Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Only courts and God should punish people for crimes

Lessons from an ice-hockey player's suicide

Right-wing journalist Laura Loomer has been banned from 190 websites including Lyft and Uber – concerning these two, she was dissatisfied with the absence of non-Muslim drivers and the companies were dissatisfied with her dissatisfaction! When Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram banned her last week, this journalism alumni – a brave Valedictorian from a not so prominent college – lost 90% of income and the sort of career she's been building for some five years. She started to suggest that she was thinking about suicide.



Many people love to blame suicides on psychological problems but in many contexts, there are very objective reasons why someone could make such a final decision. And with certain sufficiently serious objective problems (serious diseases are the most obvious ones), even people with rock-solid psychology could almost rationally decide that suicide is the best option. We may approach this issue using the probability calculus.



OK, yesterday, on May 7th, Czech ice-hockey fans were shocked by the news that Adam Svoboda (*1978) hanged himself. He's been a goaltender in the Czech national team (who won e.g. the 2005 World Championship – although as the third goalman, he was mainly the entertainer of the team) and about 14 additional municipal (Czech, European, and Kazakh) clubs. Those included HC Škoda Pilsen in my hometown. Six years ago, we would root for him – and with him (and Marek Mazanec and Tuukka Rask) as the goalie, Pilsen won its only historical championship in 2012/2013. Svoboda also won the championship with Slavia Prague in 2008.

The statistics is enough to indicate he was an extremely good goaltender. He wasn't necessarily in the Dominik Hašek category but almost certainly in the next one.



Svoboda retired two years ago and became a coach in Pardubice (the town of gingerbread, Semtex, and horse races) plus an assistant coach in the national team.

In 2010, he underwent a surgery of the brain to remove a blood clot. As we know, this event was nothing compared to an event that fatally influenced his life in this year. The key reason for his suicide looks obvious in this case. In early 2019, he caused a car accident with his Volvo XC90. No deaths or serious injuries occurred but there was a legal problem: he was driving with 0.18% of ethanol in his blood. It's a lot. He drove on the wrong side of the road.

When some alcohol is tolerated, it's about 0.05%. About 0.5% is said to be fatal for men (0.4% for women) but in 2013, a Pole was found in Tarnowska Wola with 1.374% and he survived. The record, 1.48%, was measured in Poznan in 1995.

Svoboda's alcohol content was just 13% of the 2013 Pole's but it was still a lot. But without "positive feedbacks", nothing much would happen outside his driving license (which he almost certainly lost, at least for years) and a risk of up to 3 years in jail. The real problem were the feedbacks. He was spectacularly fired as a coach in Pardubice and the national team – although he was later readmitted as a personal coach in Pardubice or something like that. But I think it was clear that his status and income dramatically dropped.

Only when he's dead now, you may hear the people who point out he was an athlete with exceptional character. A few months ago, those who just screamed "punish him" were much more visible.

OK, I just think that these out-of-court punishment for the illegal driving and similar sins are simply wrong and counterproductive for the society.

So far, a similar comment of mine is the most upvoted one under an article about the tragic death but you can see that the opposition to my opinion is substantial, too.

My calculation notices that he has actually caused damages that are only comparable to thousands of dollars. However, it made his suicide likely – perhaps 10% – and his life was worth millions of dollars. It is not popular to convert lives to money but the insurance companies have to do such things and you may compare his life's worth with the lifetime earnings, too. The latter comparison has a logic: a primary purpose of the money is to allow the owner to survive!

Millions of dollars are clearly greater than thousands of dollars. But even if you calculate the mean value and multiply millions of dollars by 10%, you get hundreds of thousands of dollars. Adam Svoboda was still clearly overpunished – I think that by some two orders of magnitude. This just shouldn't happen. And perhaps people who push others to existential problems or suicide should be punished when something bad happens.

The people on the other side claim that as a famous goaltender or coach, he was "elite" or a "role model" so he should be more punished for driving under the influence of alcohol (and other things) than the "ordinary people". I totally disagree with these claims. The constitution says that people are equal in front of the law. The selective punishment of the successful people is wrong, wrong, wrong. It is unjust and it is also bad for the society because it really discourages success! And I find it obvious that the actual main driver behind the efforts to overpunish the successful people is nothing else than jealousy.

The elite or successful people belong to this group because they could and they did something extraordinary enough – something that may be measured meritocratically and usually has nothing to do with morality. It doesn't mean or shouldn't mean that they face some extra universal disadvantages or punishments, that they have some extra duties. In particular, it's wrong to expect that a goaltender is a moral role model – and it's wrong to "demand" it, too. And at the end, I believe that in reality, athletes' morality doesn't differ from the average people much. Why should goaltenders be the moral elite? What about teachers at universities, high schools, basic schools? Interpreters? Truck drivers? Children's coaches with ponies in amusement parks? Pilots? Hairdressers? Ticket inspectors? Plastic surgeons? Managers? Comedians? Most occupations work with other people in one way or another. Does it make any sense to "demand" that they avoid even smaller sins or violations of the law?

There are many similar campaigns and whole ideologies that are directed against the successful people – that want to make their lives harder. Larry Summers wasn't allowed to speak about women in science because he was considered a powerful man – the president of Harvard University. Why should exactly a man with this job be stripped of his basic civic rights? If something, people like presidents of universities should have more freedom, not less freedom, to talk about similar crucial things.

On a more mundane level, I still remember my shock when I was told 15 years that as a house master in some undergraduate dormitories, I couldn't have dated students. What? Every homeless guy may date Harvard students. Why should a house master be forbidden to do such things? Are his or her genes so terrible that the society has to frantically defend its gene fund from such segments of DNA? And why would the universities hire such people if they believe that they're genetic trash? You know, with such restrictions and many others, do you really want to be a university professor? Isn't it sane to prefer to be homeless, living in fresh air – occasionally enriched with some scent of the trash bins where good stuff sometimes waits for you?

As a person who loves freedom, I would choose the latter. But even the people who don't give a damn about freedom must understand that these selective restrictions and punishments against the successful may influence some people's priorities.

It took some time and experience for the political systems and Parliaments to refine our legal systems so that the punishments for various crimes and violations of the law are approximately adequate – they sufficiently discourage people from doing undesirable things (and compensate the victims) while they allow the people to keep on living despite minor sins that everyone can make. But the "positive feedbacks", various out-of-court punishments that hockey clubs, universities, and tons of other places declare against the "sinners", are just circumventing the legal system.

These extra punishments are destabilizing because they circumvent the lawmakers' careful decisions about the right amount of punishment for "sins"; they're unjust because they break the equality of the people under the law; and since they mostly target the successful people, they're regressive because they discourage people from being successful.

If some sin – like driving under the influence – has nothing to do with your relationship to the sinner, please leave the punishment for the sins to police, courts... and God (I mean the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics).

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