Helping People


There is topic I’ve wanted to explore but haven’t because I am not sure how to explain it or make sense of it, but thanks to the NYPD I think I’ve figured it out. The problem is “what does ‘helping’ someone mean?” at a strategic level.

It’s more complicated than it seems at first. When someone asks for help, it’s not so hard to figure out: you hear their request and decide yes or no, factoring in feasibility, long-term consequences, etc. But where it gets complicated is when someone doesn’t want your help, but you decide to barge in and help them in spite of themselves. Basically, that’s what cops are supposed to do, right?

Sign language: “help”

The premise of barging in and helping someone in spite of themselves is that you know what’s best for them. In civil society that is, in principle, encoded in a body of law. That, in turn, is according to the principle of harm: if I’m doing something that harms someone else, the law’s bar for intervening is lower because there’s a greater likelihood that person already doesn’t want to be harmed. But if I’m harming myself, then the law has to argue that my choice of self-harm also harms society at large – it may increase society’s burden in terms of medical costs, or it may contribute to the moral decay of society, or encourage other bad behavior. That gets much more complicated.

US law has tried to hide the fact that a great deal of it fails to argue that certain actions harm society at large, and has tried to hide the fact that christianity and racism (which go together like Oreo cookies) are the underlying motivating factors for a lot of law. The reasoning is that certain victimless crimes are “sins” and – in spite of the lack of victims – they offend god and therefore in order to help keep god happy, we discourage certain things. I deliberately framed that to make the argument sound weak and stupid but it really is weak and stupid. Look at it this way: god does not like masturbation therefore masturbation is wrong therefore we should try to keep impressionable kids away from porn at the most critical part of their process of learning about sex. Somehow this is for the kids’ own good. I will note that American media’s replacement of sexual imagery with violent imagery may have something to do with certain social problems we have. Anyway, the situation is weird: in order to help protect you, I’m going to do something that makes your actual outcomes worse.

That’s NYPD’s job.

Reporting in The New York Daily News: [nyd]

The city’s top cop faced the City Council Monday and defended the NYPD’s approach to marijuana arrests, which has sparked a weeks-long fight between the lawmakers and police brass.

“This is something we need to do,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said of busting people for smoking pot in public — the vast majority of whom are black and Latino.

“I understand that there are disparities,” O’Neill said. “If you look at the stats, I’m not going to deny that. But you’ve got to see the whole body of work that we’re doing here.”

I am tempted to put one of those animated .GIF-memes of someone going “whaaaaaat?” but that’s not compatible with this blog’s high level of gravitas. Seriously, though. Whaaaaaat?

Someone asked the Commissioner “what about the obvious racism in your policing statistics?”, and the cop basically said, “we have to do it wrong for your own good.”

You acknowledge that there are disparities,” said Councilman Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee. “And the question is, how are you going to fix it?”

O’Neill shot back that the “question is how are we going to continue to keep people safe in the city.”

random google image search

See what he did there? He’s presupposing (“begging the question”) that stop-and-frisk is helping keep people safe. More specifically, that racist stop-and-frisk is helping keep people safe. Precisely that: racist stop and frisk that has had no measurable positive impact on crime-rates in New York City is helping keep people safe.

My claim possibly seems a bit shocking, but let’s deconstruct the situation further:

Cops arrested nearly 18,000 people for low-level marijuana possession last year — down from 29,000 in 2013, after they changed their policy to give a summons instead of making arrests for many pot possession cases. But people caught smoking on the street still get handcuffed — and 86% of those arrested are black and Latino.

Oh look NYPD busted a white guy. If he was black they’d have shot him even if that blaster was properly licensed and he had an imperial permit

In other words, they’re not arresting anyone for “many” pot possession cases (unless the person is young, female, and “hot” and they want to take her someplace to trade for some sex) – pot has been decriminalized. Decriminalization is, literally, when the cops say “this offense is not harmful enough to society that we need to do more than write you a ticket for a small fine.”

If an offense is that harmless, you don’t need to stop and frisk for it.

