Friday, July 16, 2010


I have been thinking about this blog post from an ambulance driver about dealing with an abusive man, found via Atomic Nerds, and about people's reactions to the story.

Before I start with my analysis, which will probably offend people, let me say that no woman should ever have to make these kinds of decisions, and that in an ideal world everyone would have a good partner that never hurt them in any way. But we do not live in an ideal world, and pretending that we do, or even that we can, will lead to serious errors. Nothing in my analysis changes the fact that his actions are wrong and evil, and should be altered. In fact, I conclude by proposing a method of altering his actions that should be far more effective than the current system.

When dealing with a situation like this, people always seem to assume that the woman is acting irrationally, that she has some psychological problem that prevents her from 'doing the right thing' and leaving the man. I am going to make the alternate assumption that the woman is a rational economic agent. Consider the following:

The woman is probably poor. The man may be a source of much-needed income.

The man is the father of her children, and we know from the story that they were very sad to see him taken away to prison. This implies that his presence improved their lives.

In many demographic groups, men of any kind are extremely scarce and hard to get. If she left him, she would probably end up with nobody, or someone even worse, or a string of temporary boyfriends. All of these situations would be much worse for her and especially for her children.

If it is known that she is single, she may start to get a lot of unwanted attention from even worse men. If she lives in a high-crime area, and her man is taken away, her chances of becoming the victim of a crime will likely go up.

It is possible that this man is a good partner and father when he is not drunk, and only becomes abusive when drunk. This is a common pattern among alcoholics. We do not know that alcohol was involved here, but the probability is fairly high.

For these reasons, and others, is is possible that the benefits of being with this man are greater than the costs of being beaten. It is possible that the woman, like millions of women before her, has decided that being with a man who sometimes beats her is better than facing a harsh world all alone.

It is arrogant and paternalistic for us to assume, based on extremely limited information, that her choice is irrational and that she would be better off without him. Respect for human autonomy means assuming that people are competent to make their own decisions about their own lives. Yes, we should give them advice and counseling, but making decisions for them, backed by the power of the state, is a bad precedent.

With that in mind, consider the actions of the police. They took him away to jail, making the children upset. If the man had a job, he will likely lose it as a result of the jail time. The woman had obviously decided to stay with the man. If we assume that her choice was rational, then taking her man off to jail hurts her. The post's author saw that taking the man to prison really hurt the children, but he blamed the man for this rather than the police.

Locking this man in a cage with other criminals is not going to make him less violent. If anything, it will make him more violent and more likely to be abusive. We need a better form of deterrent, one that will reduce the chances of this behavior. Here is how I think the situation should be dealt with:

The ambulance and police show up, take statements, and document the injuries. They then tell the children, "What your dad did to your mother was wrong. We need to punish him and teach him a lesson. He will be back in an hour."

If the behavior was alcohol-related, then the treatment is fairly obvious. Find out what his favorite drink is and procure a sample. Then strap him into a chair in the back of a van, so he is looking at the drink. Hook electrodes up to him, carefully calibrating the voltage and placement for pain but not injury. Turn off the lights. Wait a bit, then shine a light on the drink so it is the only thing he sees, then turn on the electricity. After a few seconds, turn off the electricity and the lights. Repeat until his brain permanently associates the drink with pain, then release him.

If he was not drunk, things get a little more complicated. Maybe you could make a recording of him threatening to hit the woman, and use that as the association with the electric shock. I'm sure a psychologist could think of an effective method of classical and/or operant conditioning to change his behavior patterns.

Is this torture? Yes. Is it more torturous than being sent to jail? Probably not. A short sharp round of really painful psychological conditioning should be at least as good of a deterrent as jail time, while causing less long-term physical and mental damage to the criminal. It would have a lot of other advantages over jail. The man would have no chance to learn criminal skills, make contacts with criminals, and be immersed in a criminal culture. If he has a job, he would not be taken away from it. He might be a bit dazed the next morning, but he can still show up for work. And it would be a lot cheaper.

It does have the 'disadvantage' that he is allowed to go back to his partner instead of being taken away from her for a long period of time. It certainly would be a good idea to give her counseling while he is being conditioned. But the choice to separate them should be hers, not the state's.

This system would actually make women more likely to call the police for help. One of the reasons that women put up with abuse is that they know that the man will be hauled off to jail if she reports him. She does not want that to happen, and her choice may be rational. If it became known that abusive men were punished via psychological conditioning rather than jail time, then women would probably be a lot more likely to call for help. Instead of taking him away for years and removing any benefits he provides, he is returned to her after a quick round of punishment. And if things go well and the conditioning sticks, he would be less likely to get drunk and violent.

No comments: