Law and Order – the Irony of Deterrents, Part 2


I’ve just re-read my first post by that name, and I couldn’t help but notice that it’s terrible. So this isn’t going to be so much ‘Part 2’ as version 2.0. Steven Pinker keeps Tweeting about how writers need to remember that they’re the ones talking, and that we should lay it all out and not hope that our readers already know everything we’re trying to say – and boy, he could have talking to me alone. So with that in mind I’ll try this again.


  1. The Damages of Punishments.


There is a terrible irony that happens when we attempt to solve society’s ills through punishment. The science is in regarding abuse, and also regarding corporal punishment: these things are causing many of our ills.

Crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, all these and more have been shown through study after reputable study to be higher frequency issues for those who are documented to have suffered abuse and/or corporal punishment in their lives.

Let’s also admit right here the truth obscured by a ubiquitous fallacy: all serious punishments are corporal punishments. We don’t volunteer for our punishments, and when we choose to take them, it’s because they are going to be forced upon us physically if we don’t. Punishments are not optional, and force is “corporal,” ultimately. This means that the list of negative outcomes above is the result of punishments, no qualifier like “corporal” is necessary, and in fact, any qualifier is detrimental to the truth. There is no type of punishment that doesn’t ever cause damage, because there is no type of punishment that isn’t intended to. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?

We harm so that the person we are punishing changes their behaviour in order to avoid the harm. If it doesn’t harm, it’s not a punishment, by definition. In the best cases, the prospect of the harm is enough and bad behaviour is avoided before it occurs – but we’re not addressing deterrents just yet.

That list of negative outcomes above – oh, let’s repeat it: crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school – not a complete list, of course, that suite of damages has been shown, statistically to be more common in people who have suffered abuse and corporal punishment, that is to say, these effects are caused by abuse and corporal punishment.

Let’s stop there for a moment, and ask, what else causes these things? Certainly medical conditions like Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and any number of brain mis-developments or diseases add their effects. I won’t argue, it may be impossible to separate FAS from other factors in an abusive and punishing population, but surely we see these outcomes in many people who are known to have no serious medical causative factors or syndromes associated with parents’ substance abuse. Of course there are serious traumas, war and natural disasters, heinous crimes, no denying that, but these aren’t likely to be an explanation for most of the people suffering these negative outcomes either. Genetic predisposition perhaps, perhaps Original Sin or its evolutionist cousin, our animal natures?

As to genetics, I expect the science is coming, the statistics may show something in the coming years; I’ll wait for the studies. As for Original Sin, I won’t hold my breath. Those statistics aren’t coming, ever.

What I’m getting at here, though I won’t presume to put a percentage on it, or even to say it’s the majority (even if I suspect it is), is that abuse and punishment are a major cause of the long list of personal damages that so many of us suffer from and that the more punished and abused of us tend to suffer from more, in proportion. Statistically.

And now to deterrents.


  1. Deterrents – the Calculated Risk.


Simply defined, a deterrent is the designation of a punishment intended to turn us from crime or misbehaviour; a punishment administered after the misdeed is intended to teach a lesson the hard way, while one that stops the behaviour before it starts is referred to as a deterrent. The threat or promise of a punishment, we hope, will avert the bad behaviour before it happens.

For a deterrent to be effective, at least one of several things must happen. A deterrent forces the subject to make a cost benefit analysis, so first, the cost must be more than we want to pay, that is the cost – the punishment – must outweigh the benefit of the crime in order to deter it. Second, the cost must be certain enough to force the analysis – meaning the punishment doesn’t matter if we don’t think we’re going to get caught, if we think we’ll never have to pay. If it were only the first condition that mattered, things would be simple – we would only have to insure costly punishments and deterrents would work. That’s not the case though; there is almost always some variable chance of never having to pay, and so deterrents are a gamble.

