Saturday, March 31, 2012

Zakaria On Incarceration Nation

Following on from my series of recent posts on incarceration, this CNN clip is apt.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Exceptional Longevity and Compressed Morbidity

The latest issue of The Journals of Gerontology has this encouraging study which suggests that the longest lived humans (e.g. supercentenarians age >110) not only remain healthy for a longer period of time by delaying the onset of disease, but they also experience a shorter period of disease at the end of their lives (compared to most people who develop disease and die at an earlier age).

We analyze the relationship between age of survival, morbidity, and disability among centenarians (age 100–104 years), semisupercentenarians (age 105–109 years), and supercentenarians (age 110–119 years). One hundred and four supercentenarians, 430 semisupercentenarians, 884 centenarians, 343 nonagenarians, and 436 controls were prospectively followed for an average of 3 years (range 0–13 years). The older the age group, generally, the later the onset of diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and stroke, as well as of cognitive and functional decline. The hazard ratios for these individual diseases became progressively less with older and older age, and the relative period of time spent with disease was lower with increasing age group. We observed a progressive delay in the age of onset of physical and cognitive function impairment, age-related diseases, and overall morbidity with increasing age. As the limit of human life span was effectively approached with supercentenarians, compression of morbidity was generally observed.

These findings lend yet greater support to the aspirations of positive biology. It suggests that the current strategy of tackling each specific disease of aging for the average person is not only unlikely to significantly increase the number of healthy years we experience, but it will also lead to a prolonged period of morbidity (given the reality of comorbidity, so all the diseases of aging would have to be cured at once for this not to the case, which is unlikely given that not one single chronic disease has been eliminated). By contrast, figuring out the biology of the longest lived, who delay the onset of disease and experience a compression of morbidity might lead to an intervention that permits us to offer these same desirable life prospects to the average person. And that would be much more significant than eliminating all 200+ types of cancer in terms of increasing the opportunities populations have for health.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rapamycin Might Also Enhance Spatial Learning And Memory (in addition to increasing lifespan)

... according to this study on mice in the latest issue of Cell Aging. The abstract:

Understanding the factors that contribute to age-related cognitive decline is imperative, particularly as age is the major risk factor for several neurodegenerative disorders. Levels of several cytokines increase in the brain during aging, including IL-1β, whose levels positively correlate with cognitive deficits. Previous reports show that reducing the activity of the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) extends lifespan in yeast, nematodes, Drosophila, and mice. It remains to be established, however, whether extending lifespan with rapamycin is accompanied by an improvement in cognitive function. In this study, we show that 18-month-old mice treated with rapamycin starting at 2 months of age perform significantly better on a task measuring spatial learning and memory compared to age-matched mice on the control diet. In contrast, rapamycin does not improve cognition when given to 15-month-old mice with pre-existing, age-dependent learning and memory deficits. We further show that the rapamycin-mediated improvement in learning and memory is associated with a decrease in IL-1β levels and an increase in NMDA signaling. This is the first evidence to show that a small molecule known to increase lifespan also ameliorates age-dependent learning and memory deficits.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

EMBO Reports Paper- Now Published

My paper "'Positive biology' as a new paradigm for the medical sciences" is now published in the March issue of EMBO Reports. The paper is currently listed as #7 in the top 10 "Science and Society" downloads for the journal. So let's hope the message of positive biology is getting out there.

Here is the abstract of the paper:

Most basic and applied research in the medical sciences today is premised upon the presumption that well-ordered science requires us to prioritize what one can call “negative biology”. Negative biology is the intellectual framework that presumes the most important question to answer is- what causes pathology? Positive biology, by contrast, focuses on a different set of questions and priorities. Rather than making disease the central focus of our intellectual efforts and financial investments, positive biology seeks instead to understand exemplar examples of health and happiness. Understanding why some (rare) individuals can live a century of disease-free life, or why some individuals enjoy more well-being (e.g. positive subjective experience, optimism, perseverance, high talent) or possess greater memory or resilience than the average person could lead to new knowledge that permits us to significantly expand the opportunities today’s populations have for health and happiness.


