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Should lifetime prisoners be incentivized to kill themselves?

The death penalty has various serious problems and lifetime imprisonment is really really expensive.

I guess we should be happy every time someone so thoroughly bad we want them out of society forever (like a serial murderer) does us the favour of killing themselves. Nothing of value is lost, and the justice system saves money. Right?

It seems to me it logically follows that we should incentivize such suicides. Like: 5000 dollars to a person of your choice if you're dead within the first year of your lifetime sentence, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

It feels very wrong and is clearly outside the overton window. But is there any reason to expect this wouldn't be a net benefit?

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People keep accusing me of being "uncharitable" when I claim that utilitarianism is fundamentally incompatible with human flourishing because in order to remain logically consistent it must inevitably devolve into either mindless wire-heading or a fucking death cult. And yet here we are with one of my "strawmen" made flesh asking do we really need to value life? Really? and why cant we just euthanize the people [user] doesn't like.

On the off chance you're just naive and ignorant rather than a troll, the answer to your question in the OP is; No, we shouldn't, because we've already established that this is a slippery slope, and at the bottom of this slope lies a mountain of skulls.

You as a utilitarian may see that as a fair trade for some nebulous benefit but I do not

As well take a look at the posts in the main thread here and conclude that anti-woke purity spiraling inevitably turns into Stormfront.

Dogmatic adherence to utilitarianism doesn't lead to any better outcomes than dogmatic adherence to the Old Testament. Anything has to be alloyed with common sense and some flexibility for appeals to emotion, otherwise you end up with one Repugnant Conclusion or another. TRVDITION is all fun and games and human flourishing until you have to disown your daughter for marrying the Wrong Sort (oops, guess I've been reading too many of SecureSignals' posts).

There's also an aspect of status signaling, whereby emotion is low status. The more coldblooded, the more points you get for being purely rational and high IQ - thus, nuke the GPUs/kill the degenerates/forced sterilization and eugenics.


My position is essentially that none of this is a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.

Why do you think this has anything to do with utilitarianism? Utilitarianism doesn't value the lives and well-being of mass-murderers any less than it values anyone else. It only recommends harming them as an instrumental goal to serve a more important purpose, such as saving the lives of others. A 20-year-old who raped and killed a dozen children still has plenty of potential QALYs to maximize, even adjusting his life-quality downward to account for being in prison. It's expensive but governments spends plenty of money on things with lower QALY returns than keeping prisoners alive. Also OP only differs from conventional death-penalty advocacy in that he seems concerned with the prisoners consenting, proposing incentivizing suicide instead of just executing them normally, and once again that is not something utilitarianism is particularly concerned with except in instrumental terms.

The utilitarian approach would be to estimate the deterrent and removal-from-public effect of execution/suicide-incentivization/life-in-prison/etc. and then act accordingly to maximize the net welfare of both criminals and their potential victims. It doesn't terminally value punishing evil people like much of the population does, though I think rule-utilitarianism would recommend such punishment as a good guideline for when it's difficult to estimate the total consequences. (In Scott's own Unsong the opposition of utilitarians to the existence of Hell is a plot point, reflecting how utilitarianism doesn't share the common tendency towards valuing punishment as a terminal goal.) But neither is utilitarianism like BLM in that it cares more about a couple dozen unarmed black people getting shot in conflicts with police than about thousands of additional murder victims and fatal traffic accidents per year from a pullback in proactive policing. That's just classic trolley-problem material: if one policy causes a dozen deaths at the hands of law-enforcement, and the other policy causes thousands of deaths but they're "not your fault", then it's still your responsibility to make the choice with the best overall consequences. There are of course secondary consequences to consider like the effect on police PR affecting cooperation with police, but once you're paying attention to the numbers I think it's very difficult to argue that they change the balance, especially when PR is driven more by media narratives than whether the number is 12 or 25 annually.

