On crime: where does the left go from New Labour’s legacy?


1:50 pm - April 13th 2011

by Owen Jones    


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Being a victim of crime is no fun. My family’s house was burgled repeatedly when I was growing up. On one occasion – when I was 15 – it happened in the early hours when we were all in bed. Three years back I was beaten up and mugged on a bus in Tottenham. And, just before Christmas, my flatmate and I had our bikes stolen: a few days later, they appeared in all their glory on Gumtree.

It’s true to say that some parts of the left has always had trouble cobbling together a popular position on crime which, after all, remains way up there on the general public’s list of concerns. The standard line is that crime – well, mostly petty crime, rather than more middle-class crimes like embezzlement – is a product of economic circumstances.

The evidence bears this out. The British Crime Survey, launched in 1981, reported just over two million violent crimes at its inception. Following the recession and soaring levels of unemployment, the numbers shot up dramatically: it was still double the level by the time the Tories were kicked out of office in 1997. Another study argued that escalating murder rates in the 1980s were the legacy of recession and mass unemployment.

But, as the debt-fuelled economic boom of the 1990s gathered pace, crime went into freefall. New Labour would have us believe that this was due to its authoritarian law-and-order policies; but, as a Number 10 memo outlined near the end of Blair’s premiership: “80% of (the) recent decrease in crime (is) due to economic factors.”

The trouble is that – while this analysis is completely spot on – it’s a tough sell in many working-class communities. Crime is a class issue; people on lower incomes are more likely to be a victim of crime.

The left has long argued that prison doesn’t work: three-quarters of young prisoners re-offend, for example. That’s hardly surprising, because prison doesn’t address the root causes of crime. In probably the only area where the Liberal Democrats have any real influence, the Conservative-led Government has accepted this approach, and is now moving to reduce what is the highest prison population in Western Europe.

That’s left Labour in a bit of a bind, not least because of New Labour’s authoritarian legacy. When Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan hinted at a more progressive approach, some of the New Labour old guard were quick to attack him.

But we do need to focus on rehabilitation, rather than “lock away the key”-style policies that please the tabloids but do nothing to solve the underlying causes. I’d also argue we need to consider even more far-reaching policies – like the state decriminalising and de facto nationalising the drugs industry, which is undeniably at the source of many crimes.

But, the question I want to throw out there is – how do we package that argument in a popular way that resonates with people, especially those most likely to be the victims of crime? What other policies should the left be looking at?

Can the left stitch together an argument that convinces people on what is – let’s face it – the right’s natural terrain?


A longer version of this article is here.

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About the author
Owen Jones is author of ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’, to be published by Verso in May 2011. He blogs here and tweets here.
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Reader comments


The left has long argued that prison doesn’t work: three-quarters of young prisoners re-offend, for example.

Not a spiffing argument because “prison” and “the British prison system” aren’t one and the same. It’s not an area that I’m familiar with but an old Tory might put that down to the profusion of drugs and the say the damn places aren’t tough enough.

It is not just employment and income either. Deterrence plays a key role too, of which prison (or rather the threat of it) is likely to be an important element: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/3918/1/3918.pdf

Increasing the risk of being caught is a fairly robust way of reducing crime rates.

Of course, drugs should also be legalised and opened to voluntary markets with a bit of government regulation; that would likely have a staggering and negative impact on major crimes and quite a lot of minor crime too. but it is hard to work such a policy around public opinion and Britain’s committments to the UN.

The answer to crime is decently paid, secure employment available to all irrespective of their level of education. Cuts in training and drug treatment and an increasingly punitive regime at Job Centres will simply send more people seeking employment in the most flexible, least regulated job market there is – crime. Positions are always available at all skill levels, promotion is limitless, hours are flexible, regulation and taxes are minimal and, if apprehended, accomodation and food are provided at the taxpayers’ expense. Not that there’s much likelihood of that with police numbers being cut it’ll soon be harder to break into jail than out. This won’t bother the government as long as crime stays confined to sink estates but it won’t as only the dumb commit blue collar crime when the internet offers limitless opportunities. Sadly there are more than enough dumb people to make life hell for the law abiding and a continent awash with firearms and drugs now so over-supplied they sell at a fraction of 1980s prices.

Where will enough decent jobs come from to avert a crimewave? What about the money for drug treatment? What about training and literacy programmes for offenders? Buggered if I know and if you believe this government or Labour has the answers, the money and the will then I’m a Nigerian civil servant looking for help moving a warlord’s fortune out of the country.

Certainly an education system that ensures that no child reaches the age of 10 unable to read, write or do basic arithmetic. Right now we seem to have an education system entirely focused on churning out, not just a substantial number of “winners”, but a huge tail of losers. Many of this latter group were left behind at an early stage of the education system and there simply wasn’t the effort available to enable them to catch up.

Equally, rather than rewarding schools that do well with softly-selected middle class intakes, how about throwing resource at those which fail. Pay a premium for good teachers to go to failing schools.

No, those alone won’t solve the crime figures, but they will help stop crime becoming the only career choice for kids leaving school.

and legalise drugs. Take the profit out of it.

Schmidt, Fair enough if your on adecent wage ,good job your less likely to stela other things form people in working calss estates, and Tottenhma i a good example of poverty next to richness within 5 minutes walk, but I don’t buy the idea that if your working class your just as likely to be a subject of burglary style crime becuase it’s your area, tough on criminals, well they are the reason for crime?

HelenGB @ 4

and legalise drugs. Take the profit out of it.

Er, surely legalising drugs will put even more profit into it? Look at smoking and drinking? They create huge profits with some long term health and general society problems too.

Then how is that 100 years ago we had less income *and* less crime?

@7

Did we? We only know how much crime their is these days due to advanced crime stats (and it’s usually a lot less than made out by the Daily Hate etc). Back in ye olden days people – especially victims of domestic violence, for example – were far less willing to report such crimes. That’s one example and I’m sure there are countless others – not to mention the huge rise of criminal drug gangs.
As an above poster says, legalise drugs. Sad but true, it’s the sane thing to do.

@6

Take the profit out of crime. We’ll even get some tax revenue from legalised drugs. (Tobacco brings in £12bn I think?)

10. Chaise Guevara

@ 9

Not only that, but we won’t have to pay police to enforce drug laws any more, allowing us either to save money, divert the funding to tackle addiciton, or get the police to do something more useful.

11. Shatterface

It’s true to say that some parts of the left has always had trouble cobbling together a popular position on crime which, after all, remains way up there on the general public’s list of concerns.’

Maybe they sould be looking for policies which are effective – or at least not grotesquely self-defeating – rather than ‘popular’.

Schmidt’s right – employment brings not just money but a stake in society.

You can get money quite easily if you are prepared to break the law but getting that money doesn’t mean you thenceforth become law abiding.

Not that there’s a great deal of money to be earned dealing drugs: financially, you’d be better off working in McDonalds.

12. Shatterface

‘Back in ye olden days people – especially victims of domestic violence, for example – were far less willing to report such crimes’

Domestic violence wasn’t even considered a crime in most cases.

13. Mr S. Pill

@11

“Not that there’s a great deal of money to be earned dealing drugs: financially, you’d be better off working in McDonalds.”

Hmm, depends what you’re dealing & how far up the ladder you are.

I don’t support ‘legalising’ drugs, in the sense that private companies should be able to start making profits out of them. I think they should be decriminalised and the state should have a monopoly over them: that way, they can be controlled, the dangerous non-pure stuff can be taken out of circulation, and most criminal gangs bankrupted virtually overnight.

I also take a similar stance towards sex work. If we had state-run brothels, we could get rid of pimps, protect sex workers from violence/brutal conditions etc, give sex workers a living wage, enforce safe sex, give those with drug addictions etc the help they need, and offer services like counselling / training to do something else / education, and so on.

15. Shatterface

‘In probably the only area where the Liberal Democrats have any real influence, the Conservative-led Government has accepted this approach, and is now moving to reduce what is the highest prison population in Western Europe.’

I’m not even sure this is the Libdem influence: New Labour had moved so far to the Right on this issue the Conservatives would have outflanked them on the Left their own.

Mr S Pill, Chaise @ 9, 10

Ah, but there is the rub. Once we legalise (and tax) drugs you instantly create the very same problems you have now, don’t you?

If ‘the market’ decides that a gram of coke is worth, say, £50 (or whatever), and it is taxed @ ten quid the price is 60 quid (or whatever). However, the criminal can still import at a price and sell it ‘illegally’ (without the tax) at a cheapr price. Thus you still need customs and exise to police the illegally imported stuff, don’t you?

On the other hand, if ‘the market’ decides that people are willing to shoplift, go on the game at the moment, then surely the private companies who will supply will still be able to charge the same amount as the street pushers? If I know that people will pay so much for my product (irrespective of the drivers), then why should anyone else cut the price?

I think the only way this could work would be to give away stuff like smack on the NHS to those hooked for free in legal ‘dens’, thus eliminating the pushers (legal or illegal). However, I could write the Daily Hate headlines right now…

Owen,

I think they should be decriminalised and the state should have a monopoly over them: that way, they can be controlled, the dangerous non-pure stuff can be taken out of circulation, and most criminal gangs bankrupted virtually overnight.

But you do realise that the state won’t have a monopoly on them, or wholly control them, right?

I also take a similar stance towards sex work. If we had state-run brothels, we could get rid of pimps, protect sex workers from violence/brutal conditions etc, give sex workers a living wage, enforce safe sex, give those with drug addictions etc the help they need, and offer services like counselling / training to do something else / education, and so on.

What we need to do with drug abuse or sex work or any other ‘problem’ is firstly establish whether or not it is any of our business to interfere and secondly, if so established, weigh up the benefits, costs and risks of one approach against the benefits, costs and risks of other individual approaches and pick the best one. Or use something along the lines of Schneier’s five steps:

1) What problem does it solve?
2) How well does it solve the problem?
3) What new problems does it add?
4) What are the economic and social costs?
5) Given the above, is it worth the costs?

Our prejudices (such as those nasty companies that make profits, shudder) shouldn’t come into it.

I think the only way this could work would be to give away stuff like smack on the NHS to those hooked for free in legal ‘dens’, thus eliminating the pushers (legal or illegal). However, I could write the Daily Hate headlines right now…

Well, quite – as well as establishing the proper approach there is a difficulty in persuading sufficient people.

I suppose it would be seen as primitive and unenlightened to suggest people who commit crimes actually *deserve* to be punished for it?

@8

“We only know how much crime their is these days due to advanced crime stats”

We do? You must live in a very rarefied area. I know how much crime there is because I, you know, get the bus a lot, because I get attacked in the street by teenage gangs, because I can see the prostitutes and crack heads outside my flat, because my friends get mugged, and even senselessly murdered while out having a quiet drink. In short, I know how much crime there is because I live here.