Punishment and Incarceration (Part 2)

This post follows on from my previous post on punishment and incarceration (Part 1 is here).

Before I begin to explore the justifications of punishment (which will be the focus of the next few posts), let's begin with some statistics about prisons and incarceration in the United States.

This website is very useful, it contains the "Prison brief" which has data on prisons and the incarcerated around the world.

The estimated prison population for the United States is 2,266,832. This figure is truly staggering. Compare how the US (ranked #1 in prison population in the world) fares to Canada (ranked #42 by prison population), a neighbouring liberal democracy. For every 100,000 people, the United States has 730 inmates, whereas in Canada the number is 117 inmates per 100,000 people. This means there over six inmates in prison in the US for every one inmate in Canada. The US has over 5000 institutions and the capacity of these institutions to house inmates is estimated to be at 110.1%. In other words, the cup of criminal justice in the US "overfloweth"!

The estimated costs of police protection, corrections, judicial and legal services in the US for the year 2007 was $228 billion.

What explains the dire situation [I'll say more in a future post about why I think it is accurate to describe it as dire] of criminal justice in the US? The answer is extremely complex, and I myself wouldn't be able do justice to the complexity of issues that arise in this context, and certainly not in a blog post. But there are a number of considerations worth keeping in mind. So let's briefly review a few, but by no means all, of these here.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we must be careful not to make the hasty and faulty assumption that a high prison population rate necessarily means that a society has a higher rate of criminals in the population compared to other countries. Why not? Well, for a number of reasons.

1. One society might be much more successful in detecting, capturing and prosecuting criminal offenders. This might explain part of the reason why it has a higher prison population rate than a country that is less successful in enforcing criminal justice.

2. The size of the prison population will represent the severity of the punishment a country sanctions. So two countries might have similar rates of crime, but if country A imposes an average of 10 years incarceration for offence X, and country B only imposes 5 years for the same offence, then country B will have less inmates even though they have comparable rates of crime.

3. Countries vary in terms of what they deem to constitute "criminal activity". Country A might tolerate prostitution and drug use, for example, while country B makes these same activities a criminal offence punishable by incarceration. The fact that country B has a higher prison population rate does not necessarily mean that the population in country B are "depraved" in ways that the population in country A are not, it might reflect the fact that different kinds of behaviour are tolerated in one country but not in another.

Secondly, the current state of criminal justice in the US is the culmination of many distinct cultural factors that make the US an outlier when compared to other democratic states, like France and Germany for example. A historical comparison of the US and Continental Europe is the focus of this excellent book which I just finished reading. In addition to factors like racism, fierce Christian beliefs, etc. Whitman argues that the divergence between America and Continental European approaches to punishment over the past 25 years reflects the different patterns of egalitarian social status they have pursued in punishment and patterns of resistance to state power. The first point is what interests me most, so I will limit my discussion here to that point.

Whitman contends that Continental Europe had a tradition of treating "high" and "low" status offenders differently. The latter were subjected to degrading punishment (e.g. mutilation, shaming, etc.) and were effectively seen as slaves, while the former would not be subjected to these same degrading measures. As this hierarchy in Europe began to unravel over the 19th and 20th centuries, the application of criminal justice moved in the direction of treating all like "high status" rather than "low status" offenders. So they pursued a "levelling up" approach to punishment. This approach means that punishment in these countries is pursued in a manner that is more compatible with human dignity. Prisoners are addressed as "sir", they can wear their own clothes or clothing that resembles the clothing of non-inmates, they are allowed (indeed encouraged) to vote and exercise their political rights, they can work, maintain family relations, have cells with no peep holes and guards are expected to knock before entering, etc.