Notably, when utilitarians have erred regarding prisoners it seems to have been in the exact opposite direction you're concerned about. A while back someone here linked a critical analysis of an EA organization's criminal-justice-reform funding. They were primarily concerned with the welfare of the criminals rather than with secondary effects like the crime rate. The effect on the welfare of the criminals is easier to estimate, after all, an easy mistake reflecting the importance of utilitarians avoiding the streetlight effect. It was also grossly inefficient compared to other EA causes like third-world health interventions. They did end up jettisoning it (by spinning it off into an independent organization without Open Philanthropy funding), but not before spending $200 million dollars including $50 million on seed funding for the new organization. However, I think a lot of that can be blamed on the influence of social-justice politics rather than on utilitarian philosophy, and at least they ultimately ended up getting rid of it. (How many other organizations blowing money on "criminal justice reform" that turns out to be ineffective or harmful have done the same?). In any case, they hardly seem like they're about to start advocating for OP's proposal.

I think there's a lot of definitions of "utilitarianism" and they get kind of incorrectly smooshed together. On one level there's "human pleasure is the only goal and we should optimize for human pleasure". If you're optimizing solely for the short run, yes, it leads to that; if you're optimizing solely for the long run, then in the long run it perhaps leads to that; but sort of counterintuitively, if you're optimizing solely for the long run, then in the short run it reasonably doesn't lead to that, because in order to have the most humans to eventually be happy we need to accomplish a lot of other things before exterminating humanity.

Another thing that it's used to mean, though, is "any philosophy that optimizes for something", and there's plenty of somethings that don't result in that at all.

If I had to distil "utilitarianism" as I understand and use the use the term here on theMotte down to one or two sentences, it would be the confluence of the two ideas that "Moral behavior is behavior that optimizes for pleasure" and "Moral behavior is behavior that optimizes for the absence of suffering".

...and I stand by my position that the confluence of these two ideas is fundamentally incompatible with human flourishing.

Given a robust background in game theory, I'd say that utility functions can be whatever it is that you think ought to be optimized for. If maximizing pleasure leads to "bad" outcomes, then obviously your utility function contains room for other things. If you value human flourishing, then define your utility function to be "human flourishing", and whatever maximizes that is utilitarian with respect to that utility function. And if that's composed of a complicated combination of fifty interlocking parts, then you have a complicated utility function, that's fine.

Now, taking this too broadly, you could classify literally everything as utilitarianism and render the term meaningless. So to narrow things down a bit, here's what I think are the broad distinguishers of utilitarianism.

1: Consequentialism. The following of specific rules or motivations of actions matter less than their actual outcomes. Whatever rules exist should exist in service of the greater good as measured by results (in expectation), and the results are the outcome we actually care about and should be measuring. A moral system that says you should always X no matter whether it helps people or hurts people because X is itself a good action is not-consequentialist and thus not utilitarian (technically you can define a utility function that increases the more action X is taken, but we're excluding weird stuff like that to avoid literally everything counting as stated above)

2: Moral value of all people. All people (defined as humans, or conscious beings, or literally all living creatures, or some vague definition of intelligence) have moral value, and the actual moral utility function is whatever increases that for everyone (you can define this as an average, or a sum, or some complicated version that tries to avoid repugnant conclusions). The point being that all the people matter and you don't define your utility function to be "maximize the flourishing of Fnargl the Dictator". And you don't get to define a subclass of slaves who have 0 value and then maximize the utility of all of the nonslaves. All the people matter.

3: Shut up and multiply. You should be using math in your moral philosophy, and expected values. If you're not using math you're doing it wrong. If something has a 1% chance of causing 5300 instances of X then that's approximately 53 times as good/bad as causing 1 instance of X (depending on what X is and whether multiple instances synergize with each other). If you find a conclusion where the math leads to some horrible result, then you're using the math wrong, either because you misunderstand what utilitarianism means, you're using a bad utility function, or your moral intuitions themselves are wrong. If you think that torturing someone for an hour is worse than 3↑↑↑3 people getting splinters it's because your tiny brain can't grasp the Lovecraftian horror of what 3↑↑↑3 means.

Together this means that utilitarianism is a broad but not all encompassing collection of possible moral philosophies. If you think that utilitarianism means everyone sitting around being wireheaded constantly then you've imagined a bad utility function, and if you switch to a better utility function you get better outcomes. If you have any good moral philosophy, then my guess is that there is a version of utilitarianism which closely resembles it but does a better job because it patches bugs made by people being bad at math.

Sometimes, I like to throw out my own robust background in game theory. This is one of those times. Behold!

It's the same bullshit though.