Of course we know what’s going on in NYPD. When the commissioner says “how are we going to continue to keep people safe in the city” he’s talking about NYPD. He’s not thinking about the people of New York, at all, he’s just thinking about this as an NYPD problem: we have to justify our existence somehow! I believe that’s what economists call a “perverse incentive” – in which a reward structure serves to reduce the likelihood of a desirable outcome, rather than increase it. If NYPD were supposed to “smile and shake people’s hand and wish them good day” there’d be a “stop and greet” program. There would be SWAT teams kicking in doors and shooting people’s dogs, just to say “Have a nice day!” What there wouldn’t be is wealthy-looking white people getting that treatment.

This all brings me around to the philosophical conundrum I wanted to talk about: punishing people for harming themselves. Let’s suppose I have an activity that is basically harmless to anyone but me, but society’s masters decide that it’s a sin and ought to be illegal. Then, they pass a law and order the police to arrest and imprison anyone committing that crime. The premise is “we don’t want you doing that thing because it’s bad for you so in order to keep you from ruining your life, we’re going to ruin your life by throwing you in prison!” I don’t know a philosophical term for that, other than maybe “circular WTF.”

If the idea is that you shouldn’t smoke dope because you’re going to just sit around the house watching Big Lebowski and drinking white russians, let’s kick your door in, cuff you, a haul you to prison – thereby saving you from the life of a slacker by giving you an opportunity to join a prison gang. And we are going to really fuck your life up.

This is the same logic that leads our politicians to talk about helping people in Syria by dropping high explosive on them. Hey, if it works in Syria, maybe they’re going to try it in New York next.

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Here’s another example: [nyp]

A school district in New Jersey plans to punish students who took part in the nationwide walkout on Wednesday against gun violence with two days of out-of-school suspension, according to reports.

“As punishment for not coming to school, we are going to send you home from school.”

By the way, random google image-searching for “NYC stop and frisk” returns an awful lot of pictures of white guys digging around in black guys’ pants. They’re into it.

The stop-and-frisk idea is based on a theory of policing that said that you should enforce against even minor infractions because that way you create an environment in which the police presence is obvious and criminals are deterred. By the way, that theory was based on psychology studies that have failed to replicate. That probably has something to do with why that theory, when put in practice, produced no favorable outcome. (It produced a huge backlog of cases in the courts and collected lots of fines, so in terms of perverse incentives, it worked) Psychology and social sciences fail once again.

Comments

  1. says

    O’Neill shot back that the “question is how are we going to continue to keep people safe in the city.”

    In my lifetime so far, I’ve seen many a person quietly toking away in a public place. Done it myself, too. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how someone having a toke is in any way endangering me. These are people who are the least likely to pose any danger to me or anyone else.

  2. says

    Caine@#1:
    I cannot figure out how someone having a toke is in any way endangering me.

    I am much more endangered by the cops. And I’m a white guy.

  3. Owlmirror says

    Here’s another example: [nyp]

    A school district in New Jersey plans to punish students who took part in the nationwide walkout on Wednesday against gun violence with two days of out-of-school suspension, according to reports.

    “As punishment for not coming to school, we are going to send you home from school.”

    It occurs to me that the suspended students could co-ordinate and make big signs that say “We were suspended for two days to punish a 17-minute protest against gun violence — so we’re going to spend those two days protesting gun violence”. Off of school grounds, of course, but hopefully right near the schools. And/Or maybe in sight of the school district administrators.

    (Speaking of perverse incentives)

  4. Ketil Tveiten says

    “Psychology and social sciences fail once again.”

    This sounds a whole lot more like “*politics* fail once again”, given that psychology and social sciences went “oh no wait that’s wrong” and politics went “we’re still not going to change it”.

  5. says

    My overall attitude is that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they are not causing any direct harm to others. Harming themselves should be OK. After all, how can somebody else decide what’s best for another person? There are countless examples where people’s opinions about what’s harmful or enjoyable are diametrically opposite. For example, some people believe that sex outside of wedlock is harmful for the one doing it, while others believe that it’s pleasant. It wouldn’t be acceptable if a part of the society started pushing their personal opinions on others.