The situation in US prisons is very different. Because the US did not have the kind of embedded two-tiered system of hierarchical punishment which pervaded Continental Europe, the US went the route of "levelling down" with respect to punishment. Equal treatment for all prisoners meant all were to be subjected to the same degrading treatment typical of those accorded "low status" in society. The lack of an aristocratic element in American culture explains why degradation is such an intricate part of American-style criminal justice.

The punishment of offenders in the US is also regularly treated as a topic to be determined by "populist justice". If a politician is perceived to be "soft on crime" that is a serious liability. Just this morning I was struck by the media coverage CNN has given to the story below, which effectively illustrates Whitman's point that Americans treat punishment in a populist way that plays into the worse elements of our primal retributive sensibilities.

Unlike France and Germany, where bureaucratic control over the administration of criminal justice is protected from public scrutiny, the American system is guided by the worse elements of democratic politics-- the primal retributive sensibilities of a demos that is ill-informed about the true causes of crime in their own society and yet are more than eager to demand "tough justice" be imposed upon criminal offenders of various kinds, including juvenile and non-violent offenders.

Whitman's masterful comparative analysis of punishment in the US and Continental Europe reveals how degrading and harsh American criminal justice is (at least relative to France and Germany). In the next post I will turn to my main task of critiquing the philosophical justification of punishment that has helped legitimize American style criminal justice- retributivism. I will argue that, paradoxically, the route taken by American style retributivism (i.e. longer prison sentences for a host of criminal offences) does not actually have the intended impact it aspires to have (namely, to inflict more suffering upon inmates). However, even though longer prison sentences does not reduce the happiness of inmates, it does adversely affect their welfare (e.g. life expectancy, health, status in society). I will argue that these facts create a number of difficulties for retributivism. The first point suggests that longer prison sentences do not achieve the proportionality of punishment that justice that retributivism mandates. The latter, I will argue, suggests that the attempt to realize retributivist aspirations, while ineffective in some ways, overextends in others (by adversely harming the welfare of offenders). We would be better positioned to redress these problems if we abandon retributivism as the central justification for punishment and invoke instead the moral education theory of punishment. More to follow later.


Friday, March 09, 2012

Punishment and Incarceration (Part 1)

Over the coming weeks I hope to post a few substantive items related to a new paper I am writing on the themes of punishment, happiness and incarceration.

Writing this paper is a welcome return for me to themes in law, after being mostly preoccupied with topics in the biomedical sciences for the past few years. And I envision this paper to be an extension of previous work done in the area of extending the virtue ethics tradition to topics in legal theory. So I am keen to make serious progress on this topic over the next few months.

The central impetus for writing this new paper comes from the intriguing empirical findings that incarceration does not, over time, reduce the (hedonic) happiness of inmates (see, for example, here, here, here, here and here).

This fact will surprise, indeed perhaps even outrage, many people. "We should make prison life even more harsh, the problem is we are too soft on criminals!", some might argue. That kind of (popular) attitude is precisely, I will argue, the problem! Indeed, it is the primary reason why we have instituted ineffective, costly and unjust institutions and practices of criminal justice. I believe virtue ethics, especially a paternalistic moral education theory of punishment (à la, Hampton, Morris, and Plato), can offer us some theoretical insights that might help us straighten out this mess. The most central insights are: (1) the primary reason for punishing criminals ought to paternalistic rather than retributive, (2) punishment is a way of teaching ethical knowledge-- so, as Hampton aptly puts the point-- "Wrong occasions punishment not because pain deserves pain, but because evil deserves correction". But a great deal of ground has to be covered before I turn to the benefits of adopting this virtue-oriented paternalist account of punishment.

The first order of business is to focus on the problems of retributivism, and here the findings of hedonic psychology are useful.

What is retributivism? Here are a some prominent answers:

Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules": It is morally fitting that a person who does wrong should suffer in proportion to his wrongdoing. That a criminal should be punished follows from his guilt, and the severity of the appropriate punishment depends on the depravity of his act. The state of affairs where a wrongdoer suffers punishment is morally better than the state of affairs where he does not; and it is better irrespective of any of the consequences of punishing him.