Any multi-agent game is going to be by nature anti-inductive, because "the one weird trick" is stops working the moment other players start factoring it into their decisions. As such it is the optimizing impulse itself. IE the idea that morality can somehow be "solved" like a mathematical equation that ultimately presents the problem. All the jargon about Qualia, QALYs, and multiplication is just that, Jargon. Epicycles tacked on to a geocentric model of the solar system to try and explain away the inconstancies between your theory and the observed reality.

Better than a geocentric model of the solar system with no epicycles, which is what I'd compare most other moral philosophies to.

The over-optimization is largely solved by epistemic humility. Assume that whatever is actually good is some utility function, but you don't know what it actually is in proper detail, and so any properly defined utility function you write down might be wrong in some way, so don't over-optimize it to the exclusion of all else. I don't think this is somehow distinct from any other moral philosophy, which also lead to horrible results if taken to extremes.

Aren’t you tired of accusing rationalists of not caring about the things they care the most about?

Is that what you think you have? To repeat myself from another thread what predictions does you model make? In what way are they better than the alternatives? If as Yud Singer and Caplan allege "properly understood, utilitarianism approaches virtue ethics" why are you even wasting your time with utilitarianism instead of trying to teach your children virtue?

I'm a moral absolutist, not a relativist. I believe that there is one actual objective morality that describes the thing we are talking about when we mean "right" and "wrong", and each action is either right or wrong in some universal sense. Moral philosophies that people come up with should be viewed as attempts at approximating this thing, not as actual competing definitions of the words "right" and "wrong", which is why when someone comes up with an edge case where a moral philosophy extrapolates to lead to some horrific result, the most common response is either denial "no it doesn't lead to that", or an attempt to patch the theory, or "that result is actually good because X,Y,Z" where X,Y,Z are good in some other sense (usually utilitarian). Whereas if you had relativist morality or just definitions the response "yep, I believe that that horrific result is right, because that's how I've defined 'right'".

As a result, it's perfectly logical that properly understood and robust versions of any moral philosophy should approach each other. So I could make an equal claim that properly understood, virtue ethics approaches utilitarianism (is it virtuous to cause misery and and death to people which decreases their utility?). And if someone constructed a sufficiently robust version of virtue ethics that defined virtues in a way that massively increased utilities and covered all the weird edge cases then I would be happy to endorse it. I'm not familiar with the specific works of Yud Singer or Caplan you're referring to, but if they're arguing that utilitarianism eventually just turns into standard virtue ethics then I would disagree. If they're making a claim more similar to mine then I probably agree.

But again, I think utilitarianism isn't meaningless as a way of viewing right and wrong, because people are bad at math and need to use more of it. And I think fewer epicycles need to be added to most utilitarian constructions to fix them than would need to be added to virtue ethics or other systems, so it's more useful as a starting point.

Why does it have to remain logically consistent? I haven't seen a single alternative belief system that met that standard yet.

Because unlike many other beliefs systems they actually try to justify their positions on the basis of being "logical" and "correct"

You see, this might be because the problem is wider than utilitarianism. It's the whole of sufficiently deeply considered consequentialism, optimizing over global outcomes. Utilitarianism is an ethical decision theory; something like deontology is a set of heuristics.

Good point.

The death penalty has various serious problems

Are your problems with the death penalty pragmatic or moral? If they are pragmatic, then as you point out this proposal is even farther outside the overton window and will never be implemented. If they are moral, then all I can say is that I think that if we as a society decide that someone should die we owe them the respect of shooting them in the head instead of bullying them into suicide with mind games or financial incentives to assuage our guilty consciences by only killing indirectly.

I agree with you on practical grounds and I don't think any kind of good policy can be of the wink wink nudge nudge kind as op suggests. The sorts of checks and balances that make the death penalty expensive are necessary for predictability and consistency. I suspect this option done with those checks is probably even more expensive than the existing options.

Morally however I think this proposal is actually an improvement as it gives the prisoner more of a choice, something current death row inmates don't get. Of couse there's a whole can of worms there around how much of a choice is a choice. I'm personally okay with bribery which is in the interest of social good but not with blackmail. Others may differ in opinions there.

