As biotech companies pour billions into life extension technologies, some have suggested that our cruelest criminals could be kept alive indefinitely, to serve sentences spanning millennia or longer. Even without life extension, private prison firms could one day develop drugs that make time pass more slowly, so that an inmate's 10-year sentence feels like an eternity. One way or another, humans could soon be in a position to create an artificial hell.
Aeon's Ross Andersen interviews Oxford philosopher Rebecca Roache, who, with a team of scholars, "has begun thinking about the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment." Like for example: Should we imprison Hitler, forever, in F U T U R E J A I L?
[Andersen:] Suppose we eventually learn to put off death indefinitely, and that we extend this treatment to prisoners. Is there any crime that would justify eternal imprisonment? Take Hitler as a test case. Say the Soviets had gotten to the bunker before he killed himself, and say capital punishment was out of the question – would we have put him behind bars forever?
Roache: It's tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it's difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.
Is rehabilitation possible over a span of "eternal life"?
Even if your body makes it to 1,000 years, the thinking goes, that body is actually inhabited by a succession of persons over time rather than a single continuous person. And so, if you put someone in prison for a crime they committed at 40, they might, strictly speaking, be an entirely different person at 940. And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else. Most of us would think that unjust.
Also, and this is not in the article, and only tangentially related, but there is a good chance we will all be re-instantiated as computer programs, identical to our actual consciousnesses and therefore for all intents and purposes equivalent to "ourselves," by a god-like super-intelligence, solely for the purpose of eternal torture as punishment for insufficiently abetting the super-intelligence's development during our lifetimes. Bring on T H E F U T U R E!
[image via Shutterstock]