Moore, "Placing Blame: A General Theory of Criminal Law“: Of the possible functions for criminal law, only the achievement of retributive justice is its actual function. Punishing those who deserve it is good and is the distinctive good that gives the essence, and defines the borders, of criminal law as an area of law.”

Defenders of retributivism often appeal to the alleged "intuitive appeal" of the principle. For example, one often encounters comments like the following-- “The principle that the wrongdoer deserves to suffer seems to accord with our deepest intuitions concerning justice” (source) or " the project of a retributivist is to illustrate that our intuitions and considered judgments about punishment are captured better by the idea that we punish due to moral desert than by the idea that we punish to achieve aims such as deterrence, incapacitation, or rehabilitation." (source)

Retributive theories of punishment are based on the alleged "intuitive appeal" of retributive sensibilities, and thus it represents an a priori account of punishment. This ultimately leads, I believe, to its undoing. Designing institutions and practices of criminal justice predicated on the primal moral sensibilities we have inherited from our Darwinian history is unlikely to lead to the design of fair and effective penal institutions and practices. I hope to make this case by highlighting the problems the adaptive nature of happiness poses for retributivism, and how the paternalistic moral education account of punishment is better equipped to deal with such issues.

It is natural for us to simply assume that being denied liberty (via incarceration) makes the criminal "unhappy". The mere thought of incarceration can make us feel anxious and uncomfortable. So we just assume our predictions about the emotive response to incarceration mirrors the reality of the experience of incarceration. But empirical evidence suggests that humans are in fact very poor at predicting the emotive response of unfamiliar (even many familiar) situations or states. And this includes our predictions about how happy life might be behind bars.

If the empirical evidence does not vindicate the assumption that prolonged incarceration leads to a proportionate diminishment of experienced wellbeing or happiness, what explains why this is the case? Enter the fascinating story of what Gilbert calls our "psychological immune-system". Hedonic happiness is highly adaptive. So the field of hedonic psychology offers fascinating insights into the adaptive nature of subjective wellbeing. Contrary to our intuitions, people who win the lottery or suffer severe disability (e.g. paraplegia) do not, over the long term, report the higher or lower levels of subjective wellbeing we would predict. Furthermore, humans suffer a variety of "prospection errors" that limit our ability to recognize this reality. We often mispredict the emotional impact of unfamiliar circumstances. We assume winning a million dollars will make us much happier because we engage in a "focusing illusion". When thinking about all the things we could do with more money we overestimate the impact that money would have on our day-to-day lives. But once we actually live the life of someone with more money we adapt, and the supply of greater of wealth does not translate into a significant increase in our reported levels of happiness.

The same is true for what is called the "disability paradox".

Incarceration of criminal offenders is the central penal practice for satisfying the demands of retributive justice in liberal democracies. But does sentencing someone to 10 years in prison for a serious offence mean that the offender in question "suffers" much more than someone who is sentenced to say 2 or 3 years? The empirical evidence suggests that the subjective wellbeing of the former is not adversely affected (at least not in the way retributivism prescribes it should be). While long-term incarceration does not bring less happiness, there are other consequences of imprisonment, such as reduced life expectancy, increased risk of death after release from prison, erosion of social relationships (e.g. with spouse and family) and diminished opportunities for employment. These facts, I shall argue, pose significant problems for retributive theories which are committed to prisons and incarceration as the central institutions and practices of punishment for liberal democracies. More to follow...


Thursday, March 08, 2012

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day, so I am re-posting my commentary (on the video below) about the creation and evolution of patriarchy.



Saturday, March 03, 2012

CBC interview on Positive Biology

Early yesterday morning (6:10am) I was interviewed on CBC radio about my recent papers on positive biology and aging. You can listen to the interview here (the interview starts about 2 minutes into the show).