There have been societies where suicide is an option presented to and taken by many criminals (Classical Greece and Rome, Premodern China and Japan), but these societies were all much more shame-based than our own, and were places where the stain on one's family reputation and the posthumous treatment of one's children, spouse, friends, etc. could be noticeably improved by choosing to do "the honorable thing." I think you would need that sort of understanding hardwired into the culture before people would accept this particular bargain, and simple bribery just doesn't carry the same weight as all of society, your ancestors, and the gods pressing down on you to do it.

No, they should be executed. For free.

The only thing more cowardly that not facing up with the consequence of admitting some criminals are beyond saving is asking the criminals to do society's duty in it's stead because we so fear having blood on our hands.

Not to mention the utter affront to the dignity of man having people haggle themselves into death is.

Asking people to debase themselves so cannot be called justice. It's torture. And it's evil. As are all such unnecessary cruelties.

How would you feel about the option for long-term inmates to have the means to commit suicide? With painless pills. No bribe system, just an option. Not like there's a ton of dignity in dying of old age in prison. Or having to kill yourself in some DIY way. And on that point, I'll never believe that the government owns our lives, so they have no right to stop us from ending our lives. Unless it's directly going to impact other lives. For example, suicide bombers, or people raising kids.

How would you feel about the option

This does not address my charge of cowardice. So I feel about it the same.

In fact I do not see any difference, given such "options" are optimized into being mandatory every time they are introduced. This is why I'm also against the revolting Canadian euthanasia system.

If you want people to die, kill them. Don't nag them onto suicide.

I'll never believe that the government owns our lives, so they have no right to stop us from ending our lives. Unless it's directly going to impact other lives. For example, suicide bombers, or people raising kids.

This tells me you don't actually hold any such principle and are perfectly fine with the government killing your actual ennemies. You just feel more kinship with some criminals than others.

To your last point, I think your emotions got the better of you. Or you're just extremely confused. But with your anger at the Canadian gov allowing euthanasia, I think it's the former. The government doesn't own humans. We aren't property. Our lives are our own to end, whenever we want. I understand that totalitarians can't grasp this concept, so I don't waste too much time trying to push that point to you guys.

On the first point of cowardice... again, allowing people to chose to die if they don't like their circumstances is not cowardice, it's compassion. Forcing someone to rot in a cage is peak cowardice. Whether or not I WANT people to die is irrelevant. I WANT them to have the agency to determine for themselves if they want to live or die. Inside or outside of jail. Again, exception for the direct harm to other people. But if the point is that jail/prison will drive more people to suicide, well that is completely irrelevant because the fact remains that we will still be locking them up. And they'll still be humans with the inherent right to determine for themselves if they want to continue living. And they shouldn't have to torture themselves in some crude manner in order to get their wish.

We aren't property. Our lives are our own to end, whenever we want. I understand that totalitarians can't grasp this concept, so I don't waste too much time trying to push that point to you guys.

I think you have a flawed theory of natural rights if you think being killed by your declared ennemies is something abnormal.

There is no such thing as a right to life. Because nature doesn't afford any such right without the existence of the State. All that God provides is a right to defend yourself against the State to the death if they want to kill you. Nothing more.

Now of course the government doesn't own you. It's impossible to own a human or anything that has a will in any coherent sense. But we kill things we don't own all the time, through war, property has nothing to do with it, unless you want to think of justice or victory as a form of slavery, which is in fact the sort of barbaric view I do not condone.

I understand that totalitarians can't grasp this concept, so I don't waste too much time trying to push that point to you guys.

I don't think you understand what totalitarianism is if you think that I'm one or that supporting the death penalty has anything to do with it.

Was the British Empire totalitarian? How about France up until the 80s? What about ancient Greece?

allowing people to chose to die if they don't like their circumstances is not cowardice

We'll have to disagree. If you believe that it is just some die, kill them. If you do not, don't. Asking others to do the job and calling it free will is silly business.

I'm coming to the conclusion that we're doing it all wrong.

The current U.S. system seems to imprison to few people (yes, too few) for too short a period of time, but it makes the experience hellish.

We should have more people in prison and longer sentences as well. This is the best and maybe only way to reduce the amount of violent crime to tolerable levels. It worked in the 1990s and it will work again. To make this politically palatable we should make prisons as humane as possible. This would also reduce the damage of false imprisonment. I don't care if violent sociopaths are pampered as long as they are removed from society.