Being free from predation is a human right—or should be. Poor people, who experience the problem at the pointy end, as it were, understand this quite well. Just because you don’t experience it at all, does not make it a fabrication of the Daily Mail.

22. Mr S. Pill

@19

No-one is saying otherwise. The point is what drives people to commit crime?

@20

“We do? You must live in a very rarefied area.”

LOL. I live in one of the most deprived areas of Britain & have plenty of experience of being a victim crime, thanks very much. My point is you can’t point to one hundred years ago on anecdotal evidence and claim it was so much better when income was lower. You don’t know that without evidence to back up your claims. I’m fully aware crime happens. I also know – for a fact – that the Daily Hate overinflate the fear of crime to cause panic & knee-jerk hysteria amongst everyone.

23. Mr S. Pill

@16

The mark-up on illegal drugs is absolutely ridiculous (which is why I always surprised the capitalist right-wing don’t support drug dealers – they are perfect capitalists, after all). Coke costs ~£50 p/g on the street but far, far less to produce. Companies could very easily undercut dealers & which higher quality mechandise, too.

24. Mr S. Pill

*with higher, not “which higher”, above.

25. Shatterface

I’m really glad to hear coke is £50 per g elsewhere because its only £40 here and I had a horrible suspicion I was being ripped off.

Apparently it makes you paranoid.

@22

“No-one is saying otherwise.”

Obviously, they are if they are suggesting that punishments are to rehabilitate or address the “underlying causes”.

“The point is what drives people to commit crime?”

An interesting theological question, but a complete red herring when discussing criminal justice (unless, of course, we see criminal justice as primarily being about something other punishing those who deserve to be punished).

Mr Pill @ 23

Companies could very easily undercut dealers & which higher quality mechandise, too.

But why would they want too? Given that people are already to do pretty dangerous things for drugs to feed habits, why charge twenty quid for something you know full well people will ‘happily’ sell temselves on the streets to obtain?

28. Chaise Guevara

@ 16 Jim

“Ah, but there is the rub. Once we legalise (and tax) drugs you instantly create the very same problems you have now, don’t you?

If ‘the market’ decides that a gram of coke is worth, say, £50 (or whatever), and it is taxed @ ten quid the price is 60 quid (or whatever). However, the criminal can still import at a price and sell it ‘illegally’ (without the tax) at a cheapr price. Thus you still need customs and exise to police the illegally imported stuff, don’t you?”

The same, obviously, is true of fags, booze, and anything on which tax is paid. Legalising drugs would mean that most of the market would be legal, whereas at present 100% of it is illegal. That would bring in tax money, reduce the burden on policing, cut the sources of funding available to organised crime gangs, and allow us to ensure the supply isn’t cut with nastier chemicals. All while taking a better attitude to personal freedoms, too.

So the same problems would exist, sure, but on a much smaller scale. Don’t reject a vast improvement just because it isn’t a perfect solution (unless you have a perfect solution of your own to offer!).

29. Shatterface

‘An interesting theological question, but a complete red herring when discussing criminal justice (unless, of course, we see criminal justice as primarily being about something other punishing those who deserve to be punished).’

If you think its a ‘theological’ question there’s no reasoning with you.

unless, of course, we see criminal justice as primarily being about something other punishing those who deserve to be punished

Yes. We see criminal justice as about producing better aggregate societal outcomes, rather than satisfying your sado-masochistic urges. Punishment for punishment’s sake is simply sadism.

oldandrew,

@22

“No-one is saying otherwise.”

Obviously, they are if they are suggesting that punishments are to rehabilitate or address the “underlying causes”.

Um no, there is wide acceptance of ‘punishment’, but we are discussing what happens post-punishment. In such terms, prison does not appear to work particularly well – see recidivism. Unless people are permanently kept in prison.

(Nor is prison a particularly good deterrent – a better deterrent is a higher perception of the likelihood of being caught.)

“The point is what drives people to commit crime?”

An interesting theological question, but a complete red herring when discussing criminal justice (unless, of course, we see criminal justice as primarily being about something other punishing those who deserve to be punished).

ISTM, people who take a wider (and dare I say more reasonable) view believe that punishment is important but it is also important to make attempts to prevent crime from occurring in the first place. It is not a matter of “primarily” looking at one or the other but attempting to improve things rather than carry on doing what does not work.

Yes. We see criminal justice as about producing better aggregate societal outcomes, rather than satisfying your sado-masochistic urges. Punishment for punishment’s sake is simply sadism.

Much, much better put than my attempt.

Well said.

Chais @ 28

Of coursewe see the booze and fags being smuggled as well.

The diffulty I ave with this ‘legalise drugs’ is not that it isn’t ‘perfect’ it fails to address the real issues or even the problems that it is supposed to clear up. It appears to a knee jerk reaction rather than a long thought out solution, in my view.

Tere is a case, in my view, to give out some drugs for free, via the NHS and perhaps a legal supply of others, but I cannot see the decriminalisation route as a solution.

If you think its a ‘theological’ question there’s no reasoning with you.

Well yes, ‘liberal’ can be a theological term, referring to various non-deist offshoots of Christianity that venerate the abstract idea of Good instead of God. To someone following that variety of liberalism, it does become very difficult to reason with them on the assumption they are discussing facts about society, instead of, say, whether forgiveness is a desirable moral quality that they embody.

For example, it is pretty self-evident that prison works to reduce crime. There is no plausible rational reason that sending one person to prison magically causes another to take up the slack and commit more crimes.

The rational question, the ones that gets lost in a purely moral discussion, is whether, and at what extent, there is something else that works better.

The likely answer being yes, but it will cost money.

On the other hand, a policy of simply leaving criminals to operate in the community could, perhaps, be justified on saving the money that would otherwise be spent on police to arrest them, judges to try them, and prisons guards to lock them up. And naturally, it is the kind of thing that would be most supported by people who rate very high in forgiveness, and opposed by the vengeful. So that could be called ‘liberal’.

What it likely wouldn’t be is a good idea from the perspective of general welfare, or human rights.

@8 S Pill true
@9 if drugs were legal then drug dealers would have had to pay tax ,there wouldn’t be such a high price for drugs as there rarity decreases there price and the lower money meand dealers have a lower wage as sych the dealers won’t have such extravegant lifes , if they still want that life style they wont sell drugs , the’yll have had to have found another illegal high income job, selling other things illegal guns, prostitutes?

I think a question should sit over the assumption that “prison doesn’t work” – because exactly how are you defnining “work”?

If it’s the rehabilitation, it’s not working and there’s evidence galore on that score.

But to many working class and middle class, and to every copper, it does succeed if “work” is defined as “respite”.

There is undoubted respite to victims, communities, courts and coppers if a regular (of which the vast majority of crimes are committed, regularly, by the same people) is put away for a few months.

As a crime reporter, I frequently see a neighbourhood give a collected sigh of relief when a regular is put away for six months. Admittedly, they all hold their breath again three months later when the regular is released and returns almost immediately to their old routine.

Random violence is almost impossible to legislate against, but it would need sweeping changes across the media, society, culture of Britain to combat. Stiffer penalties will not necessarily result in less violence.

Drugs however… that’s clear. Even coppers admit the “war on drugs” is a pointless, never ending cycle. Take the sting out of it and turn it into a legal business rather than let it continue forever as an illegal one.

@29

“If you think its a ‘theological’ question there’s no reasoning with you.”

What do you think questions about where evil comes from are? They are certainly more relevant to religion than to practical politics. People who tell us that they have the answer to sin sound like preachers, even if the answer they come up with is enlightened penal policy rather than repentance or the sacrements. The reason there is a problem on this issue is that people seem to want the criminal justice system to save souls, not to punish offenders. No institutional arangement will make people good. In the absence of policy framework for creating saints from sinners, could we not just concentrate on punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent?

“Yes. We see criminal justice as about producing better aggregate societal outcomes, rather than satisfying your sado-masochistic urges. Punishment for punishment’s sake is simply sadism.”

Thank you for stating clearly and without ambiguity the position that makes the liberal position on law and order so intolerable to most people. I feel others have been less direct.

My position remains that It is not sadism or masochism to think that criminals should get what they deserve. It is justice.

39. Mr S. Pill

@35

Personally I’d like to see drug dealers put their expert skills to better use than pushing drugs onto people. for example communiction, PR, salesmanship… all of these things are vital in todays economy. I’m being disingenous, but the you get the point I’m sure – yes, there will always be a criminal element in society; but making drugs legal isn’t about letting dealers off the hook, it’s about not penalising users more than anything else.

@36

What is the point in locking someone up for 6 months if they are nearly guaranteed to carry on their reign of terror (and that’s what it feels like with some criminals)as soon as they step foot out of prison? Is it not more worthwhile for EVERYONE that the cycle is broken? Preferably by rehabilitaing the criminal back into mainstream society? You can’t go on and on with a cat and mouse style lock up – set free – wait to catch them – lock up circle of destruction. It’s bad for everyone – not least the victims.

“Um no, there is wide acceptance of ‘punishment’,”

And yet you went on to say “well said” to sombody who dismissed punishment as the product of “sado-masochistic urges”.

“but we are discussing what happens post-punishment. In such terms, prison does not appear to work particularly well – see recidivism. Unless people are permanently kept in prison.”

The point I am trying to get across is that if punishment is the purpose of prison then it works as long as it punishes. Saying prison “doesn’t work” if it doesn’t convert criminals into law-abiding citizens is like saying bicycles don’t work if they don’t open cans of of rice pudding. People aren’t sent to prison in order to make them obey the law, they are sent to prison because they won’t obey the law.

“What is the point in locking someone up for 6 months if they are nearly guaranteed to carry on their reign of terror (and that’s what it feels like with some criminals)as soon as they step foot out of prison?”

If their crimes are so bad that we consider them a “reign of terror” then six months is clearly inadequate. This is an argument for loinger sentences.

“Preferably by rehabilitaing the criminal back into mainstream society?”

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but the state doesn’t have the means to make even one person good.

42. Mr S. Pill

@41

So we lock up all criminals indefinitely, without hope of them re-entering society? What a nice world you must want.

@41

I don’t think that strawman is even worth engaging with.

Sorry, that should be @ 42 not @41

45. Mr S. Pill

@43

Yawn. Well why don’t you tell us what your magical plan is then, if not breaking the cycle of crime..?

I don’t have a magical plan, because I think crime will always be with us. My concern is simply that society is less just if people with magical plans let criminals get away with it. I suspect that it also makes the crime problem worse.