Depending on our perception of our chances of being caught, the strength of a deterrent is increased when the cost is increased, that is, when the punishment offered gets more severe. For the second condition, as the certainty of being caught increases, so too does the power of the deterrent. So this is the question for a person contemplating a crime, or a child considering being “bad:” what is the penalty, and will I be caught? If the penalty is painful, and the odds of getting away with it are low, and the person is not otherwise compelled to ignore the risk (a third condition, that external circumstances do not make the likelihood or severity of the penalty irrelevant), the deterrent will work. Again, this is the analysis from the criminal’s, or the naughty child’s point of view.

But we, caregivers, we, society, we have an analysis to make too, regarding costs and benefits.


  1. The Bets We Make – Un-calculated Risk.


When all goes well, when the conditions are right and the deterrent works, then that’s great. All well and good, or close enough, anyway. Let’s just say that if deterrents worked all the time, I wouldn’t be complaining. Of course they don’t, so the complaining will continue. If they did, we wouldn’t all have been spanked and grounded as children and the prison industry wouldn’t be such a growth sector.

It’s when the deterrent fails that’s the problem.

When either the punishment offered isn’t scary enough, certain enough, or when there is something scarier that will happen if we don’t commit the crime and the deterrent doesn’t work, then we have another choice: punish or let it pass. Of course, any parent or anybody else will be quick to tell us we can’t just let it pass. That would be the end of deterrents instantly. So when the deterrent fails, we punish. For what happens when we punish, I’ll refer you back to Section 1: higher incidences of crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, etc.

So this is the gamble, the bet we make. We designate a punishment, hoping for the deterrent effect, and all too often wind up punishing instead, causing the aforementioned damages to our criminals, and to our kids. When we lose this bet, we instantly transition from being the good folks who would make the world a better place by stopping bad behaviour to becoming the cause of so many of the world’s ills instead. Of course this is a multigenerational gamble. “Our kids” means us. This is the gamble, but make no mistake, no-one wins the game. This is one that we lose often enough that the wins are nearly meaningless, because the damages that come with losing aren’t balanced out by the mere absence of trauma that is the prize for winning.

Defined as a joke with the power to make us cry, this is irony: a logical joke, but a sad, sad reality. This is the deeply ironic fallacy of deterrents.

If we believe in our deterrents, but see crime remains, or increases, we may think the deterrents need to be stepped up, the penalties intended as deterrents worsened . . . and this only increases the damage, and doubles the horrible irony of our public policy. This is what is offered by our Law-and-Order politicians, more damage, and therefore, among other social symptoms, more crime. (I’m looking at you, Stephen Harper.) This situation is of course more heartbreaking when we do that with our parental discipline, when we increase the stakes on our children, in this game that we can only lose to a greater or lesser degree, this game where there is no winning.

I know deterring crime, deterring bad behaviour, it sounds positive. If it worked every time, if the bad behaviour was averted one hundred percent of the time, it would be – but it doesn’t. Again, I’m not going to put a number out there, I won’t even presume to say that the deterrent fails more often than not. Clearly it fails often enough; punishments are not rare, by any measure, and neither are the sorts of damages punishments have been shown to cause. I repeat: deterrents fail often enough, and damaging punishing inevitably results. There is no winning these bets, only degrees of losing. Punishing damages people, and our wish that bad behaviour can be reliably deterred is back-firing. Our chosen method to solve crime and misbehaviour is what is causing it, and not the other way around.

If this is not heartbreaking to us, we can consider that we have been desensitized to it. There is only so much horrible irony a person can take before we just switch off. It’s the system, it’s not our fault.

That doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.


I’ve Never Met Sam Harris, but . . .

I think I’m already over him. Plus, as collateral damage, I think my bromance with Bill Maher may be at an end too. I mean, regarding Bill, I haven’t yet committed to never watching his show again – but I deleted the scheduled recording of it from my PVR yesterday. He’s moved from my “I want to watch” list to my “I’ll only watch it if it’s on while I’m in front of the TV and it’s somehow the least stupid option, like if there’s no mixed martial arts on or something.” I’ve got a feeling that he’s lost more fans than just me over this latest Islamming (trademark!) that he’s doing. A parting bit of advice, Bill? You may want to distance yourself from Harris a little.

