The Pain Factory

Join Lauren Ware at 1.50pm, Monday 7th August at the New Town Theatre to discuss the ethics of the suffering induced in criminal punishment. 

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am an RSA Fellow, examining the nature and value of suffering in criminal punishment as part of the New Futures Network. I also work on the Universal Basic Income Project, looking at how workplace fear and anxiety might impact creativity and innovation.

My primary research is in the philosophy of emotion. I am interested in the role emotions play in political and legal decision-making, in the evaluation of risk and security, in social cognition and creativity, and in teaching and learning. I also have a specialisation in ancient Greek philosophy, especially Plato, and his ethical ideals of love, heroism, and beauty in a flourishing life.

I have taught Moral, Legal, and Political Philosophy at the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh, previously completed a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Philosophy of Law at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, and have held Visiting Fellowships at the Tilburg Center for Logic, Ethics, and Philosophy of Science (The Netherlands), and the Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung (Germany). Before postgraduate research, I worked for the Canadian Government on public policy and judicial appointments, and for the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

Emotions are all over the criminal law: from jealousy and reasonable provocation in homicide law, to fear in claims of duress, to compassion in assisted dying. A significantly overlooked area, however, concerns the emotions of those serving prison sentences. My research aims to question the purpose and justification of certain kinds of criminal punishment by investigating whether our punishment system has any good reason to induce emotional suffering. Ought prisoners pay through pain?

My research here looks at three questions:

  1. Is imposing suffering through legal means ethically legitimate?
  2. How do differences in individual prisoners’ experience of suffering impact the nature of the punishment afforded?
  3. Who can be made to suffer? Should we take into account the emotional effect of punishment on third parties (for example, the children of prisoners)?

The show draws on a set of “thought experiments” to flag up some pretty dodgy inconsistencies in the way criminal punishments are dealt out in practice, and discussed in the ivory tower.

A potentially horrifying implication of this is that rather than certain crimes having fixed sentences in terms of length, we might set it up on the basis of pain suffered: stealing a car yields 3 units of pain, murder 25 units of pain, etc. And then we design prisons to administer pain as effectively as possible. A pain factory.

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

The topic is dangerous because many of the implications of this research will almost certainly mean huge changes for the way we not only think about, but actually administer criminal punishment in our prisons.

First, if an individual’s emotional experience is relevant to the form of her punishment, and different individuals experience significantly different amounts of suffering, this may require reconsideration of traditional institutional practices, such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws. That’s where we get the pain factories coming in.

Second, if experiences of suffering are not relevant, yet suffering retains a legitimate role in punishment, we must revise the equality principle (the idea that equal crimes should have equal punishments): a longstanding and much-loved tenet of our understanding of justice.

Does it rightly have this label?  is the topic unjustly controversial?

One of the reasons the topic is—quite rightly—controversial is that a lot of people have strong (emotional! and at the same time rational!) convictions that prison sentences should be painful and that it seems somehow inappropriate to care about the “feelings” of people who have harmed others.

Why is the topic important to you?

I believe very strongly that philosophy—including the philosophy of emotion—can contribute in important ways to how we as a community recognise individual members of that community within a constructive circle of human concern. Those experiencing criminal punishment are often held to be outside of this community, but this is, I believe, a deep mistake for both love and justice. I want to be a part of this dialogue!

Describe your show in 3 words

Viva la revolution!

(Devastating, dystopic, human)

Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? What will they learn?

Nietzsche said that deep down we all actually enjoy watching other people suffer pain, but we just suppress it. I want people to question what they think about suffering, who should be made to suffer, and why.



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The Stand

Ed Fringe