@22

Did you blink into existence only yesterday? Surely you can look to your own experience, your family’s experience, your friends’ experience. When I go to a foreign country, I don’t find it hard to make comparisons. Turns out, Amsterdam on a Wednesday night is a lot worse than Nice, but presumably I shouldn’t make that claim without running some sort of regression first.

What about admitting the possibility that the reason people think that crime has gotten worse is not because the Daily Mail has brainwashed them (“everyone” ~ 3% of the population?), but that it actually has?

FWIW, there are some time series on pages 14 and 15 of this document: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf

@ 39

The point I was making was the point of locking up someone up for six months, knowing full well they will return to crime the moment they get out is that it gives respite for those three months. A break from their behaviour.

As most drug rehab workers will point out, a junkie who doesn’t want to stop using will not stop using. They will stop when they finally want to stop and there is support in place to help them at that very moment. And some don’t ever get to that point, they just continue using or die. A criminal scumbag who burgles, beats, abuses and assaults will continue until they want to stop. You could put them in jail again and again and again, but it won’t mean they’ll stop being a criminal. It will mean that the community won’t have to endure them for that period of time. I’m not saying this is right/wrong. It is just true. Unless there’s a guaranteed “stop someone being a criminal” scheme (please, not hanging, otherwise we’ll have to debate Derek Bentley) then we either have to keep with the combination of rehab and incarceration.

Keep in mind, you may have to tackle years, if not decades of acquired learning if they come from criminal backgrounds. A kid growing up seeing his parents smoke will think smoking is normal. Equally a kid growing up with parents, friends, relatives involved in various crimes will consider it normal practice. An 8-week drug management course or 150 hours unpaid community work and a two-week course on anger management may not be enough to turn their life around.

I don’t have a magical plan, because I think crime will always be with us. My concern is simply that society is less just if people with magical plans let criminals get away with it. I suspect that it also makes the crime problem worse.

Who here argues criminals should be let to ‘get away with it’?

oldandrew,

“but we are discussing what happens post-punishment. In such terms, prison does not appear to work particularly well – see recidivism. Unless people are permanently kept in prison.”

The point I am trying to get across is that if punishment is the purpose of prison then it works as long as it punishes. Saying prison “doesn’t work” if it doesn’t convert criminals into law-abiding citizens is like saying bicycles don’t work if they don’t open cans of of rice pudding. People aren’t sent to prison in order to make them obey the law, they are sent to prison because they won’t obey the law.

Prison does not work in terms of preventing crime against society when people aren’t in prison. Do you want recidivism to decrease or not? Should we attempt to add things to prison or-post prison or not send people to prison but ‘punish’ them in some other away if it decreases the crime rate?

“Who here argues criminals should be let to ‘get away with it’?”

The person who claimed that wanting to punish criminals for their crimes was “sadism” springs to mind.

“Prison does not work in terms of preventing crime against society when people aren’t in prison.”

And my argument is that this is not what prison is for and so saying this is to miss the point completely. A punishment is often deserved regardless of whether the offender will never offend again or will offend again even if punished. By all means pay attention to crime prevention and (in the few cases where the state can have an influence) rehabilitation, but don’t let it get in the way of justice.

oldandrew,

“Prison does not work in terms of preventing crime against society when people aren’t in prison.”

And my argument is that this is not what prison is for and so saying this is to miss the point completely.

But perhaps prison should also be about reducing reoffending – which is what I’ve been trying to get across.

@53
Which is why a post-new labour position of ‘prison works, but this works better’ is likely to be preferable to the coalition ‘crime in the community’ plan.

Invest lots of time, money and effort now in well thought out rehabilitation and education programs. In 10 years or so, you will be able to reap the savings in policing, court and prison costs.

You just can’t do it the other way round, and any attempt to put the cart before the horse is likely to backfire badly.

“But perhaps prison should also be about reducing reoffending – which is what I’ve been trying to get across.”

Nobody, and I do mean nobody, would object to reducing reoffending where it doesn’t reduce punishments.

What is objectionable are the claims that wanting to lock up criminals is “authoritarian”, that the coalition should be supported in their plans to lock criminals up less, that Labour needs to “package” its criminal justice policies rather than have policies in line with what the public want, and (in the comments) that wanting to punish criminals is sadism (a claim to which you responded to by saying “well said”).

56. So Much For Subtlety

30. Dunc – “Yes. We see criminal justice as about producing better aggregate societal outcomes, rather than satisfying your sado-masochistic urges. Punishment for punishment’s sake is simply sadism.”

So you would support a Three Strikes law? Or even the death penalty for persistent offenders? Because the only thing that matters is producing better aggregate societal outcomes. And executing persistent offenders would certainly reduce crime

Or perhaps you do have a theological objection after all?

57. So Much For Subtlety

53. ukliberty – “But perhaps prison should also be about reducing reoffending – which is what I’ve been trying to get across.”

And maybe we should all grow wings. We cannot reduce re-offending. We can punish and we can incapacitate and that is about it.

Or rather we cannot rehabilitate as things stand now. Give me free and utterly unfettered control of a prison and I think, based on Cults and the Chinese Brain washing programme, I could produce such a change. But we would not want to.

54. Soru – “Invest lots of time, money and effort now in well thought out rehabilitation and education programs. In 10 years or so, you will be able to reap the savings in policing, court and prison costs.”

You assume any such programme exists. None do. These are a waste of time.

“You just can’t do it the other way round, and any attempt to put the cart before the horse is likely to backfire badly.”

As opposed to the highly successful system we have now?

@42

Remember, this is the guy who wants the power to expel pupils for not showing him the proper deference and respect…

SMFS,

We cannot reduce re-offending.

“A comparison of all short custodial sentences (under twelve months) and court order commencements under probation supervision in 2007 showed that court orders were more effective (by 7 percentage points) at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than twelve months for similar offenders. …

“The Enhanced Thinking Skills programme is a cognitive-behavioural programme targeted at prisoners between 2006 and 2008 which addresses thinking and behaviour associated with offending with the objective of reducing reoffending. The programme was effective at reducing the one-year reconviction rate by 6 percentage points when compared with a group of similar offenders who were not on the programme.

MoJ

There are several studies (not enough) about how education can reduce reoffending.

Remember, if you’re poor and completely amoral, you’ll likely end up in prison for life. If you’re rich and completely amoral, you’ll probably end up CEO of a Fortune 500 company and live in the lap of luxury.

61. Mr S. Pill

@46

And you accuse me of using straw men! No-one is saying criminals should go unpunished. What most people are saying is that prison should be about more than just vengence – it’s better for everyone if criminals stop being criminals.

@47

Yes, but I wasn’t alive 100 years ago to make comparisons. Without statistical data & evidence you can’t willy-nilly say “crime is worse/better” than before. My only point is that it’s not as easy as looking out of your window & saying “well, it’s quite rough around here, it used to be all fields, ergo crime is rising”. It’s not good enough as research I’m afraid. As mentioned, I’ve been a victim of crime myself (muggings, robbery, burglery, assault, racial abuse, if you’re wondering) so I’m not blind to the problems as you imply.

@48

I agree with the main thrust of your argument, particularly your last point about there “tackl[ing] years, if not decades of acquired learning” – but I still have a problem with this idea that the best thing about prison is it giving respite to communities. That rather seems to be like we’re letting criminals off the hook somewhat, or playing to their terms even, rather than challenging their behaviour & making efforts for them to change their ways. Again this does not mean they go unpunished, it’s actually better for victims of crime and communities plagued by crime if those who engage in criminal behaviour change their ways. It is always the poor who suffer most in these circumstances and I daresay anyone who’s commenting on this thread who has lived on an estate can give examples of particular individuals who make life a misery – what I’m arguing for is rather than lock them up for 6 months (or whatever) then release them to do what they like we focus more on addressing why exactly they are engaging in such behaviour. Anecdote alert: I knew a boy when growing up who at 8 or 9 was a very angry young man, started smoking on corners ended up smashing windows and committing robbery at 13. I was a few years older than him & to be honest he scared the hell out of everyone – but he got the care he needed (his parents were not interested & he bunked off school most of the time) from various community workers & a few brave local souls and ended up changing his ways, getting his GCSEs and finding an apprenticeship afterwards. As far as I know he has been on the straight and narrow ever since (10 years later). Now that is just an anecdote but it’s the kind of thing I mean. He didn’t go unpunished but he wasn’t condemned as simply being a Bad Person without hope of change.

~

I think one of the key differences between left and right here is that the righties have very little faith in human nature & the capacity for people to change.

62. Chaise Guevara

@ SMFS

“Because the only thing that matters is producing better aggregate societal outcomes. And executing persistent offenders would certainly reduce crime”

Yes, but I think by killing people you’d tilt your societal outcome strongly towards “failed”.

63. Chaise Guevara

@ 37 oldandrew

“What do you think questions about where evil comes from are? They are certainly more relevant to religion than to practical politics. ”

They come from the mind, oldandrew. Which is why I, as an atheist, still have a strong sense of right and wrong.

This thread is about crime and, as an extension of that, morality. There’s no reason you can’t bring theology into it, but it’s a side issue. So don’t act as if this whole thing is a “theological issue”, or that we can’t discuss morality without bringing religion into it.

And if you don’t do practical politics with an eye to ethics, your practical politics are fucked.

““A comparison of all short custodial sentences (under twelve months) and court order commencements under probation supervision in 2007 showed that court orders were more effective (by 7 percentage points) at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than twelve months for similar offenders. … ”

This is a confusion of cause and effect. If you are likely to reoffend then you are more likely to get a custodial sentence. That doesn’t mean that getting a custodial sentence makes you more likely to reoffend.

“And you accuse me of using straw men! No-one is saying criminals should go unpunished. What most people are saying is that prison should be about more than just vengence – it’s better for everyone if criminals stop being criminals.”

The point you appear to be missing is that punishment is justice not vengeance.

You can’t condemn punishment as “vengence” and simultaneously complain that it is a straw man to think you are against punishment.

“They come from the mind, oldandrew. Which is why I, as an atheist, still have a strong sense of right and wrong. This thread is about crime and, as an extension of that, morality.”

My point is not that morality exists only as part of a religion, but that stories used to explain the existence of something that is an integral part of the human experience, and plans to “convert” non-believers to a different set of values are part of religion.

The stories we are hearing about where sin comes from, and how the enlightened can cure it if only people had faith in their methods, is religion not practical politics.

67. Chaise Guevara

@ 65 oldandrew

In fairness, punishment can be justice or vengeance, or both, depending on the circumstance and the viewpoint of the observer. When people complain that criminals aren’t made to suffer enough, it’s hard to interpret that as anything other than a demand for revenge.

68. Chaise Guevara

@ 66 oldandrew

“but that stories used to explain the existence of something that is an integral part of the human experience, and plans to “convert” non-believers to a different set of values are part of religion.”

