Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Non-violence for a modern world

The problem sociopaths present to a non-violent society has been bugging me for quite a while. And this is in a perfect non-violent society! Nevermind real life which not only has sociopaths but general delinquents and immoral people. Furthermore, a stance of pure non-violence seems at-odds with a utilitarian perspective. If someone is going to do lots of harm/evil/disutility, from a utilitarian view that person should be stopped if possible. But wait, we're not supposed to use violence, because violence is also disutility. It hurts the inflicter as well as the inflictee.

Why be non-violent? Violence often leads to death, and death should be avoided. Human life is worth more than any current computers (unless one happens to be running a true AGI...), it is also worth more than any multi-million dollar mansion. Obviously people disagree with this, whether consciously or unconsciously and to various degrees, and I'm not excusing myself or trying to pretend I'm not selfish or irrational with respect to consistent spending like nearly everyone else. But in principle, human life is valuable, and I think a lot of people when faced with the choice of being directly responsible for a death vs. having a shiny new toy will choose to save the life even if they don't personally know the person. (It's of course not a sure fire bet when the person is, say, Stalin.) It's just easy to not consider the sheer amount of suffering out there.

The tenant of transhumanism is that life is good, therefore if possible life should be saved. If a person is 80 years old and it's possible to extend their life another 80 years, then you should do it. If a baby catches pneumonia and it's possible to cure the disease, then that should be done. "Possible" takes into account utility, but only in the positive sense. If it's not possible to save someone because of technology, okay. Money generally isn't an excuse, and "if you save him, he'll end up killing people" is a false implication. Save him, then keep him from killing people.

Which brings me to my main point: how do you keep people from killing other people, or even just being "bad", when you believe in non-violence? Relying on human psychology such as compassion and respect can only go so far, and it takes strong dedication to practice non-violence in "casual" situations which aren't part of a larger picture (such as demonstrations or protests); it is so strong in fact that I can't really expect it of most of humanity.

I think the deeper problem is death. Say you just bought a multi-million dollar mansion, and a couple months later a slight fire starts in the third kitchen on the south end and damages the kitchen pretty badly, but was put out in time. Do you then go out and buy a new house, because part of your house was damaged? No, you fix your house. You remodel the kitchen. Same thing with a computer. If your RAM dies, you don't automatically go to build a new computer, you just simply replace the RAM.

The deeper problem is death. Therefore killing should be forbidden in all circumstances; there is always an alternative to death. And what that alternative must immediately be can differ on what the alternative must eventually be. If a man is running at you with intent to kill, it is proper to disarm and/or disable him. The method of doing that should be as non-violent as possible and should never kill. I think this is the way society is sliding, thankfully, but it needs more strength and of course more restrictions. Cops are no longer supposed to use lethal force "unless absolutely necessary" (something I believe is never justified), but you still hear of people dying from tasers. Cops are irresponsible with how they stop someone from producing disutility; tasers shouldn't be the first resort. Thus I think it is forgivable, in the immediate moment, to inflict the minimal possible violence on someone in order to stop them. This produces the least disutilty.

The next question is how to proceed from there in a moral fashion. You've got Stalin on the floor; now what? Well, just as you fix a computer instead of replace it, you should fix the human. After all, violent people are also victims. Victims of circumstance and victims of society: it's not surprising that rapists are most often sexually frustrated men who, for various reasons, have had no success in finding a mate and resort to drastic measures that could still have paid off (genetically speaking) in the ancestral environment. It's not surprising that people who starve, even though it is fully feasible for society to put food in their mouths, steal bread from their neighbors or the supermarket. Are rape and theft bad things? Yes, but it's getting increasingly difficult to lay all the blame on the individual and prosecute them as such. It's like prosecuting your computer for a bad RAM stick.

We have technology to muck with the brain, and while it is currently fairly primitive it is getting better all the time. What do we do with mentally ill people? (Well, we used to do horrible things, but in a modern, civilized society...) We take care of their basic human needs to the possible extent, and then we try to fix them. Some mental illnesses are more forgiving to fix than others, but regardless we still try. Then we try to help them back into society. We need to do this not just with the mentally ill, but with all delinquents.

Gandhi said "Poverty is the worst form of violence." How do you fix the thief who stole food? Well, what made him steal the food in the first place? He was hungry. Why was he hungry? Because he had no food. Why did he have no food? Because he had no marketable skills and was unable to provide for himself in this sick society. He is in poverty. To fix the thief temporarily, you must give him food. To fix the thief permanently, you must give him education. To fix the entire problem of theft, you must eliminate want. Punishing the thief is not going to deter other hungry thieves. The non-violent solution is to discover the root cause of the problem, and fix it if possible.

Sociopaths fall under the category of mentally ill, to me. And while it is not currently possible to fix them (and I don't know whether anything exists that tries to fix them, which is what most mentally ill medication is for (cures aren't yet common)), they must still be contained. But not in prisons (which are stupid and don't work anyway). In their own rehabilitation area. Put all the sociopaths together and try to keep them from killing each other. It is a "prison" only in the sense that they cannot leave, just as normal people cannot leave the earth. Things like the internet and recreational activities should still be open to them, and to others under different rehabilitation programs. Of course with some they would be allowed to leave, but would have supervision if it's a serious problem that needs serious rehabilitation.

Prisons are just another example of the sickness of this society. Instead of locking up the thief, he should be rehabilitated. There are certain criminals where I would agree it is not possible to fix them now, but in the future that may not be the case, and so that's no reason for killing them or locking them up in a cage. When someone is violent, then the rest of society is justified in using the minimal amount of force (or "counter-violence") in the immediate moment to stop them. The image of bean bag guns shot at the head to knock unconscious keeps popping into my mind. But to really be non-violent, the violent person must be fixed. The fix can also be forced, I think. (This leads to debatable territory: I don't think religious people should have their brains altered so that they become more rational unless they desire it or unless they act on their beliefs and attempt to do something causing disutility. If they are violent, then they can be forced to accept the fix, but only then.)

It pains me to back down from pure non-violence, but I think this variant, of allowing only the most minimal violence possible in the immediate while working to reduce violence overall eventually, can work in modern society and is also more acceptable to people. It also doesn't seem like a true betrayal of Gandhi. It avoids the problems of sociopaths and general delinquents, and while it does introduce a few new problems (like who's paying for all this, to which I respond: would you rather have your taxes going toward killing people or saving them?), those are trivially solved by compassionate, rational people.

Addendum: this post is rather fuzzy; I'll have to formalize it into a technical document sometime later to deal with ambiguities and potential misinterpretations.

Posted on 2010-02-09 by Jach

Tags: morality, non-violence, rationality, utility


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