Now to Harris.

Mr. Harris has been taking a lot of guff since Bill’s show some eleven days ago, and from some pretty popular voices, not just internet nobodies like myself. Here’s a response he made to some of it on his blog:

Now, before I delve into details, and before we get caught up in those particulars, I want to point out that this blog post of his is an answer to people calling him a “genocidal fascist maniac” (which even I would suggest is a little hyperbolic), but this the thing. Nothing in this post would change my mind. I’ve been having some back and forth on Twitter with a person or two, someone is telling me that the point of the passage in question, and the chapter in his book it comes from, is a philosophical one about how belief drives action, and I think they’re trying to say the statement about the war is only an example.

Which, if the passage from the book had been the end of it, while I still don’t believe that theory (that the justification of the USA killing Islamist terrorists was put forth only as a theoretical example), I might have been able to let it pass, I might have said, ‘OK, close enough,’ but he said it again, in this blog post that was ostensibly intended to portray him in a less maniacal light. It wasn’t a hypothetical reference; it was updated for today’s war and was very specific. I’m speaking of the last three paragraphs in the post. Here’s the new statement, same as the one that got him in trouble with actual liberals in the first place:

“It would be ethical to kill these men (he means ISIS)—once again, only if we couldn’t capture them—because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth.”

And here’s the rest of his defense:

“ . . . nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes.”

First of all, wow, just wow. If we’re not dangerous people AND we don’t ever have nasty thoughts, Harris is not advocating for our destruction. What a shining beacon of Liberalism.

Now, the ways in which this philosophy contrasts with my own views:

The clear implication here is that Harris does think we should kill harmful people for thought crimes.

Personally, I think that anyone trying to lessen both the expected duration of the Islamists’ hatred for and wish to kill Americans and also the level of violence and war in the world generally would not even advocate for killing these harmful people for actual crimes, let alone thought crimes.

I marvel at this philosopher’s self-unawareness. In advocating that we should kill harmful people for thought crimes, Mr. Harris is a faithful mirror to the very attitude he ascribes in these passages to Islamists alone, that it is justifiable and somehow helpful to kill those whose beliefs are antithetical to ours, or to our lives. By this reasoning, it must also be “ethical” for Islamists to kill Americans.

The only place this reasoning is ethical is in a very small world, a tribal situation. This is only morality to someone for whom the only moral concerns are the domination interests of his own tribe, someone for whom the death of his enemies is not a moral issue. It’s not exactly peacemaking, which, I think, by definition means the search for a larger morality, one in which a solution is sought for all parties. Of course, in geopolitics, in the new, smaller world we live in, for the more than fifty years during which nuclear war has been a real concern, the difference between war and peace affects us all. It is really in all of our interest that the morality of peacemaking be the morality we attain to.

And if America is, God forbid, listening to Sam Harris for moral guidance, then it seems sort of obvious what the problem is, at least from our side.

More than Not Punishing

It all starts with not punishing – I don’t mean not spanking, not punishing corporally, I mean not punishing at all. I mean, we said “no” a lot, we distracted, even physically restrained our toddlers sometimes, but punished?

(MOM: I don’t remember saying no very often, I remember saying yes whenever possible, always thinking before responding. It’s like Bea Marshall @BeaTheTree , there is no stress when you can say yes! So say it whenever you can.

ME: True, I didn’t mean to give the impression that we said “no” as often as a lot of folks, or as often as we ourselves were told “no” when we were kids. Just that sometimes the true answer is no, and sometimes we said it, but that’s all, only said it, never backed it up with any sort of unpleasantness.)

Punished? Found a way to disincentivize unwanted behaviour by dishing out something the kids would not enjoy? Never. Never downgraded their life experience to make a point – but there were a lot of other changes that we made in the child-rearing that we practiced generally, relative to the child-rearing that was practiced on us.