Nonsense. Religion does this, but that doesn’t mean anything that does this is a religion. I’m not religious, but I can try to convert you to my values by explaining the reasoning behind them and offering evidence to support my points – both things that religion tends to be rather slow to provide.

“The stories we are hearing about where sin comes from, and how the enlightened can cure it if only people had faith in their methods, is religion not practical politics.”

Again, no: it only looks that way because you’ve decided to use the loaded word “sin” instead of something like “wrongdoing”. Encouraging moral behaviour would be very practical politics.

The stories we are hearing about where sin comes from, and how the enlightened can cure it if only people had faith in their methods, is religion not practical politics.

There is no such thing as “sin“, there is only behaviour. And if you want to know where behaviour comes from and how to change it, you should look to behavioural psychology (which is a science, not a religion). We know perfectly well how to alter behaviour, but we (as a society) simply refuse apply it to criminals because it stops people like you getting their jollies from inflicting pointless suffering under the guise of so-called “justice” and deprives politicians and other assorted pond-scum of a useful scapegoat. If we could figure out how to interrupt that behaviour, we might finally get somewhere…

oldandrew,

““A comparison of all short custodial sentences (under twelve months) and court order commencements under probation supervision in 2007 showed that court orders were more effective (by 7 percentage points) at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than twelve months for similar offenders. … ” [-MoJ]

This is a confusion of cause and effect. If you are likely to reoffend then you are more likely to get a custodial sentence. That doesn’t mean that getting a custodial sentence makes you more likely to reoffend.

“This paper aims to reliably compare proven reoffending rates between offenders receiving short custodial sentences (sentences under twelve months) and offenders commencing a court order under probation supervision.

“The results show that when controlling for static offender characteristics, such as age, gender, offence type and criminal career, offenders receiving short term custodial sentences reoffend at a rate 7 percentage points higher than similar offenders commencing a court order under probation supervision. The results are also consistent across a range of offender sub groups including both male and female offenders.

“The direction and the magnitude are consistent for the two methodologies used in this paper: propensity score matching and matching by variable. However, these methods used do not control for dynamic characteristics such as offender employment needs or accommodation status that are likely to influence sentencing decisions and also the likelihood of proven reoffending. These unobserved characteristics may introduce bias into the estimates.” MoJ

“In fairness, punishment can be justice or vengeance, or both, depending on the circumstance and the viewpoint of the observer.”

Do you really mean to retreat into the idea that what is just is just a point of view?

“When people complain that criminals aren’t made to suffer enough, it’s hard to interpret that as anything other than a demand for revenge.”

“Suffer” may be a strong word, but if a punishment isn’t to some degree unpleasant it is not a punishment.

“Nonsense. Religion does this, but that doesn’t mean anything that does this is a religion.”

No, often the secular philosophies that try to do the job of religion are worse. Religions usually have some concept of personal conviction, whereas secular pseudo-religions simply label the infidels as disordered and seek to “treat” them.

“I’m not religious, but I can try to convert you to my values by explaining the reasoning behind them and offering evidence to support my points – both things that religion tends to be rather slow to provide.”

You can’t have evidence for values. Moral questions cannot be answered emiprically. Which is why morality is getting thrown out of the window here.

“Again, no: it only looks that way because you’ve decided to use the loaded word “sin” instead of something like “wrongdoing”.”

Changing the words doesn’t change the concepts, it just makes it look like you are trying to hide the true nature of what you are doing. Penal policy cannot solve the human condition.

74. Mr S. Pill

@65

“The point you appear to be missing is that punishment is justice not vengeance.

You can’t condemn punishment as “vengence” and simultaneously complain that it is a straw man to think you are against punishment.”

We’re into semantic-land now, as always with these debates. If someone punches me in the face I may see it as “justice” that I punch that person in the face, most people however would see it as an act of vengeance. Some would see it as both vengeance and justice. Either way it would be an act of punishment. I don’t really see why this is very difficult to understand. I’m guessing you don’t teach English.
No-one (other than you attributing thoughts to others) is saying “no criminal should be punished”. Most people with brains in this debate are saying that it is better for the victims as well as the criminal that punishment & rehab go hand in hand. Punishment doesn’t always mean prison, either. Although no doubt you’ll disagree with that…

You mention “sin” so I assume you’re a religious fellow, what was it Jesus said with regards to eye-for-eye punishment, again..?

“There is no such thing as “sin“, there is only behaviour. And if you want to know where behaviour comes from and how to change it, you should look to behavioural psychology (which is a science, not a religion).”

What you are throwing out here with this line of argument is not religion but morality.

Historically, how has it gone when political ideologies have declared themselves to be above normal notions of morality, and simply a matter of objective science?

76. Mr S. Pill

“Penal policy cannot solve the human condition.”

Oh, ignore what I’ve said, you’re hopeless if that’s your underlying philosophy. I guess we’re all doomed because some woman ate an apple given to her by a talking snake as well..

“We’re into semantic-land now, as always with these debates. If someone punches me in the face I may see it as “justice” that I punch that person in the face, most people however would see it as an act of vengeance.”

The difference is a moral one. If we throw out all moral considerations then obviously moral terms might lose their meaning.

But that’s been the problem all along. Justice is a moral concept and easily lost when we start looking for more technocratic, non-moral objectives for the criminal justice system.

“Oh, ignore what I’ve said, you’re hopeless if that’s your underlying philosophy.”

Is it really that terrible that I don’t believe the state can socially engineer human beings into saints? Is utopianism obligatory now?

As John Gray put it:

“I expect the future of humanity or the human animal, the human species, to be in ethical and political respects, much like the past. There’ll be new inventions, new knowledge … but basically the future will be like the past, history will go on. Oddly enough, when I tell people like that, they say, ‘You mean we’re all doomed?’ I say, initially I became rather puzzled by it, what I’m saying is that we carry on coping the way we did in the past.’ [and they say] ‘Do you mean we’re all doomed?’”

79. Chaise Guevara

@ 72 oldandrew

“Do you really mean to retreat into the idea that what is just is just a point of view?”

Of course. You may think that justice for a murderer is 5 years in jail, I may think it’s a death sentence. We can both argue the case, but as there is no ultimate authority, it’s obviously a point of view.

““Suffer” may be a strong word, but if a punishment isn’t to some degree unpleasant it is not a punishment.”

True. I think what matters is the motive. Some want the penal system to reduce offending, both by detering potential criminals and rehabilitating existing ones. Others just want to see people made as miserable as possible. The latter have crossed over to revenge.

80. Chaise Guevara

@ 73 oldandrew

“No, often the secular philosophies that try to do the job of religion are worse.”

Nice try. Religion is a fallistic way of looking at evidence. It doesn’t have a job.

“Religions usually have some concept of personal conviction, whereas secular pseudo-religions simply label the infidels as disordered and seek to “treat” them.”

A religion can’t have a personal conviction: it’s not a person. If you mean religious people have personal conviction, so do non-religious people. What’s your point?

And why are you talking about pseudo-religions? Nobody here is arguing for them.

“You can’t have evidence for values. Moral questions cannot be answered emiprically.”

No, really?

“Which is why morality is getting thrown out of the window here.”

I wasn’t arguing for them empirically. But to get to the point: how would you determine morality?

“Changing the words doesn’t change the concepts, it just makes it look like you are trying to hide the true nature of what you are doing.”

So you admit that you were trying to deceive? Sin and wrongdoing are quite different concepts. It was you that attempted to conflate the two.

“Penal policy cannot solve the human condition.”

Who says it can?

Any straw men left?

81. Chaise Guevara

@ 77 oldandrew

“If we throw out all moral considerations then obviously moral terms might lose their meaning.”

Let me guess: maintaining morality, on your terms, is going to require accepting some utterly baseless empirical claims, yes?

Forgive us if we don’t all randomly choose one book to tell us what to do.

oldandrew,

Is it really that terrible that I don’t believe the state can socially engineer human beings into saints? Is utopianism obligatory now?

No-one’s suggesting utopia is achievable or that we can socially engineer humans into saints. We are talking about risks, inclinations, reductions, not absolutes – “7 percentage points”, not 100%, not perfection. I think you understand this – I hope you understand this. So I wonder why you rail against a position that no-one holds.

“Of course. You may think that justice for a murderer is 5 years in jail, I may think it’s a death sentence. We can both argue the case, but as there is no ultimate authority, it’s obviously a point of view.”

So just to check, you are not arguing for something you believe is actually morally right?

“Nice try. Religion is a fallistic way of looking at evidence. It doesn’t have a job.”

Is this the problem here? You don’t know what religion is other than as something other people do? Therefore, you cannot judge when you are entering onto that territory?

“A religion can’t have a personal conviction: it’s not a person.”

I said it has a concept of personal conviction.

“And why are you talking about pseudo-religions? Nobody here is arguing for them.”

When people come up with narratives explaining sin and salvation, but are scared stiff to use the words “sin” and “salvation” then we are dealing with a psuedo-religion.

“I wasn’t arguing for them empirically. But to get to the point: how would you determine morality?”

I would seek shared moral convictions and argue logically from there.

“So you admit that you were trying to deceive? Sin and wrongdoing are quite different concepts. It was you that attempted to conflate the two.”

It was you in post 68 who attempted to change the word “sin” for the word “wrongdoing” becuase “sin” was loaded.

“No-one’s suggesting utopia is achievable or that we can socially engineer humans into saints.”

We have a lot of claims of exactly that sort.

– That crime has “root causes” that can be solved.
– That crime is a product of economic circumstances.
– That there is an “answer to crime”.
– That people are driven to crime, and that this is the point of all discussion of crime policy.
– That, in the context of policy debate, we should have faith in human nature and people’s capacity to change.
– That criminals can be rehabilitated into mainstream society by the state.
– That prison does not work if ex-prisoners still reoffend.
– That we know how to alter the behaviour of criminals.
– That it is hopeless to think that penal policy can’t solve the human condition.

These are not pragmatic claims about being a positive influence here and there or allowing people a second chance. These are the utopian fantasy that the state can substantially change human nature.

86. Chaise Guevara

@ 83 Oldandrew

“So just to check, you are not arguing for something you believe is actually morally right?”

Of course I am. Look, are you going to have a sensible conversation, or are you just going to build a whole field of straw men?

oldandrew,

These are not pragmatic claims about being a positive influence here and there or allowing people a second chance. These are the utopian fantasy that the state can substantially change human nature.

ISTM that is your interpretation of what people have said, rather than what they actually said, which is that there are things other than simply imprisoning that can help reduce crime.

88. Chaise Guevara

@ 84 oldandrew

“Is this the problem here? You don’t know what religion is other than as something other people do? Therefore, you cannot judge when you are entering onto that territory?”