The cost of this proposal? Nothing compared to the savings from having a drastically lower rate of crime.

Violent crime is already at tolerable levels.

You and I are probably not going to get murdered, but that's cold comfort to a male born in Detroit whose chance of dying via murder is about 8% before age 80.

(Calculated based on a male homicide rate of 100/100,000 per year).

That's just murder. How many more people are shot or stabbed and don't die? How many inner cities are hollowed out wastelands?

And of course, this is a very American perspective. How do you think an average European would feel if their murder rate increased by 5x to American levels. Or how would a Japanese person feel to see a 25x increase in murder rates?

I think violent crime is an order of magnitude too high and that the benefit of lowering crime far outweighs the cost.

Ya lower the burden of proof and nab multiples to an order of magnitude more people, kinda based on crime, kind of on speculation... but make it nice, have pools, maternity ward... And don't make it so dour and metalic and institutional, you could have a nice open air town type setup... sure barb wire and guards around, but we could even let them have specialized work and band... it wouldn't be so much a prison... It'd be like going to Camp!

Oh wait...

Seriously this is what concentration camps are. This is what the British said they were doing to the Boer, what Canada and Britain did to Germans and Ukrainians in ww1, what the US did to the Japanese, and what the Gulags and Auschwitz at least nominally started off as when they were "merely" replicating the Tsar's prison camps and Germany's WW1 prison camps.

That sounds a lot more like an old-timey insane asylum. Conditions there were often horrific.

So? Are you implying that a human concentration camp is a special atrocity in a way that a hellish prison is not? To the extent we think concentration camps are bad at all, isn't it that we disagree with the reasons people were forced to be there? Why would violent crime make this list?

The horror of concentration camps was the loss of due process of law and basic rights of citizenship.

Once you can be deprived of freedom indefinitely with a crime being proven or even charged, merely the expediency of the state, well execution is also a punishment the state meets out.

If you can be imprisoned without a proper trial or due process, execution without trial or due process is merely a matter of degree.

All the data I’ve seen says prison sentences are far too long. I’ll mostly reference Tabarrok who’s done a lot of work there. Simplistically people age out of crime. And criminals generally respond better to more consistent policing and punishment than less consistent and longer.

We can both be right. I'd agree that a 50 year sentence or whatever is too long for all but the most heinous of crimes. There is no need to keep old men in prison. I'd also agree that people who commit non-violent offenses should be given swift, sure, but not too severe punishment.

It's also clear to me that under no circumstances should a murderer or a person with multiple violent crimes be released before age 35.

Why should this be limited to prisoners? We can probably come up with actuarial tables that estimate everyone's net benefit to the society. If someone's projected to cost the government X by the time they are dead, why not offer them a loan of 0.25X right now with the stipulation that if they default on it, they get to send 0.25X more to whomever they want, but are executed afterwards?

Out of curiosity, how do you feel about Canada’s euthanasia policy?


If you want a longer answer: hell, no!

If you want to chinstroke about "but whyyyy", I suggest you try the cup of hemlock and see how you like the taste.

Damn it, every time I think "I'm really overdoing the Chesterton quotes", someone comes along and provokes me:

Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps) inconsistent with is the generous treatment of criminals; with any appeal to their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle. The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.

Hey diddley dee, we're too damn cowardly to straightforwardly execute criminals, so we'll torment them till their lives are so unbearable that they kill themselves. But we're not boiling the oil ourselves, oh dear no! It just happened to heat up all by itself.

EDIT: And before you go "But I never said anything about torment, I said a cash money figure to encourage the 'fell down the stairs' situations", if you think people will go along with paying money to the relatives of violent criminals, you haven't thought this through. We're already wanting to save money by having them kill themselves, much easier (and much easier also to appeal to the vicious streak in all our natures, masquerading as wanting justice) to drive them to do it rather than pay them. Society is already fucked-up enough, let's not encourage amateur torturers who will drool at the notion of having guinea-pigs to practice their art on - and all in the name of "value for society by getting rid of the worst scum", to boot.

