March 18, 2005

Volokh and Bloodlust

So I've read over Eugene Volokh's long response to his critics—the one in which he defends his desire for brutal, Iran-style punishments for truly heinous criminals here in the U.S.—and he's not entirely unreasonable, but this quoted passage here seems to be the crux of the matter, and the one that causes (me at least) so much discomfort:
People, it seems to me, have a natural desire to inflict pain on moral monsters.
Well if that's true—if people are just savages at heart and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it—then okay, perhaps we should have flog 'n' torture rituals for the worst of the worst. Let those natural feelings flow and channel our surplus aggression towards "productive" ends. Good healthy release for the id and all that.

Except, of course, there's plenty of reason to think people don't need to be savages at heart, and that there is quite a lot we can do to promote that. In the good old days, men had a "natural desire" to beat their wives, put them in their place, and since this seemed like the inevitable order of things, the practice was largely defended. But then the women's movement sprouted up—aided by men who weren't satisfied with the prevailing state of nature either—and worked to change norms, draft the appropriate laws, and crack down on those "natural" wife-beating desires.

And the thing of it is: It worked, sort of. Today many men still beat their wives a good deal, but over the past 20 years domestic violence appears to be declining, and the winds are shifting. The male character, it seems, is shifting, even if only glacially. And yes, it's cool in certain New York newspapers to make fun of the rise of the hyper-sensitive emo boy, and maybe men today are much too "wussified," as they say, but it's hard to deny that change has occurred, that further change is possible, and that human character is much less "natural" than Volokh assumes. Alternatively, you could notice how we've cracked down on the "natural desire to inflict pain" on our neighbors via mace or battleaxe for stealing our potatoes or looking at our milkmaids with a leery eye.

So it's reasonable to assume that a more forgiving justice system would, over time, quench some of that ol' fashioned bloodlust. Society becoming more enlightened and all that. It's awfully hard to prove this, and there's good reason to think that genuine shifts in attitudes toward violence are very difficult to achieve—the death penalty, after all, is still very popular in Europe even though it's been banned for some 30 years now—but that, I think, is no reason not to try, especially if you think excessive bloodlust is something worth quenching. In other words, Ogged has it right: "[A] society's attitude toward violence is bound up with lots of its other characteristics, and those play themselves out, until some new configuration comes along. We hang on, and try to do a bit of good in whatever very limited way that we can."

P.S. Also not sure about this from Volokh: "Nor have I seen evidence that harsh punishment generally makes society more brutal." Er, medieval Europe? Or heck, modern Iraq? There were/are other factors at play in both places, yah, but surely harsh punishment played some role here.
-- Brad Plumer 5:56 PM || ||