The list of parenting blasphemies we practiced were as follows:

  1. The Family Bed. Our kids didn’t move out of our bedroom into their own until, presumably, they had reached an age where they required the privacy to masturbate. Then they chose a room and moved into it. I assume that was the deciding factor; I’m sure they’ll deny it.

(MOM: Lol….your girls will not like you for saying this….pretty sure that is with boys not girls….I would just say, for privacy….why don’t you ask them?

ME: Why? I’m not so liberated I want to know that! Plus, it’s kinda beside the point. Just trying to give the reader a chuckle, you got a problem with that?

MOM: Oh right – “the reader.” How’s she doing anyway?

ME: Shut up!

DAUGHTER/TRUTH-TELLER: Dad left the family bedroom first on account of snoring, mom soon wanted to be with him, older sister got a boyfriend and moved into her own room, youngest (me) was abandoned and slowly learned to not be so afraid of the dark and being alone. That is all.

ME: Oh, for the love of . . . it was acid reflux and I had to prop the bed up and sleep on a hill. And it wasn’t “snoring,” it was sleep apnea. Look, we had a family bed for a long time, OK?)

For the record, we say “shut up” a little too. But we don’t enforce it.

2. Long breastfeeding times,

(MOM: (The older one) yes, 2.5 years. (The younger one), no, 9 months….lol…but I would have…she had issues with my milk.

ME: Oh, right . . . )

3. Pacifiers as long as they wanted them. We gave them to the kids, we didn’t retain ownership. They were their possessions, not ours to take away.

(MOM: We did talk to them about getting rid of them, and the dentist did too, and eventually, just before kindergarten, they gave them up.

ME: Oh right . . . )

  1. No toilet training – it’s not difficult, you know. They figured it out themselves, years before school, where it could be a problem.

(MOM: Not true, we did show them, but we didn’t put pressure on them. It was never a struggle.

ME: Well, that isn’t “training,” then, is it? Not in any authoritarian sense.)

4. The kids could choose who they hung out with, no forced friendships with the children of our friends. That gave us some troubles, our parent friends didn’t understand it.

  1. We cursed and swore, and so did the kids. We let them watch anything on TV, anything we would watch, they could too. I mean we don’t watch porn or horror movies, but other than that. They were raised on South Park, Family Guy, and Jay and Silent Bob.
  2. We included them in any and all conversations. Sex and death not excluded, politics and science not excluded. We answered any and all questions with the truth, up to and including “Well, Sweetie, we think your uncle had a heart attack, but it’s also possible that he was so sad that he killed himself, I’m not sure” and all the way down to and including “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a Rhino?” (Elephino!) If the true answer was too complex for kids, too bad, true is true; simple and false is wrong for both those reasons, wrong two ways. When they got bored of the answer, they could walk or crawl away, no problem.

There’s more, but the thing is, it all follows not punishing. If you’re not going to punish, you can’t really force any of that stuff, all you can do is talk, make suggestions, rational explanations . . . little kids don’t always listen, and so some things got dirty, some things got broken, some things got lost. Shit happens. But you know what else happened?

  1. Straight ‘A’s, always.
  2. Polite, communicative kids that people liked to be around.
  3. Life has gotten better and easier every year since the younger one passed about four years of age.
  4. No teen rebellion, on account of no pre-verbal or toddler rage.
  5. Open communication all the way through life, no secrets, no lies. The lines of communication have always been open – yes, even right through the teen years.
  6. No drugs, alcohol, or promiscuousness.
  7. Always been a happy family together, the kids don’t mind being around us, or us them. None of the animosity normal between parents and teens. They want to be with us, and we want to be with them.

So there was more than not punishing to be sure, the family bed, no censorship (including paying no attention to the pressure for “age-appropriate” talk), no bed times, no meal times, no forced friendships. Honestly, we were often viewed as traitors to the adult “united front” that the parents of the world feel so strongly about, and, fair enough. We picked sides, for sure.

We sided with our kids.