Nope! I know just as well as you what religion is, although I’m also aware different people define it in different ways. Got a point? Or are you setting yourself up for some tiresome claim that only religious people can have an opinion on religion?

“I said it has a concept of personal conviction.”

Yes, but so what? People have personal convictions regardless of religion, so what’s so special about that? From your earlier posts, you seemed to be going down the road that suggests only religion deals with people emotionally or morally, while those using a real-world perspective treat people like things. I hope I’m wrong about that, but that’s the impression given.

“When people come up with narratives explaining sin and salvation, but are scared stiff to use the words “sin” and “salvation” then we are dealing with a psuedo-religion.”

Again: you’re the one banging on about sin. Everyone else was talking about morality. And nobody’s scared stiff – what’s so frightening about a fictional concept like sin?

In case we’re at cross-purposes, I understand “sin” to be the concept of morality viewed through a religious lense: something along the lines of “what God wants you to do” (oversimplified obviously). I have no need of such a lense, so I was just talking about morality.

“I would seek shared moral convictions and argue logically from there.”

So would I, actually, but to *agree* on morality rather than determine it.

“It was you in post 68 who attempted to change the word “sin” for the word “wrongdoing” becuase “sin” was loaded.”

And it was you in post 66 who tried to slip the word “sin” into the conversation in an attempt to make it a religious issue. You described a perfectly secular subject as “The stories we are hearing about where SIN comes from, and how the enlightened can cure it if only people had FAITH in their methods” [emphasis mine]. You started trying to define a real-world subject in religious terms. So yes, you’re the one who made an abortive attempt to deceive with language. And now you’re accusing me of some weird deception simply because (gasp!) I called you on it.

Let me make this clear, as you’re obviously struggling a bit: when I, S Pill and the others discuss the topic in the OP, we are NOT talking about sin. I for one think that sin doesn’t exist, so there isn’t much reason for me to invoke it. Therefore I don’t need to hide the fact that I’m discussing sin, or fear the idea of naming it. I would be like being scared of unicorns.

You seem to be suffering from the common religious delusion that all atheists are secretly religious people who are afraid to admit it.

89. Chaise Guevara

@ oldandrew

Let me clarify what I find objectionable about your behaviour here:

We are talking about crime and punishment, which inevitably means discussing morality and pragmatism.

“Ah ha!” you say. “Morality! That means you’re actually discussing sin!”

“Um, no we’re not” we reply. “We were talking about morality.”

“Yes sin, you’re discussing sin!” you cry. “That means you’re pretending to be religious even though it scares you!”

“Um, what?” say the the reasonable among us.

In other words, you’re claiming that a) we must be discussing sin because morality is religious and b) that we must be trying to be religious because morality is actually sin. Which is completely circular, not to mention rather rude. If this is a poor synopsis of your point, kindly explain why.

“Of course I am. Look, are you going to have a sensible conversation, or are you just going to build a whole field of straw men?”

You claimed that what is just is simply a point of view.

Obviously, I wanted to know if you were applying that to all moral claims or only ones about justice. It would help if you answered the point rather than simply being outraged at being asked.

“ISTM that is your interpretation of what people have said, rather than what they actually said”

Then I suggest you go back and look at what people actually said. I was very careful to make my paraphrases as accurate as possible.

“Or are you setting yourself up for some tiresome claim that only religious people can have an opinion on religion?”

It doesn’t help matters if you interpret disagreement as a claim that you can’t have an opinion. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion of what religion is. It”s just obviously wrong and appears to little more than excuse to redefine words to get you out of a hole you’ve argued yourself into. You appear to have done the same over the word “sin”. All this is doing is creating a succession of straw men. If you interpret what I mean by “religion” or “sin” out of the context of my argument and instead give them definitions that presuppose your opinions as facts then you are simply dodging the content of my argument, not answering it. If you genuinely don’t know what I mean by a word, ask. Don’t just imaginatively redefine words until you have created a suitably weak straw man.

@61

Actually, I posted statistical data and “evidence”, which you completely ignored.

94. Chaise Guevara

@ 90 oldandrew

“You claimed that what is just is simply a point of view.

Obviously, I wanted to know if you were applying that to all moral claims or only ones about justice. It would help if you answered the point rather than simply being outraged at being asked.”

Um, I did. I said “Of course I am”. To answer your new question (and how is that “obvious”, btw?): yes. it seems to me that all moral claims are points of view. They differ between people, and there appears to be no definite way to prove that person A is right and person B is wrong.

95. Chaise Guevara

@ 92 oldandrew

“It doesn’t help matters if you interpret disagreement as a claim that you can’t have an opinion.”

It doesn’t help matters if you interpret a question as an accusation. I asked IF you were setting yourself up for a claim like that. I didn’t say you were making that claim. Please try to read posts before you reply to them.

“You are, of course, entitled to your opinion of what religion is. It”s just obviously wrong and appears to little more than excuse to redefine words to get you out of a hole you’ve argued yourself into.”

LOL! I haven’t even given a definition of “religion”.

“You appear to have done the same over the word “sin”. All this is doing is creating a succession of straw men. If you interpret what I mean by “religion” or “sin” out of the context of my argument and instead give them definitions that presuppose your opinions as facts then you are simply dodging the content of my argument, not answering it.”

I notice that you’re telling me all these things I’ve got wrong without explaining how I’ve got them wrong. I’ve actually attempted to avoid confusion by explaining what I mean by “sin”, but all you can do is claim I’m wrong without backing the statement up, which is pretty childish of you. Perhaps you would like rectify your mistake?

“If you genuinely don’t know what I mean by a word, ask. Don’t just imaginatively redefine words until you have created a suitably weak straw man.”

If you want to argue over the meaning of a word, you should define what you’re arguing about. But I’ll make this simple for you: what exactly do you mean by “sin”?

96. Chaise Guevara

Oh, and oldandrew, what is this “hole” I’ve argued myself into? Please be precise.

oldandrew,

Then I suggest you go back and look at what people actually said. I was very careful to make my paraphrases as accurate as possible.

– That crime has “root causes” that can be solved.

“root causes” appears in the OP: “prison doesn’t address the root causes of crime”.

– That crime is a product of economic circumstances.

inequality for example is a predictor of crime

– That there is an “answer to crime”.

“The answer to crime is decently paid, secure employment available to all irrespective of their level of education”, Schmidt said. I didn’t interpret him to be claiming that it is a 100% effective answer – ISTM about what we should be aiming for. But perhaps we ought to ask him what he meant.

“- That people are driven to crime, and that this is the point of all discussion of crime policy.”

Some people are driven to crime – not all, but some.

“- That, in the context of policy debate, we should have faith in human nature and people’s capacity to change.”

To some extent, we should. We ought to look at education, skills and cognitive-behavioural programs, for example, because they do appear to reduce reoffending – not 100% effective, but partly effective.

“- That criminals can be rehabilitated into mainstream society by the state.”

Not all of them, some of them.

“- That prison does not work if ex-prisoners still reoffend.”

I thought we had already cleared this up; prison for punishment’s sake, absent attempts (outlined earlier) to reduce reoffending, apparently isn’t as effective as prison with such attempts. So it all depends on how we define ‘work’. If we say that prison is effective when it reduces offending against society (as it does when someone is in prison) and reoffending (when they are released), prison without rehab programs doesn’t ‘work’ compared to prison with rehab programs.

“- That we know how to alter the behaviour of criminals.”

To some extent, we do (see above).

“- That it is hopeless to think that penal policy can’t solve the human condition.”

I don’t understand that sentence.

If it helps, none of the the studies I’ve seen claim or suggest anything like a reduction to 0% reoffending rate – the highest I’ve seen is a reduction of 30%.

But we haven’t got to that bit of the discussion yet – you still seem to be rejecting the idea that some people can be rehabilitated.

@89

What a bizarre straw man. The concept of sin came up because we were discussing human failings. The concept of religion came up because people were claiming to have the answer to those human failings and explanations for what drives people to morally imperfect behaviour.

It is the concepts that are religious. Because they are religious concepts they have religious names, but at no point have I ever claimed that morality is a purely religious topic, or that a religious concept is religious because it has a religious name. Saving someone from sin is a religious concept even if we call it “solving the problem of a person’s drive to do wrong” and claim that the state, rather than God, is the agent of salvation.

@94

“To answer your new question (and how is that “obvious”, btw?): yes. it seems to me that all moral claims are points of view.”

Oh for pity’s sake. Can you please make your mind up? A moment ago it was building a field of straw men to suggest you doubted that things could *actually* be morally right. Now you are emphatically declaring that no moral claim is *actually* true.

@95

“It doesn’t help matters if you interpret a question as an accusation.”

If you want to ignore my argument and ask me questions about positions I obviously don’t hold then can you please say clearly that this is what you are doing? Otherwise it really does look exactly like a straw man argument.

“LOL! I haven’t even given a definition of “religion””

Yes you did, back in comment 80 you declared that “Religion is a fallistic way of looking at evidence” and used that as an excuse to dodge any acknowledgement of the relevant functions of religion.

@97

I can’t work out what you are trying to do. The quotations you have looked at overwhelmingly seem to confirm exactly what I said. Either you are just trying to confuse matters, or you have accidentally attributed to me some position I don’t even recognise and trying to show the quotations don’t match that.

My best guess at what you are doing is that you are under the impression that “utopian” means “explicitly claiming 100% effectiveness” and, therefore, are arguing that if people haven’t issued an absolute guarantee for their cures for the human condition then the enterprise of socially engineering away (less than 100% of) sin is not utopian.

100. Chaise Guevara

@ 98 oldandrew

“What a bizarre straw man. The concept of sin came up because we were discussing human failings. The concept of religion came up because people were claiming to have the answer to those human failings and explanations for what drives people to morally imperfect behaviour.

It is the concepts that are religious.”

So the “bizarre straw man” is the claim that you just repeated above: i.e. that morality and human failings are inherently religious. Nice! Thanks for proving my point for me.

“Because they are religious concepts they have religious names, but at no point have I ever claimed that morality is a purely religious topic, or that a religious concept is religious because it has a religious name.”

So it has a religious name because it’s religious but that doesn’t mean that it is religious. Hmm. Think you need to check that one again!

“Saving someone from sin is a religious concept even if we call it “solving the problem of a person’s drive to do wrong” and claim that the state, rather than God, is the agent of salvation.”

Whoops! Now it does have to be religious!

Why? What makes it religious? This is the central problem with your claim here: you’re saying that these things are religious without justifying this claim. And then you’re saying that morality is a religious concept but it doesn’t have to be religious but it is religious even if we don’t call it religious… I think you need to make your own ideas internally consistent before expecting anyone else to accept them.