5000 dollars to a person of your choice

This will rapidly result in effectively paying the meanest prisoner $5000 a head to bring the life of weak prisoners to an end and making it look like suicide. It's a death penalty by proxy with cash rewards for the most ruthless serial murderer. You could try and close that loophole but they'll remain incentivised to the tune of $5000 to find new exploits, and each $5000 will give them additional capacity to find them. It's a persecution racket.

if you want prisoners to die you should assume the responsibility for killing them.

if you want prisoners to die you should assume the responsibility for killing them.

Exactly. I don't support the death penalty, but if we want dead criminals, let's man the fuck up and hire the public executioner and face up to what we're doing, rather than "it was up to Joe the Joker if he killed himself or not, our hands are clean".

Reminds me of Kevin Williamson's support for hanging (though he opposes the death penalty). If we want the state to have the power of execution, we should have to confront the consequences. None of this pseudo medicalized stuff. Firing squad or hanging.

I agree. I always thought we should use the firing squad. If we are going to execute people we need to be extremely clear that this is what we are doing: killing a human being. Firing squad seems more difficult to screw up.

The moral basis for protecting life is surely more related to the ... continuance of that life and the person's experiences and actions, than the person's lack of consent to dying? Children drowning wouldn't be good if you could convince the kids it was a good thing.

So, if killing prisoners is good, why get their consent? Just increase the scope of the death penalty. The much-mentioned expense of the death penalty is entirely procedural. And if it's bad, then why would their consent matter?

Anyway, the cost, in money, of lifetime imprisonment isn't that much on a societal scale, like, compared to welfare or healthcare. A competent government should probably address it, but it's not particularly pressing.

We went through an era where a number of convictions made under old forensic regimes got overturned by DNA evidence which reduced a lot of people's faith in the trial system. You might say if person did x they should die, but I'm only 95% certain they did x, so we'll confine them but not kill them on the off chance evidence emerges to vindicate them. Maybe then you give the prisoners who have no hope of such evidence emerging the option to kill themselves.

Though it's hard to ignore the perverse incentives that the worse you make prisons the more people will kill themselves and then you'll save money so it's a bad idea overall.

You might say if person did x they should die, but I'm only 95% certain they did x, so we'll confine them but not kill them on the off chance evidence emerges to vindicate them.

Do you think that it's bad that with the death penalty, you'll kill any innocent people, or too many innocent people?

All death penalty opponents I meet answer "any at all". But if that's your reasoning you shouldn't even be imprisoning them for life. You'll still get cases where someone dies in jail before there's evidence that proves them innocent. You have a longer time period before they die of old age in jail rather than before they're executed, so it's more likely that they'll be proven innocent, but it's still not guaranteed, so if your objection is that we permanently punish innocent people at all, life imprisonment is not acceptable either.

Actually, by this reasoning you shouldn't be imprisoning them for any length of time which you can't or won't compensate them for by money. You can argue how long that is; I'd say anything more than a week is, unless compensation is drastically higher than minimum wage.

Otherwise, there's an acceptable level of innocent people executed, the same way that there's an acceptable level of innocent people killed by prisoners whom we release too early. (Also, many "innocent" people still participated in the crime, just in ways which only allow lesser punishments.)

I'm not an anti-death penalty activist and I think there is some acceptable number of innocents killed by the state. I don't really believe that vengeance has any value beyond deterrence. If we end up in AI utopia with limitless resources then I wouldn't want to give anyone the death penalty, but in the present the state needs to balance deterrence, cost, and accuracy/fairness.

I don't think your conflation of death with life imprisonment as things the state should never do on the off chance it does it to an innocent makes much sense. You can say that some harm to innocents in order to confine violent criminals is okay but once they are already confined killing them has minimal benefit and raises the possibility of such immense harm to an innocent that it's not worth it.

Let's say that we develop a technology that lets people experience not just death but a virtual lifetime of torment in hell before their execution. Maybe this has an additional deterrent effect, and so it's worth consigning some innocents to VR hell. But we keep cranking this up and up, it's not just one life time it's 10 lifetimes, a hundred, a thousand. Do we at some point hit diminishing returns on deterrence while the repugnance of an undeserving person suffering this becomes unbearable to you?

I don't think your conflation of death with life imprisonment as things the state should never do on the off chance it does it to an innocent makes much sense.

