Peter Moskos wrote in favour of bringing back the lash as a form of punishment.
Robin Hanson responded:
Yup. The US spends vast sums to affirm its myths of greatness, such on arms to affirm our saving the world from nazis, communists, etc. and on med to affirm our gift of modern med to the world. You might hope we’d give up eventually as myths become obviously wrong, but this prison myth, that we are kind because we won’t flog, has lasted for two centuries in the face of consistently contrary evidence, and gives no signs of abating. Could our military and med myths last that long?
I disagree. That we are kind because we don’t flog is no myth. In common use, whether you are kind or cruel is not about what happens to the person you are supposedly being kind or cruel to. It is about what your actions say about your psychology.
You can be perfectly kind while knowing strangers die far away for want of help. If strangers die in front of you without you responding, that’s much more of a problem because it says you have no strong emotional response to this. That’s a worrying characteristic in an ally, for whatever reason. You can be kind while you vote for policies that everyone knows will indirectly harm people, as long as you’re apparently motivated by the right feelings about the immediate, visible effects. Do the opposite, and you are a cold and heartless calculator. Not kind at all, even if your actions benefit abstract people somewhere.
Kind people respond to immediate, vivid things, but are less required to respond to more abstract ones, and should never do so at the expense of the vivid things.
Kind people are expected to have a stronger emotional reaction to seeing a person being bloodied and tortured than to seeing them sitting behind bars. I expect this is because the cost of imprisonment is stretched over a very long time, so only a tiny bit of it is ever immediate to the viewer.
So we are kind – in the sense of having appropriate emotional reactions – because we won’t flog. If being kind in this way is at the expense of prisoners, that is an abstract concern that kind people need not be upset by.