“Oh for pity’s sake. Can you please make your mind up? A moment ago it was building a field of straw men to suggest you doubted that things could *actually* be morally right. Now you are emphatically declaring that no moral claim is *actually* true.”

I just checked the thread, and you’re lying.

I said it was a straw man to suggest I was arguing for something I didn’t believe was morally right. Now I’m saying I see no way to verify that a moral claim is absolutely true. The point is that I can’t prove my own moral beliefs to be “right” beyond doubt. I believe them, but I can’t prove them.

The idea that Mr “It’s religious but it doesn’t have to be but it is religious actually” would accuse me of inconsistency is hilarious!

“If you want to ignore my argument and ask me questions about positions I obviously don’t hold then can you please say clearly that this is what you are doing? Otherwise it really does look exactly like a straw man argument.”

Positions you “obviously” don’t hold? You were accusing me – with no explanation – of not understanding the concept of religion. It was hardly unreasonable of me to at least ask whether or not you were going for the “atheists can’t talk about religion” stance.

“Yes you did, back in comment 80 you declared that “Religion is a fallistic way of looking at evidence” and used that as an excuse to dodge any acknowledgement of the relevant functions of religion.”

Jesus wept: that’s a description, not a definition. If that was a definition, then “correlation = cause” is a religion. You’re so desperate to shoehorn religion into this that you’ll redefine any word that suits you, won’t you?

And I wasn’t trying to dodge anything: religion may have functions, but addressing morality isn’t one of them. It’s unnecessary in that respect.

oldandrew,

I’ll try to break it down:

1. you appear to be claiming that commenters have suggested perfection (or near it) is possible – that is not my interpretation of what people have said. As I said much, much earlier, you appear to be railing against an extreme position and one that no-one holds (AFAICS).

2. ISTM you supplied quotes and paraphrases of what people said such as, “crime is a product of economic circumstances”, “we know how to alter the behaviour of criminals” as if you were critical of them / disagreed with them. I supplied support for my disagreement with your criticism of those quotes and paraphrases.

@99

“So the “bizarre straw man” is the claim that you just repeated above: i.e. that morality and human failings are inherently religious.”

The straw man is indeed the claim that morality is inherently religious. Why are you pretending I have repeated it? I have never claimed it ever.

“So it has a religious name because it’s religious but that doesn’t mean that it is religious. Hmm. Think you need to check that one again!”

If I had said that then I would. All I have pointed out is which arguments I have used and which you have simply attributed to me. I have never claimed that a religious name proves a concept is religious. That said, if I claim that a concept is religious and the only counter-argument to the claim is “well what if we changed the name of it?” then it would appear to be the case that my claim was one that was not immediately flawed.

“Why? What makes it religious? This is the central problem with your claim here: you’re saying that these things are religious without justifying this claim.”

I don’t tend to justify something that is obvious, unless challenged to, and as I have pointed out, I wasn’t told the claim was wrong as it stood, I was only told that it was wrong if you redefined what the keywords meant.

If you will acknowledge my claim, and indicate that you now accept what it means rather than trying to define it out of existence, I will be more than happy to try and justify it.

“And then you’re saying that morality is a religious concept”

This straw man won’t die it seems.

“I said it was a straw man to suggest I was arguing for something I didn’t believe was morally right. Now I’m saying I see no way to verify that a moral claim is absolutely true.”

For pity’s sake. The contradiction is between you accepting that something could be *actually* morally right, and then denying that moral claims were *actually* true. I put *’s around both uses of the word “actually” just so you couldn’t ignore it. And what do you do? Ignore it the first time, and replace it with the more ambiguous term “absolutely true” the second, thus changing the argument completely.

“The point is that I can’t prove my own moral beliefs to be “right” beyond doubt.”

What’s that got to do with anything? Certainty is a completely different concept to the possibility of truth. Your claim was not that we couldn’t be certain what was just, but that what was just depended on viewpoint.

“I believe them, but I can’t prove them.”

So? Proof is a completely different concept to truth. Your claim was not that we couldn’t prove what was just, but that what was just depended on viewpoint.

“Jesus wept: that’s a description, not a definition.”

You used it as a definition in your argument.

“And I wasn’t trying to dodge anything: religion may have functions”

Actually you claimed (apparently from your definition) that religion didn’t have a purpose.

“but addressing morality isn’t one of them. It’s unnecessary in that respect.”

And now you appear to have returned to the “morality implies religion” straw man.

@101

“1. you appear to be claiming that commenters have suggested perfection (or near it) is possible.”

Some of the comments did indeed suggest that (e.g. the one who told me it was hopeless if I didn’t believe that penal policy could solve the human condition).

However, my objection has been to comments that suggest the state *can*, through criminal justice policy, remove people’s moral imperfections. I am not simply objecting to claims that this can be done perfectly or immediately.

oldandrew,

my objection has been to comments that suggest the state *can*, through criminal justice policy, remove people’s moral imperfections. I am not simply objecting to claims that this can be done perfectly or immediately.

I think we have gone round in a circle to comment @31… with that in mind, I think I’ll leave it here – it doesn’t seem from your comments that you are interested in reasonable discussion.

“I think I’ll leave it here – it doesn’t seem from your comments that you are interested in reasonable discussion.”

There was nothing reasonable about your constant efforts to rewrite the discussion.

However, I admit that the phrase “I didn’t interpret him to be claiming that it is a 100% effective answer” will stick with me as a masterful way of acknowledging someone’s answer is wrong without actually admitting it.

106. So Much For Subtlety

59. ukliberty – “A comparison of all short custodial sentences (under twelve months) and court order commencements under probation supervision in 2007 showed that court orders were more effective (by 7 percentage points) at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than twelve months for similar offenders. …”

The sort of prisoners that get custodial sentences are more serious and more persistent offenders. You are not comparing like populations.

“The Enhanced Thinking Skills programme is a cognitive-behavioural programme targeted at prisoners between 2006 and 2008 which addresses thinking and behaviour associated with offending with the objective of reducing reoffending. The programme was effective at reducing the one-year reconviction rate by 6 percentage points when compared with a group of similar offenders who were not on the programme.”

You are not measuring the programme but the type of prisoner that completes the programme. What sort of prisoner is likely to throw a chair at the teacher and walk out compared to the type of prisoner who will sit through any pointless exercise? I bet you would have the same result if you taught them classical jazz. Anything really.

“There are several studies (not enough) about how education can reduce reoffending.”

No there are not. There are studies that show that prisoners who are serious about getting their GED are less likely to re-offend. Well yes. obviously. A prisoner who is determined to stop offending is quite likely to think about what they want to do with their lives and so go back to school. A prisoner who is happy to re-offend is likely to think he does not need his GED. Yet again you are not measuring an outcome but an intake.

107. Chaise Guevara

@ 102 oldandrew

“The straw man is indeed the claim that morality is inherently religious. Why are you pretending I have repeated it? I have never claimed it ever.”

You claimed, immediately and repeatedly, that this is a religious issue. From that inaccurate starting point, you claimed that non-religious attempts to deal with the issue were being “pseudo-religious” and “trying to do religion’s job”.

If you’ve changed your mind, just say so. This backpedaling is embarrassing.

“If I had said that then I would. All I have pointed out is which arguments I have used and which you have simply attributed to me. I have never claimed that a religious name proves a concept is religious.”

OK, let me make another attempt to clarify: which concepts relevant to this discussion do you consider religious, and which do you not? Which are the concepts that secular agencies cannot address without “trying to do religion’s job”?

“That said, if I claim that a concept is religious and the only counter-argument to the claim is “well what if we changed the name of it?” then it would appear to be the case that my claim was one that was not immediately flawed. ”

I’ve explained this to you once already. We were discussing morality, among other things, then you started acting as if it was a theological matter, and tried to justify that by introducing the concept of sin. Sin is a religious concept, and is therefore irrelevant to a real-world issue like this (at least until evidence for the truth of religious claims come to light). My point is that it is only a religious concept because you are using the word “sin” rather than “evil” or “wrongdoing” – and the word “sin” is irrelevant to the issue. You tried to redefine the issue as religious by substituting words.

“If you will acknowledge my claim, and indicate that you now accept what it means rather than trying to define it out of existence, I will be more than happy to try and justify it.”

Please restate the claim for clarity and justify it, then. If you’d rather state it, get or fail to get my acceptance of the meaning, and THEN justify it, that’s cool too.

“This straw man won’t die it seems.”

You mean I keep pointing out the fallacies which you speak? Stop speaking them, then!

“For pity’s sake. The contradiction is between you accepting that something could be *actually* morally right, and then denying that moral claims were *actually* true. I put *’s around both uses of the word “actually” just so you couldn’t ignore it. And what do you do? Ignore it the first time, and replace it with the more ambiguous term “absolutely true” the second, thus changing the argument completely.”

Um, not, my phrasing stands as an answer to the question as stated by you here. I believe that they are actually right, but would not claim they are actually true. More details follow.

“What’s that got to do with anything? Certainty is a completely different concept to the possibility of truth. Your claim was not that we couldn’t be certain what was just, but that what was just depended on viewpoint […] So? Proof is a completely different concept to truth. Your claim was not that we couldn’t prove what was just, but that what was just depended on viewpoint.”

You’re missing the distinction between “belief” and “truth”. I believe certain things are right, but that is ONLY my belief. My belief does not make them universal truths. So certain moral concepts are *actually* right according to my opinion, but that does make them *actually* true in the sense that there are definite rights and wrongs. Concepts of morality ultimately come out of the cognitive process.

“You used it as a definition in your argument.”

Sigh. No I didn’t. I’m not going to accept a claim that I know is a lie you’ve made in a desperate attempt to point-score. I used it as a description. It’s a shame you have trouble telling the difference, but that’s essentially your problem, not mine.

“Actually you claimed (apparently from your definition) that religion didn’t have a purpose.”

LOL! Look up the words “function” (the word I used in the post you’re relpying to) “job” (the word I used in comment 80) and “purpose” (the word you used here). They are related but different concepts. I will try to explain the difference in the context of religion:

1) Function: religion can serve certain social and personal functions, both positive and negative. It can hold a community together or destroy it; make someone feel fullfilled or lead them to waste their life.

2) Job: the context in which you introduced this word – claiming that secular agencies were “trying to do religion’s job” – this suggests there are things that only religion can do. I can’t think of any, and morality, the human condition and crime/punishment certainly aren’t contenders. If you didn’t mean that, what did you mean when you made the statement?

3) Purpose: could mean one of two things. I doubt religion was originally designed for a purpose, but I could be wrong – its origins are lost in history. However, individuals may use religion generally for purposes – perhaps by deliberately trying to invoke one of the functions described at (1).

So I don’t think religion has a job in the sense that other things can “try to do its job” for it. There is nothing I can think of that only religion can do – this may be a failure of imagination on my part, but it certainly has no monopoly on the issues raised in the OP.

