead of fans watching a game, this is spies from a rival team trying to see a closed practice session. This flips the desired outcome on its head—now the issue is do you take away their boxes to prevent them seeing? This will work for the medium-height person, but the tallest and shortest people will be penalised ineffectively and unnecessarily (respectively). Much better to make the fence taller.

(Analogously, locking your door is a sensible move to reduce the risk of being burgled. It won’t stop a determined thief, but will deter an opportunist. And there are those who wouldn’t think of burglary regardless).

Alas, the real world is seldom simple, and raising the fence would negatively affect the poorer fans, which goes against the very idea of improving equity. Few things are clear-cut, black-and-white, with obvious solutions. More often, we need to take the time to weigh up pros and cons, risks and rewards.

(And in case my opinion’s not obvious: better to lock your door when you go out, but don’t worry too much about people watching sport over the fence.)


* One could contrive other, more vital, reasons for them to want to watch the game, but they would be contrived. 😉

1000 Words, part 1

There’s a picture entitled something like “Equality vs. Justice” that’s cropped up a lot on various sites. I haven’t linked it, because I don’t know the original source, but if you google that phrase you’ll likely find plenty of examples of it.

While pictures may be worth a thousand words, I’ll try to describe the gist in fewer: Three figures—one tall, one short, one average height—are trying to see over a fence to watch a game. In the first panel, labelled “Equality”, each has a box to stand on, but the shortest figure still cannot see over the fence. In the second panel, labelled “Justice” (or, in some versions, “Equity”), the shortest figure has two boxes and is now able to see, and the tallest figure has no box but can still see.

Something not conveyed by the “picture worth a thousand words” adage, though, is that there may be details or implications of a picture that are not apparent. For example, imagine a photograph of two men in suits shaking hands at a press conference; it can take on quite a different meaning and impact depending on who they are and why they are shaking hands. If it represents a peace treaty between your country and its neighbour, for example, it will likely provoke stronger emotions than if it represents a merger agreement between two foreign companies.

The equality/justice picture is cartoony and stylised—the importance is not who these people are*, but in their allegorical value. There are still some points to be considered, however.

Why the height differences?

Are they adult (tall), teen (medium), and child (short); or all adults? Essentially, are the differences between them temporary or permanent; a consequence of age, or genetics? If we wait long enough, will this problem resolve itself?

How were the boxes shifted?

Even if everyone agrees that there’s enough to go around, and the problem could be solved by redistribution, the manner of the solution still matters. Taking from the rich and giving to the poor can provoke feelings of resentment on the one hand, and inferiority on the other. There needs to be a conceptual shift as well—recognising that the inequality is not because the “haves” are inherently better or more worthy than the “have-nots”. People’s intrinsic value needs to be acknowledged as distinct from an assessment of their circumstances**.

More to come next time.


* They appear to be male Caucasians, but this is probably an artifact of the norms of the creator rather than any meaningful choice. Varying the group by gender or ethnicity might have raised unfortunate implications.

** If someone is of the opinion that someone’s value is entirely bound up in their circumstance, then they will disagree on this point. However, I don’t believe any rational people will hold that extreme an opinion, as that’s leading toward the unpalatable side of eugenics.