    With gay sex, masturbation, and smoking weed it’s obvious. There is no scientifically proven self harm (no, hair won’t start growing on your palms, and God will not strike you with a lightning bolt as a punishment for your sins). There is no harm for the society either (no, God won’t cause earthquakes to punish the whole society for tolerating gay sex).

    The problem is that there are cases, where I’m not sure what my opinion is, where it’s not so clear cut.

    What about all those cases where there definitely is harm for the society, but the harm is rather small? For example, should smoking be allowed in public places? Passive smoking definitely harms others, but the harm is pretty small. There are many similar examples about situations where somebody is disturbing their neighbors or causing minor pollution. How much noise should people be legally allowed to make? Should they be allowed to make noise at night? Should they be allowed to install lights that shine straight in their neighbors’ bedroom windows at night? I find it hard to pick a threshold, where some action is harmful enough for the society to warrant banning it.

    There are even situations, where I’m not sure about whether people should be allowed to cause harm for themselves. Theoretically, I believe that people should have a right to kill themselves if they want to. When severely ill people request euthanasia, it’s simple—of course they should have a right to obtain it. If a patient is suffering severe pain, and doctors know that they won’t get any better, and the patient requests euthanasia, then it’s obvious that a painless death is the best option for this patient. But what about attempted suicides? On the one hand, I believe that even a young and physically healthy person should be free to choose whether to live or die. On the other hand, I know statistics that some people who attempted suicide and got saved by doctors ended up being happy about the fact that they were rescued. I even know one guy who got rescued several times and, by the time I spoke with him, he was happy to be alive. Should doctors and society attempt to prevent suicides? My answer is “probably yes.” After all, for physically healthy people it’s always possible to try again if they aren’t satisfied with the fact that doctors rescued them.

    But where it gets complicated is when someone doesn’t want your help, but you decide to barge in and help them in spite of themselves. Basically, that’s what cops are supposed to do, right?

    No, that’s not what police should be supposed to do. When there is a crime victim, police interferes in order to help the victim. When there is no victim, police might as well leave all the weed lovers alone.

    Let’s suppose I have an activity that is basically harmless to anyone but me, but society’s masters decide that it’s a sin and ought to be illegal. Then, they pass a law and order the police to arrest and imprison anyone committing that crime. The premise is “we don’t want you doing that thing because it’s bad for you so in order to keep you from ruining your life, we’re going to ruin your life by throwing you in prison!” I don’t know a philosophical term for that, other than maybe “circular WTF.”

    This is another clear cut example. Even somebody who believes that “smoking weed is bad” and that “society should ‘help’ weed lovers by making them stop,” should not also claim that “putting a weed lover in jail improves their life and helps them.” This case is so damn obvious that there isn’t anything that you could debate about.

    A question that does regularly show up in these kinds of discussions is whether people should do other things (besides jail time) to prevent others from causing self-harm. For example, some politicians and doctors argue that no doctor should provide voluntary sterilization surgery, because it harms the patient who requests it. As proof they cite surveys, which indicate that part of people who have obtained sterilization later regretted it. Personally, I cannot stand this kind of attitude. Basically, these people are saying, “I am smart. You are dumb. You have no idea what’s best for you. I know better. Therefore I will decide in your place.” I seriously hate this kind of attitude. By the way, regardless of what decision is being made, some people will end up regretting anything. Sure, there are people who later regret having obtained sterilization or abortion. But there are also people who later regret the exact opposite choice—it’s not like everybody who ends up getting pregnant or becoming a parent is happy about it.

    The stop-and-frisk idea is based on a theory of policing that said that you should enforce against even minor infractions because that way you create an environment in which the police presence is obvious and criminals are deterred.

    I just googled for “stop-and-frisk.” Holy Crap! Living in Europe, I had no idea that cops can do something like this anywhere else outside of failed states and war zones. Besides, it should be obvious that cops wasting their time stopping random people isn’t going to reduce the crime rate.