It does if you don't fall in the lizardman constant. I guarantee you that outside weird rationalist forums, you'll find essentially nobody at all, and certainly no death penalty opponents, who say that there is an acceptable level of innocents killed by the state. Yes, if you do say that, my argument isn't relevant.

The moral basis for protecting life is surely more related to the ... continuance of that life and the person's experiences and actions, than the person's lack of consent to dying?

Preference utilitarianism and to some extent liberalism disagree with this.

i am in general agree with Richard Hanania on this issue: the scope of automatic death penalty should be expanded and expedited, and trials shortened and fewer or no appeals.

How far expanded?

While I think we should be able to sentence some people to death, expanding the list of crimes is a perverse incentive.

Chen turns to his friend Wu Guang and asks “What’s the penalty for being late?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“And what’s the penalty for rebellion?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“Well then…” says Chen Sheng.

And thus began the famous Dazexiang Uprising, which caused thousands of deaths and helped usher in a period of instability and chaos that resulted in the fall of the Qin Dynasty three years later.

I’m saying the death penalty should be safe, legal, and rare.

When I see people arguing for expansion of the death penalty to (child) rapists, this is often my main concern- if the penalty is already death, it increases incentives to go ahead and kill the victim before they become a witness.

This proves too much and can be stretched until it precludes all punishment.

(Chemical) castration for child rapists is still on the table.

Please elaborate. It seems to be limited to only the expansion of using the most severe allowable punishment (so would also be the case if the punishment for both murder and child rape were life without parole, but would not apply if the punishment for child rape were death but the punishment for murder was torture then death) for things less than murder.

One of the reasons why ancient legal codes where execution was a common punishment allowed for various different methods of execution, allowed for punishments beyond execution (such as also killing one's family, seizing lands and titles) etc.

Edit: To carry on the Qin example, if the penalty for being late was death but the penalty for treason was death and seizure of all your family's assets, there would still be incentive to not commit treason.

The issue I take with your argument above is that it hinges on whether the escalation of the penalty from life in prison to death incentivizes the escalation of child rape to child murder. As far as I can see, a child rapist may as well escalate to child murder in order to eliminate a witness that may lead to his lifelong imprisonment. Or to his less long imprisonment. Or to his public flogging. Or to his being fined. Obviously the likelihood decreases the further down we go, but I find it somewhat arbitrary to pick out any one point and say "here we may not escalate the punishment no matter how severe the crime, lest the criminal commit further crimes in order to increase his odds of going unpunished altogether".

Maybe I'm being overly critical because it runs counter to my own views on justice. Not sure, to be honest.

I mean, the French found something like that when the penalty for rape was close to the one for murder. Rapists were silencing their victims. Permanently. So if you can commit one crime and then cover it up with a second, greater crime, it seems good to not have incentives to do that. You have two competing goals here…reducing the number of child rapists, and reducing the number of murders.

Thank you for elaborating, that makes more sense.

Maybe I'm being overly critical because it runs counter to my own views on justice. Not sure, to be honest.

Fair, even I have a point where I say "to hell with the utilitarian calculus, this must be punished harshly" (i.e even if somehow just making murder legal provided a drastic reduction in what we would currently call murders I still wouldn't be able to stomach such a state of affairs).

My only pushback would be that I do not consider this particular point arbitrary, because while for the rest

As far as I can see, a child rapist may as well escalate to child murder in order to eliminate a witness that may lead to his lifelong imprisonment. Or to his less long imprisonment. Or to his public flogging. Or to his being fined.

there is still possibility of a downside to committing another crime to reduce the chances of being caught for the first- yes, maybe they'll opt to take their chances with the death penalty to reduce their chances of life imprisonment or any imprisonment etc, but once the punishments are equal it is ALWAYS "correct" to commit any additional crimes that reduce the chance of being caught by any amount.

A net benefit to whom? The government's balance sheet?

No. IMO the lifetime prisoner's goal should be repentance, as they have souls like the rest of us.

Ideally, (and my God I'm overdosing on idealism here), the goal for the lifer should be to shepherd those serving shorter terms through and out of the prison experience, guide them into reformation. The lifer should read letters from those he has successfully guided and feel accomplishment from this.

This would work better if we had a quicker/cheaper mechanism to execute the truly irredeemable.