However, that does not mean I do not think it can serve a function – and as much as you try to misrepresent what I say by substituting words, the fact that I acknowlege both points does make me self-contradictory. As for whether it has “purpose”, I think you’d need to explain exactly what you mean by that before I agreed or disagreed.

108. Chaise Guevara

@ oldandrew

“However, I admit that the phrase “I didn’t interpret him to be claiming that it is a 100% effective answer” will stick with me as a masterful way of acknowledging someone’s answer is wrong without actually admitting it.”

Seriously, are you ten? UKliberty was pointing out that a solution that is not 100% effective is still a solution. You’re like some kind of automatic straw-manning machine.

@107

Can I take it you are refusing to address my actual argument unless I start it again from scratch?

As for the rest, I see that you have different definitions of the words “truth” and “job”. I believe I explained earlier that you should interpret the words I use in the context of how I use them rather than redefining my words in order to make my argument into something that is easy to argue against.

@108

I am simply pointing out that I was impressed at that rhetorical tactic. By indirectly introducing the suggestion that I have misinterpreted a claim, he sets me up to argue that I interpreted the claim accurately, and thereby to commit myself to a straw man of his invention. I think that is clever.

110. Chaise Guevara

@ 109 oldandrew

“Can I take it you are refusing to address my actual argument unless I start it again from scratch?”

I want you to at least set out the basics of what you’re saying. For the precise reason that we seem to be using words differently from each other and possibily misinterpreting each other as a result. We may well have been arguing from different priors from the very beginning.

We’ve both accused the other one of straw manning on more than one occasion. I’m trying to avoid that happening any more, and this seems like the most sensible way to do it. FFS, we’ve been arguing about the argument as much as we’ve been arguing about the issues, and that’s never good.

“As for the rest, I see that you have different definitions of the words “truth” and “job”. ”

Different from you, possibly. Which is exactly why I’m trying to get things back to basics here. I don’t want a battle of straw men.

“I believe I explained earlier that you should interpret the words I use in the context of how I use them rather than redefining my words in order to make my argument into something that is easy to argue against. ”

Well, I’ve already explained that I based the definition of “job”, in the context of this discussion, from your usage of it when you suggested that other agencies were trying to do religion’s job for it. That’s a phrase that strongly suggests exclusiveness – that there are things that religion and religion alone can do properly.

That’s how it sounded, but it may not have been what you meant – again, this is why I want you to confirm your position so we can discuss issues instead of getting into a dictionary debate.

As for “truth” – I don’t remember you defining it, and I’ve got no way of knowing what your thought processes are. I can only assess what you write. Wanky as this sounds, people use “truth” to mean more than one thing, and I suspect it often means very different things when you discuss empirical reality and subjective morality.

I think we’re up against something like that RE me saying that I believe some morals are right but don’t think they’re absolutely true. I think we’re using the word “true”, and possibly the word “believe”, in different ways.

Please note that I’m trying to salvage this discussion and prevent it from turning into the arsey row it’s increasingly becoming. I’m not saying the confusion is any more your fault than it is mine.

111. Chaise Guevara

@ oldandrew

I’ve been reading a lot of a site called Less Wrong recently, and it’s made me realise how often arguments are actually about nothing more than semantics. Sometimes they devolve into semantic rows, sometimes they’ve always been semantic but none of the people involved realise this. Here’s a good example: http://lesswrong.com/lw/np/disputing_definitions

I can’t find the exact article, but this guy had some interesting things to say about the debate over whether or not atheism is a religion. He pointed out that the people arguing are not only probably using different definitions of “athiesm”, but probably also of “religion”.

He also pointed out (and this was an eye-opener for me) that the real question was what the people actually wanted to prove. Perhaps the athiest is really trying to claim that atheism is rational and religion isn’t. Perhaps the religious fellow is really trying to claim that atheism is faith-based and therefore shouldn’t get special treatment. But instead of going straight to those issues, they row about whether or not it’s a “religion” – a word that can be defined any which way from Sunday – and get nowhere.

I wonder if you and I are doing something similar.

@111

Philosophical debate very often does come down to discussing what people mean by the words they use. In the English speaking world philosophy is often reduced to nothing more than logic and the discussion of meanings.

However, there are conventions that philosophers use to avoid the type of discussion we have just been having. One is the Principle of Charity:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity

The idea is that if there is ambiguity in what somebody says (and there invariably is) then you interpret it in the way that makes their argument as logical and as free from error as possible. Failure to do this, i.e. interpreting somebody’s argument in a way that makes it irrational, is likely to involve the fallacy of equivocation and/or creating a straw man.

Following this principle involves considering words in the context they are used. I don’t appreciate being told that I should have interpreted things others have said as non-sequiturs rather than as a part of their argument. Nor do I appreciate reading several paragraphs on possible meanings of a word I have used that would make my argument incoherent when there is an obvious interpretation of the word available that would make my argument make sense.

I will return to the main topic in a bit.

113. Chaise Guevara

@ 112 oldandrew

” Nor do I appreciate reading several paragraphs on possible meanings of a word I have used that would make my argument incoherent when there is an obvious interpretation of the word available that would make my argument make sense.”

There is an obvious interpretation of the word, one that makes the statement make sense, and that’s the intepretation I went with. I’m certainly not trying to misinterpret you by deliberately picking a word usage you didn’t mean. I’m applying this Principle of Charity of yours. Let me explain:

When you say that other agencies are trying to do religion’s job, the only interpretation that even seems to let that make sense as a statement is that you think religion is the agency that SHOULD do that job. Otherwise, why call it religion’s job? You’re now acting as if I should have thought otherwise (again, I can’t access your thoughts, and what’s obvious to the speaker is not necessarily obvious to the listener), but you haven’t explained what you meant. Which suggests you don’t actually want the issue clarified – it suits you to remain at apparent cross-purposes.

I’m trying to be reasonable here, but it seems to me that you made a statement that you believe to be true, but that you don’t want to confirm you believe to be true because you think that would make you open to attack. That would explain why you’re acting offended but haven’t made any attempt to clarify what you mean. It appears you’d rather keep arguing about the argument. And acting offended is unhelpful – I could be doing the same about the times you falsely accused me of being inconsistent RE morality.

If you want to keep up this attitude, then fine, but it’s a waste of time to continue the discussion. I want to talk about the issues, not argue over your claim that I’ve been unfair in misinterpreting you when you refuse to provide the correct intepretation. If you’re prepared to discuss things reasonably, please do so. If you continue to play the “offence” card without even trying to clear things up, I’ll give up on the conversation. There’s no point talking to someone who’s more interested in a pointless row than discussing the issues.

“When you say that other agencies are trying to do religion’s job, the only interpretation that even seems to let that make sense as a statement is that you think religion is the agency that SHOULD do that job. Otherwise, why call it religion’s job?”

The trouble is this, and the various other arguments, don’t follow naturally from the claim that something is the job of religion.

Try this.

Imagine somebody arguing that government agencies should organise a national free pilgrimage to Mecca. If I said that this was government doing the job of religion would you interpret this as me saying that religions SHOULD organise pilgrimages to Mecca? Would you say that I am wrong to bring religion into the discussion and that religion was nothing to do with it? Would you consider me to be making an attempt to claim extra authority for religion? Would you say that the policy is fine as long as we change the word pilgrimage to “annual holiday of great moral significance”? Would you spend hours addressing the straw man that I think atheists don’t travel?

And before you say “but this is different”, please not that there is nothing different in the construction of the argument. The issue is that there are some activities or groups of activities that people usually do (or do as part of a combination of activities) because they are part of a religion, or because they subscribe to a belief system or insitution that resembles a religion. If you believe that we should have freedom of religion then there are questions to be asked over whether the state should be involved in such activities and saying “I’m not religious, how dare you bring religion into it, you must be religious and making claims for the authority of religion” would not reduce the suspicion about what was going on.

To me (and you can take this as my answer to post 110) I see the following activities (when grouped together) as more appropriate to religions than government agencies:

1) Telling an unproveable story to explain the existence of the human natural propensity to do wrong and suggesting a cure for this propensity.
2) Setting up institutions run by experts in the details of the story.
3) Applying the cure mentioned in point 1 to people in those insititutions, and perhaps to wider society, through methods utilising the insights of the story.

I also think that how I have described it above, deliberately avoiding religious words, is as forced as calling a pilgrimage an “annual holiday of great moral significance”. It would be more honest to use words like “sin”, “temptation”, “evil” and “conversion”. Words like “minister” and “original sin” wouldn’t be much of a stretch either.

Do you understand? I will clarify points if you want to ask questions, but I won’t repeat this argument from scratch again.

115. Chaise Guevara

“Imagine somebody arguing that government agencies should organise a national free pilgrimage to Mecca. If I said that this was government doing the job of religion would you interpret this as me saying that religions SHOULD organise pilgrimages to Mecca?”

I was unclear: I’m not saying that you think religion is obliged to do those things. I’m saying that, based on the “religion’s job” statement, that you seem to think that it is preferable that religious agencies address these issues more than any other agencies, and that by attempting to deal with these issues secular agencies are somehow encroaching on religion’s territory.

“To me (and you can take this as my answer to post 110) I see the following activities (when grouped together) as more appropriate to religions than government agencies:

1) Telling an unproveable story to explain the existence of the human natural propensity to do wrong and suggesting a cure for this propensity.”

Unprovable? Do you mean something that cannot be identified 100%, with a certainty of 1? If so, I’d disagree: we have to act based on the best knowledge we have – in this case, what the best evidence suggests is the reason people do bad things – and I don’t see why religion is better placed than anything else to do this. Whereas governments, or democratic ones at least, have a popular mandate. That doesn’t always make them right, of course, but it’s better than relying on an organisation simply because it has spiritual beliefs.

If by unproveable you mean something with little or no evidence at all to support it, on the other hand, then I don’t think governments should be involved. But I wouldn’t seek solutions based on no evidence in the first place.

“2) Setting up institutions run by experts in the details of the story.”

I’m honestly not sure what you mean: is the “story” the religious belief, or the unproveable claim mentioned above? If the former, then obviously it makes sense for religions to set up institutions such as churches, but you wouldn’t send criminals there for justice. If the latter, then my reply is the same as it was for (1): give the government the job for evidence-based claims, and let people do what they like with evidence-free claims provided they don’t bother other people unduly.

“3) Applying the cure mentioned in point 1 to people in those insititutions, and perhaps to wider society, through methods utilising the insights of the story.”

Again, I need to know what “story” means here. It almost seems that you’re suggesting that we should use the church (or similar) to administer justice and/or rehabilitation. Obviously I would respect people’s rights to seek a religious cure for themselves, but I wouldn’t want that forced upon people – I’d expect the government to deal with that, using techniques that follow the best available evidence.

