Radical life extension would give humans the power to create an artificial hell for criminals. Should we?
This piece has come across my desktop 3 separate times in the past 24 hours. The answer to its central question is very obviously “No,” but I think the premise requires some discussion.
This notion that criminals don’t suffer enough or get off too easily, especially when they die, really speaks, I think, to the basest part of us, the part that longs to see other people — those who we prefer to think of as monsters — suffer as much as possible.
As I’ve written before,
[A]t the heart of the idea of both the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole is the notion that the offender is completely and utterly devoid of humanity. With this in mind, prison isn’t about correction and rehabilitation; it’s about punishment and revenge. If the death penalty is too expensive, if it risks the execution of an occasional innocent, and if it doesn’t cause all that much suffering, then it can be jettisoned in favor of a punishment that’s cheaper, that we can correct when we err, and that — if done properly — might be even worse for offenders.
Rather than seeking to rehabilitate offenders and keep us safe from those who might try to harm us, we want our prisons to be the most god-forsaken places; we want our punishments to vent all of our rage at crime and criminals; and now, it seems, some of us want to consider creating “a living hell” for criminals we deem not to be able to suffer sufficiently through more conventional means of punishment. Of course, this desire to devise, implement, or marvel at the most awful possible punishments for offenders isn’t anything new. As Nietzsche argues:
Dante, I think, committed a crude blunder when, with a terror-inspiring ingenuity, he placed above the gateway of his hell the inscription “I too was created by eternal love”—at any rate, there would be more justification for placing above the gateway to the Christian Paradise and its “eternal bliss” the inscription “I too was created by eternal hate—provided a truth may be placed above the gateway to a lie! For what is it that constitutes the bliss of this Paradise?
We might even guess, but it is better to have it expressly described for us by an authority not to be underestimated in such matters, Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher and saint. “Beati in regno coelesti,” he says, meek as a lamb, “videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitude illis magis complaceat” (On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic in Basic Writings, 485).
In his footnote, Walter Kaufmann translates the Latin: “The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them.” He notes, also, that this is not quite what one finds in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae; to be exact, Aquinas writes, “Ut beatitude sanctorum eis magis complaceat, et de ea uberiores gratias Deo agant, datur eis ut poenam impiorum perfecte intueantur.” In English: “In order that the bliss of the saints may be more delightful for them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, it is given to them to see perfectly the punishment of the damned.” While the original differs from Nietzsche’s rendering of it, the spirit is clearly unchanged. The lengthy quotation that Nietzsche employs following Aquinas, while also in Latin, is even more faithful to its author, Tertullian. Here is a short sample, in English:
Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? what my derision? Which sights gives me joy? which rouses me to exultation?—as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ.
Devising ghastly punishments for others is old hat for human beings. But it’s something we can and we ought to outgrow. Focusing on restorative rather than retributive justice is better for us, both psychologically and also societally. We’re simply not doing ourselves any favors by continuing to insist that the only — or the best — vision of justice is one that centers on making offenders suffer and then devising more and more types of suffering to heap on them.
Instead, we would do well to start thinking more seriously about restorative approaches to justice, which, as David Cayley defines them, “seek noncustodial settlements; they allow both the offender and the victim much more initiative; they are oriented more to peacemaking than punishment; and they try to mobilize the capacities of families, friends, and local communities in correcting offenders and holding them accountable” (10). This would, of course, require a radical reimagining of our criminal justice system and a full-scale rejection of the knee-jerk policies of the “Tough on Crime” crowd. We’re a long way from really integrating restorative practices into our thinking about criminal justice, but at least we can begin by vocally rejecting the arguments of those who want to consider whether we can find a way to ethically embrace a biotech hellscape for criminals. Clearly, we cannot.