Perchance to Dream: Robin Hanson on Sleep-Rape

Robin Hanson thinks sexsomniacs (people who have sex in a sleepwalking state) should be punished just like regular rapists when they (unknowingly) begin to have sex with someone who does not consent.  To be clear:  rape is a heinous thing and, along with murder, stands in my mind as an essentially peerless crime.  There are few, if any, more fundamental or horrifying ways in which to violate another human being. Perhaps it was Hanson's use of the imperative in his title ("Punish Sleep-Rape") that rankled me.

To justify his point, he devises two possible arguments against punishment of sexsomniac rapists:

  1. We should punish premeditated or intentional transgressions more severely than we would unconscious transgressions.
  2. The mind is comprised of two distinct states: the conscious and the unconscious.  Thus, behaviors emanating from conscious processes should be punished more severely.

Hanson goes on to summarily dismiss both of these imagined arguments, presumably without being able to think of any others, and based on this dismissal concludes that the sexsomniac should not be spared the traditional punishment for rapists.

At its core, Hanson's argument takes on faith that "free will" and "consciousness" are complete illusions, or he at least conflates consciousness with the planning of unconscious behaviors.  While it's true that we almost certainly don't have free will in the way we've traditionally imagined it, and even if behavioral decisions ultimately stem solely from unconscious processes, we still have to take the potential for inhibition into account.  Most behaviors are automatic. We may become aware of them as they are occurring, but the signals that will result in the end action have already been sent from the brain by the time that happens. Otherwise, the nature of consciousness and its bearing on our decision-making is much more complex than Hanson seems to think, as this review by Baumeister et al. from the Annual Review of Psychology shows.

Why should the ability to stop a behavior as it's happening not be considered a crucial distinction when considering culpability?  Some behaviors can be inhibited or changed while they are happening once a person becomes aware of them, and the actions a person takes in a sleepwalking state are not likely beholden to this same inhibitory potential.

(Disclosure: I haven't finished  reading the full review article just yet, but it doesn't take long to figure out that consciousness' role in decision-making should not be thought of as relating simply to the origin of an impulse.  Hanson seems woefully unappreciative of the brain's immense complexity when that complexity doesn't have anything to do with self-delusion or hypocrisy.  Credit goes to a commenter  on Hanson's screed, Rob, who posted a link to the review, which is how I found it.)

To be fair to Hanson, he posted an addendum in which he says that sleep-rape should be punished as drunken acts are punished.  In my opinion he fails to differentiate between the choice—a word he would likely put in quotations in this case—a person makes when he/she gets drunk and the choice a person makes when they go to sleep.   One of those two activities is essential  to survival, and one is clearly not: They are simply not analogous states.  It's possible Hanson was simply siding with a few commenters who suggested that sexsomniacs who are aware of their unfortunate sleep-time proclivities yet fail to take precautionary measures should be held responsible for their waking negligence.  I am not entirely unsympathetic to that argument even if I suspect laws based on that premise could never be fairly or accurately applied.  Ideally, the brain induces paralysis during sleep in order to prevent a person from physically acting out a dream.  Some drugs can help inhibit physical activity during deep sleep, but what happens when a person takes a pill and it doesn't work? Should these people chain themselves to the bed?  Should their spouses sleep in another bedroom behind a locked door for the duration of the marriage?

Hanson can be an insightful blogger, and he often asks tough questions that require tough answers. But he's also wont to draw specious conclusions based on flimsy evidence that happens to conform to his own biases—ironic for someone who writes a blog called Overcoming Bias. He thinks medicine is useless; he thinks prediction markets will save the world; he thinks all human interaction is based on status and signalling yet appears to believe himself free of those evolutionary accouterments.  In all of those arguments there is a kernel of truth; and if Hanson wasn't so seemingly sure of the finality of his own opinions, I would probably be more charitable to him.  At the very least, I'll give him credit for peaking my interest more or less consistently.

Perhaps Hanson's viewpoints are a bit more nuanced than my general estimation suggests, though he does appear to me to deal in some unfortunate absolutes. Simply put, he smells like a contrarian, albeit one who's worth reading even if you often disagree with him.

(Another side note, because I am a connoisseur of the parenthetical:  one reader, daedalus2u, pretty much nails Hanson's thought  process with a satirical comment.  I assume the comment is satirical, anyway, because daedulus2u has espoused some very different thoughts on his own very interesting blog regarding the efficacy of punishment in society.  I, for one, am not sold on his notion that there is always a constructive alternative to punishment, but maybe I'll save that for another post.)

Sleep-rape is an issue which I was aware of before reading Hanson's post, but I hadn't considered the notion of proper punishment in too much depth.  An interesting discussion follows in the comments; again, I shy away from those who are overly punitive, not because they don't like rape (I don't like rape either) but because they often seem to see the world as a collection of moral absolutes.  They seem so sure they're right that I can't imagine their opinions aren't somewhat calcified.

I don't claim to be an expert (or even especially knowledgeable) on any of this, so I'm interested in hearing any comments or alternate viewpoints.

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