  6. says

    @Ieva

    Passive smoking definitely harms others, but the harm is pretty small.

    That is incorrect. The harm itself is very substantial (lung cancer and other diseases of coronary and pulmonary tracts that significantly shorten the life or decrease its quality). What is small is the overall probability of said harm occuring in any given individual in the population with or without smoking. But smoking increases the probability of said harm significantly (in statistical sense) although it is still negligible (in colloquial sense).

    When assesing harm any behaviour causes to population there are some basic criteria to look at:
    1) increase of harm occurence in a population due to the behaviour (negligible versus substantial).
    2) overall harm to a population due to the behaviour (-//-)
    3) typical harm to individuals due to the behaviour (-//-)

    I would argue that of these the 3) is most important, but I would also argue that if any of the three is substantial, that would justify regulating said behaviour. Not always banning it, but definitively trying to regulate it somehow. While approaches might vary – some behaviours can be regulated through availability of public services for example, others have to be confined to certain places etc. etc.

    And if all three are substantial, making the behaviour outright illegal seems reasonable.

    Lets quickly look at some scenarios:
    DUI – 1) is substantial, 2) too given current consumption of alcohol, 3) again definitively substantial. Therefore drunken/drugged driving is justifiably illegal and measures are made and maintained against it – fines and even incarceration for those who do it.

    Littering – 1) is substantial, 2) probably too but 3) probably not. Therefore there are measures against it – public trash cans and cleaners and occasionaly fines for example.

    Smoking in public – 1) and 2) are small, but 3) is substantial. So some sort of regulation is desirable in my opinion. In CZ we have such regulation (which, sadly, is not much enforced) – smokers are not allowed to spew their stench on buss stops and other areas of high concentration of stationary people where the people cannot be reasonably expected to leave for example. And, newly, in restaurants.

    But I admit I have a bias – when a smoker stinks up a bus stop shelter in a rain or enters a bus and exhales there all the stench they tried quickly to inhale before enteringI feel an urge to punch them in the face. I have ever met only very few smokers who were conscientious enough to try and avoid spewing stench in other people’s faces. Most of them are assholes.

  7. kurt1 says

    Somehow that blogpost triggerd a memory from a few years back, when Democracy Now! had a piece about the death of Kenneth Chamberlain. Old dude whose medical alert bracelet went off by accident. He didn’t want to open the door for the medics, because nothing was wrong. They called the cops which endend up shooting the guy. Of course no one was convicted of any wrongdoing (because Mr. Chamberlain was black and holding a knife to defend himself against the people who were breaking down his door).

    As a european I am always astonished with what american police gets away with. Not that our police is perfect, but we have way fewer death by police and incarcerated people, and you don’t have to be scared for your life, when in a traffic stop.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    This all brings me around to the philosophical conundrum I wanted to talk about: punishing people for harming themselves. Let’s suppose I have an activity that is basically harmless to anyone but me, but society’s masters decide that it’s a sin and ought to be illegal. Then, they pass a law and order the police to arrest and imprison anyone committing that crime. The premise is “we don’t want you doing that thing because it’s bad for you so in order to keep you from ruining your life, we’re going to ruin your life by throwing you in prison!” I don’t know a philosophical term for that, other than maybe “circular WTF.”

    Sounds like JS Mill’s Harm Principle, 101. It also sounds suspiciously like the US’s federal 9th amendment.
    papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=789384

    Jefferson once put it simply:
    “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    I agree with you that it gets interesting when the self-harm imposes costs to society, ala a government guarantee of paying for medical expenses. I don’t have a good answer there, and I think it’s beyond the scope of the Harm Principle. On Liberty merely says that this is a legitimate object of government regulation, and has some very imprecise guidelines, but that’s about it, and I don’t have any better. Several others posted other interesting scenarios as well along the same lines. I think temporary interventions, i.e. waiting periods with counseling, for attempting suicide, is an exception that I would support as well.

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