Remember that I’m not totally clear on what you’re saying in those three points above, so if I’ve misinterpreted you, don’t accuse me of straw manning.

“I also think that how I have described it above, deliberately avoiding religious words, is as forced as calling a pilgrimage an “annual holiday of great moral significance”. It would be more honest to use words like “sin”, “temptation”, “evil” and “conversion””

If we were discussing a religious process, sure. I wouldn’t stand up in the middle of a church sermon and say “you don’t mean sin, you mean wrongdoing!”. But the propensity of people to do evil is essentially a scientific matter – religion can comment on it, but the issue exists and can be dealt with if religion is absent. As far as I can see, religion has nothing to contribute to the issue except in helping religious people who want to be helped. So to insist on calling wrongdoing a “sin” would be as forced as insisting on calling my camping trip to Cornwall a pilgrimage.

“I was unclear: I’m not saying that you think religion is obliged to do those things. I’m saying that, based on the “religion’s job” statement, that you seem to think that it is preferable that religious agencies address these issues more than any other agencies, and that by attempting to deal with these issues secular agencies are somehow encroaching on religion’s territory.”

That is close to what I am saying, except that when the agencies of the state act as if they were part of a religion my objection is not that they are “encroaching on religion’s territory”, as if established religions were the victim, but that they are changing the relationship between state and citizen. Is that not clear from my example? I could object to a state-sponsored Hajj, without complaining that it was unfair that religion was being stripped of a responsibility.

“Unprovable? Do you mean something that cannot be identified 100%, with a certainty of 1?”

I mean that it is not something we can demonstrate according to any agreed standard.

“If so, I’d disagree: we have to act based on the best knowledge we have – in this case, what the best evidence suggests is the reason people do bad things – and I don’t see why religion is better placed than anything else to do this.”

Again you seem to be ignoring my example. I can object to a state-sponsored Hajj, without saying that religion would organise it better. The state might be excellent at organising pilgrimages, that wouldn’t mean it should.

The point is not that state-sponsored stories about where evil comes from are somehow inferior to other stories (although I find it a bit bizarre that there might be a way for the state to collect evidence for this sort of thing) it is just not the sort of thing that I want the state to do. The state is there to fulfil political functions not to act as an authority on moral ontology, particularly over issues that are strongly tied up with people’s personal beliefs.

“Whereas governments, or democratic ones at least, have a popular mandate. That doesn’t always make them right, of course, but it’s better than relying on an organisation simply because it has spiritual beliefs.”

If you are going to ask spiritual questions, then asking organisations with agreed positions on spiritual matters makes a lot more sense than asking the state, democratic mandate or no democratic mandate. If you are asking if God exists it would make more sense to ask the Church of England or the British Humanist Association than, say, the Home Office. Not because they will necessarily give you the right answer, but because they can answer the question without going outside their area of responsibility.

“I’m honestly not sure what you mean: is the “story” the religious belief, or the unproveable claim mentioned above?”

The story is the claim that crime has a root cause and it is X (where X depends on the particular belief system we are expecting the state to adopt).

“If the former, then obviously it makes sense for religions to set up institutions such as churches, but you wouldn’t send criminals there for justice.”

I’m sorry, but how can I take that (and the similar comments that followed) as anything other than a (bizarre) straw man?

“But the propensity of people to do evil is essentially a scientific matter…”

It is far from clear to me that the nature and cause of evil is a scientific matter. It hinges to me too much on questions of meaning, and subjective experience for science to say much. Philosophy, religion, literature and history seem to me to do far more to describe and explain our *moral* universe than science ever has.

117. Chaise Guevara

@ 116 oldandrew

“That is close to what I am saying, except that when the agencies of the state act as if they were part of a religion my objection is not that they are “encroaching on religion’s territory”, as if established religions were the victim, but that they are changing the relationship between state and citizen. Is that not clear from my example? I could object to a state-sponsored Hajj, without complaining that it was unfair that religion was being stripped of a responsibility.”

That’s all well and good, but administering justice and determining why people commit evil acts are not “acting as if you were part of a religion”, they are things that the state and scientists do, respectively. I don’t see how the example is relevant to the topic.

“I mean that it is not something we can demonstrate according to any agreed standard.”

That’s impossible to know unless I know what these agreed standards would be.

“Again you seem to be ignoring my example. I can object to a state-sponsored Hajj, without saying that religion would organise it better. The state might be excellent at organising pilgrimages, that wouldn’t mean it should.”

As above, I don’t see how this is germane.

“The point is not that state-sponsored stories about where evil comes from are somehow inferior to other stories (although I find it a bit bizarre that there might be a way for the state to collect evidence for this sort of thing) it is just not the sort of thing that I want the state to do. The state is there to fulfil political functions not to act as an authority on moral ontology, particularly over issues that are strongly tied up with people’s personal beliefs.”

While the state isn’t an absolute moral authority, it does have the right to apply the vague overall morality of the people. That’s how laws work. The people overall agree that, say, murder is wrong, and the state enforces that through force (yes, this is a simplification). That doesn’t mean that people can’t dispute whether murder is wrong – it’s not a case of “the state has spoken, so the debate is over” – but it does mean the state is a moral authority by some definitions.

The application of justice is a state function. I can’t think of any better way to apply it.

As for the idea that it would be bizarre that the state could get evidence: why? The state can access behavioural studies and demographic data and research into cognition just like anyone else.

“If you are going to ask spiritual questions, then asking organisations with agreed positions on spiritual matters makes a lot more sense than asking the state, democratic mandate or no democratic mandate. If you are asking if God exists it would make more sense to ask the Church of England or the British Humanist Association than, say, the Home Office. Not because they will necessarily give you the right answer, but because they can answer the question without going outside their area of responsibility.”

Fine, but I’m not talking about spiritual things like the existence of God. I’m talking about things like why people do bad things, and how we should punish them for it.

“The story is the claim that crime has a root cause and it is X (where X depends on the particular belief system we are expecting the state to adopt).”

Ok, cheers.

“I’m sorry, but how can I take that (and the similar comments that followed) as anything other than a (bizarre) straw man?”

The clue is in the “if” at the start of the sentence you quoted, not to mention the fact that I went to pains to point out that I wasn’t sure whether or not that I had interpreted you correctly. It takes quite a victim complex to shout “straw man!” when someone has actively said “I don’t know whether this is the point you’re making”. If you’re so desperate to label me as unreasonable that you’ll ignore large parts of my posts to justify doing so, there’s not much point in us talking.

“It is far from clear to me that the nature and cause of evil is a scientific matter. It hinges to me too much on questions of meaning, and subjective experience for science to say much.”

Well, the cause of evil seems entirely scientific. If we agree that murder is evil, then discover that some people’s brains have components that makes them happy to kill people who get in their way, then we’ve found a cause scientifically. That’s a simplistic example, but I think it explains what I mean.

The nature of evil is more complicated. For a start, it depends on whether you think evil is objective or subjective. If it’s objective, then I’m not sure science could explain it – but then I don’t think that it IS objective. If it’s subjective, then what you’d really be talking about is “why do we consider some things to be evil?” And that’s scientific, it leads into cognition and evolution and things like that.

“Philosophy, religion, literature and history seem to me to do far more to describe and explain our *moral* universe than science ever has.”

I need to split objective and subjective morality again here. In terms of subjective morality, I’d say that these things have done little (excluding philosophy) while science has done loads. For objective morality, I’d say that these things and science have both done nothing to explain it – but again that’s because I don’t think objective morality exists.

“That’s all well and good, but administering justice and determining why people commit evil acts are not “acting as if you were part of a religion”,”

The former isn’t, and I have already pointed out that it is a straw man. The latter is.

“I don’t see how the example is relevant to the topic.”

Well, if you can understand my argument in the easy case of that example then you should be able to understand it in the more dififcult case we were discussing. At the very least you could test your imaginative re-interpretations of my argument on the example case before introducing them.

“That’s impossible to know unless I know what these agreed standards would be.”

The point is that there are no generally agreed standards of evidence that can be applied to determing where evil comes from.

“While the state isn’t an absolute moral authority, it does have the right to apply the vague overall morality of the people. That’s how laws work. The people overall agree that, say, murder is wrong, and the state enforces that through force (yes, this is a simplification). That doesn’t mean that people can’t dispute whether murder is wrong – it’s not a case of “the state has spoken, so the debate is over” – but it does mean the state is a moral authority by some definitions.”

This appears to be the same old tactic you were using before of explanding my argument to all of morality. I am obviously not arguing that the state will never make moral judgements.

“The application of justice is a state function. I can’t think of any better way to apply it.”

Didn’t I deal with that straw man last time too?

“As for the idea that it would be bizarre that the state could get evidence: why? The state can access behavioural studies and demographic data and research into cognition just like anyone else.”

So? Since when did they tell us where evil came from?

“Fine, but I’m not talking about spiritual things like the existence of God. I’m talking about things like why people do bad things, and how we should punish them for it.”

The point is that a philosophical question like “why do people do bad things” is far closer to a spiritual question than a political one.

“It takes quite a victim complex to shout “straw man!” when someone has actively said “I don’t know whether this is the point you’re making”. ”

Obviously, I don’t think that expressing some uncertainty while attributing a ridiculous position to me makes it any less of a waste of time. I have never even come close to saying the church should administer justice.

“Well, the cause of evil seems entirely scientific. If we agree that murder is evil, then discover that some people’s brains have components that makes them happy to kill people who get in their way, then we’ve found a cause scientifically. That’s a simplistic example, but I think it explains what I mean.”

Well, quite. If evil was simply behaviour of a prohibited kind, and behaviour simply reflected emotions and emotions were determined by components of the brain then perhaps it would be a scientific question. Unfortunately, that picture is not just simple, it is misleading. In fact, if we were to find an observable component in people’s brains that caused them to commit murder then we would not conclude we had found a cause of evil, but we would ask if the action was deliberate, and if not, how it could be evil.

“The nature of evil is more complicated. For a start, it depends on whether you think evil is objective or subjective. If it’s objective, then I’m not sure science could explain it – but then I don’t think that it IS objective. If it’s subjective, then what you’d really be talking about is “why do we consider some things to be evil?” And that’s scientific, it leads into cognition and evolution and things like that.”

Studying how people form opinions about evil cannot be the same as studying evil. It is logically incoherent to say that

X = opinions about X

(It is for this reason that it is very hard to declare morality to be subjective and still say anything useful about morality, a problem you had earlier on when you tried to suggest that you thought something could actually be just even if justice was just a matter of viewpoint.)

That said, I am not sure we can expect science to explain how we form opinions. Is opinion forming observable or repeatable?


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