On Bloodlust and the Torture of Criminals

ON BLOODLUST AND THE TORTURE OF CRIMINALS….Eugene Volokh, who famously wrote a couple of days ago that he thought it was OK to torture especially heinous criminals before executing them slowly and painfully, has now recanted. Except he hasn’t, really. He conceded even in his original post that his views were too unpopular to ever become law, and his latest post merely concedes that his views are so unpopular that they’d also gum up the criminal justice system. That strikes me as a fairly minimal change in position.

As it happens, I share Eugene’s caution about slippery slope arguments, and he’s already preempted arguments based on moral intuition, since he figures his are as good as anyone’s and there’s not much point in trying to convince him otherwise. Still, since in principle he continues to think his position is defensible if only he could persuade his fellow citizens to agree with him, I have a boundary question for him: just how far does he think “cruel and unusual” punishment should be allowed to go?

In other words, a hundred lashes, being stabbed by your victim’s brother, and then being slowly hanged before a cheering crowd is OK. But how about being burned at the stake? Or being buried up to your neck in the desert and left for the vultures? Or being kept in a 4×4 foot box and fed moldy bread and rotting meat for the rest of your life?

These are all punishments that have been commonly accepted at various times and places in human history, but aren’t any longer by anyone we consider civilized. And this gets to the heart of the moral intuition question. Aside from material advances, the primary achievement of human civilization ? slow and spotty as it’s been ? has been moral progress: we don’t keep slaves anymore, we don’t execute heretics, and we don’t allow eight-year-olds to work 12-hour days in front of power looms.

But this progress has been tenuous and halting, with our inner demons never far from the surface ? and accepting a reversal in our slow march toward moral improvement is playing with fire: as both recent history and current history demonstrate, the veneer of civilization continues to be mighty thin. We should be working to build up the veneer that protects us from our demons, Eugene, not sand it back down.