As science and medicine advance, here’s a thought experiment about how we could treat our criminals differently from Oxford University’s Rebecca Roache.
Roache envisions a future where we can use chemicals to manipulate an inmates sense of time. Through these chemicals, a criminal could be made to feel like she or he is spending 1,000 years in jail, even though the person might only be in jail for days or months or a year.
Roache is “a philosopher, not a scientist,” and she’s “not in charge of anyone.” While it’s her job to contemplate some macabre, controversial ideas, none of the ideas presented here are actually in development. They’re just ideas.
A paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience outlines the nature of how we perceive time, and it has a lot to do with a neurotransmitter called GABA (other factors also come into play, like emotion and paying attention to a specific thing). Chemical manipulations of this neurotransmitter could be all we need to give criminals more prison time within a shorter-length sentence.
Roache writes in her blog, Practical Ethics, that the “subjective experience of duration could inform the design and management of prisons, with the worst criminals being sent to special institutions designed to ensure their sentences pass as slowly and monotonously as possible.”
Put another way, Dr. Roache and her team aim to undo the shortcomings of the standard prison sentence as it applies to especially vile criminals. Regarding the tragic incident of a mother and stepfather who tortured and killed their four-year-old son to receive the UK’s most severe prison sentence of 30 years, Roache calls the outcome “laughably inadequate.” She argues that the punishment could be “enhanced” (perceptually prolonged) without any changes to the UK prison system.
Roache’s ideas have drawn all kinds of criticisms — she responds to some of the common ones here. She’s not “pro-torture,” but she’s especially interested in answering questions like “Is it important for punishment to be unpleasant?”; “What makes a punishment inhumane?”; “If we could use technology to ‘calibrate’ punishments to ensure that the subjective experience of a particular punishment is similar for anyone who receives this punishment, is this something we should do?”
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