Good and bad deeds

Yesterday I returned a cell phone I found which turned out to have been stolen. When I found it over a month ago, it had been half-buried in mud, and it was so severely water-damaged that I thought it was junk. Even after I cleaned it up, the screen was filled with water droplets and the battery was swollen up so much that the battery door had to be forced off. Still, I let it dry in the sun for a few days, then put it on a table and had forgotten about it until it dawned on me right after replacing my own cell phone with a different brand that even though I was on a different carrier, the new charger might work in the "ruined" phone. So, feeling a tad daring, yesterday I plugged the mysterious found phone into my brand new charger. To my utter amazement, the screen lit up with a bright red wallpaper design and the charging symbol started its right to left pulsation. After a half an hour I picked it up and it was warm but not hot, so I thought I might as well turn it on and play detective. The keypad was at first unresponsive from months of moisture and non-use, but pressing the buttons repeatedly and working them around, I was pretty soon able to navigate freely. There were hundreds of contacts in the address book, lots of pictures, and countless text messages. I noticed that the last call had been made in May, not to Mogadishu, Somalia, but to a name recorded among the contacts. Assuming the phone most likely didn't work (and not wanting to make calls on someone else's phone), I looked around until I found the phone's own official mobile number, which I called on my phone. As I suspected it wouldn't, the cell phone did not respond, but someone answered, and after a some preliminary discussion, the person was most excited and grateful, and drove over immediately to get the phone. It had been stolen months ago, but it contained a lot of valuable as well as sentimental information, and I felt as if I had done my good deed for the day. I'd certainly like to think that someone would do the same for me.

It occurred to me that while this phone probably cost a hundred dollars or so to replace, losing a cell phone has become almost like losing a small computer in the sense that you're losing a lot of irreplaceable stuff. They're often not as easy to back up, and then of course there's the privacy issue. (A criminal, or some creepy stalker type would know a lot about you by getting hold of your cell phone.)

So whether he or she knew it or not, whoever stole the person's phone was real scum. Stealing a cell phone would by itself constitute only petty theft, but I don't think monetary value is the real issue. When we lose a wallet, our primary concern is not about the cash, and in many ways what's in many cell phones today makes its loss worse than losing a wallet. (And if it's a business device like a Blackberry, I could imagine that the consequences might be devastating.)

As to what the proper punishment should be, I don't know. It is, after all, a theft, and if the thief simply shoplifts a new phone from, say, a phone company store, that would strike me as the least morally egregious type of phone theft. If he steals a working phone and proceeds to call his criminal cohorts in Nigeria or Somalia, the crime quickly morphs into theft of services, which is felony grand theft and probably various federal crimes. But if his goal is invasion of privacy or identity theft, I think that is morally the worst, whether it is legally or not.

I'd like to see such people be made to suffer, but even so, I'm not sure prison is the best way to punish them. I think society should save its limited prison resources for the kind of people who have shown by their actions that they would harm people with violence if allowed to roam around. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, it probably isn't a good idea to be locking up nonviolent criminals with violent criminals, as the latter will prey on the former, thus assisting them in making a very unfortunate transition from nonviolent to violent crime.

Evil as these crooks might be, I don't see any valid reason to lock them up at public expense. They're like Enron executives or that Madoff guy; unlikely to hit you over the head if you're walking down the street. Still, there is a need for a deterrent aspect, as well as the public thirst for vengeance.

Traditionally in the West, such crimes were dealt with in much the same way that Islamic societies deal with them today -- by brutal and cruel punishments if not the death penalty. Under the reign of Henry VIII, they didn't have cell phone thieves, but merely stealing a loaf of bread could mean death, or at least amputation.

We don't allow cruel or unusual punishments, and while amputation would certainly constitute that by any standard, at the time of the founding flogging was quite usual, and in many ways it is arguably more kind than locking people up for years in hellholes where they'll be raped and brutalized.

In a poll, I once asked readers
whether they'd prefer to receive lashes or a prison term, and the overwhelming majority would take the lashes. I certainly would, and I have no illusions that it would be nice to have the skin on my back torn up. But the pain would be over in a few days and the injuries would all be healed in a matter of weeks. Compared to what could happen in prison, it's a no-brainer.

So why do we* call a dozen lashes more cruel than prison? Is it simply because of the social conventions and cultural biases of our particular places and times?

Or am I a post-modernist moral relativist for posing the question?

* And who is this "we," anyway? What I find quite ironic is that general public would probably prefer to see Bernie Madoff tied to a post and whipped than be sent to prison -- and I'd be willing to bet that so would Madoff!

posted by Eric on 09.21.09 at 12:32 PM










Comments

Well maybe Bernie would re-think if the punishment were 2 dozen lashes *for each offense committed*. That is, one set for each person he defrauded. That would be more just. A lashing every 2 weeks say...


Dyspeptic Curmudgeon   ·  September 21, 2009 12:50 PM

One beautiful "it just works" thing about iPhones: every time you sync it, it backs up your entire phone.

Phelps   ·  September 21, 2009 1:48 PM

Bring back the stocks!

The liberal/progressive idea regarding the criminal justice system is that retribution is an improper motive. The liberal/progreesive idea regarding the criminal justice system is a ass.

I am quite confident that, 100 years from now, when they look back on our society, one of the things that will get heads a-shaking will be the moron-ity of the idea that we chose to lock people away for years and years and years for running afoul of a huge list of offenses to polite society that we called "crimes," often in utter disregard of whether said crimes were violent, non-violent, victimless, or victim-present. What will replace it, I don't know. But warehousing seems unlikely to stand the test of time for all such offenses.

Rhodium Heart   ·  September 21, 2009 2:45 PM

How do you know the phone was actually stolen, as opposed to merely misplaced? Not that this changes your point, but the fact that the last call was made to a number stored in the contacts, and the fact that it was found in the dirt as opposed to being pawned, would indicate to me that it was never stolen at all.

I accidentally left a newfangled cell phone (retail price of $250) on a city bus not long ago. It was returned to a nearby Verizon store the next day; the manager called me at home, and I picked it up less than 48 hours since I lost the phone, never knowing the honest person who returned my phone.

Sometimes, people are better than you fear.

Independent George   ·  September 21, 2009 11:13 PM

How do you know the phone was actually stolen, as opposed to merely misplaced? Not that this changes your point, but the fact that the last call was made to a number stored in the contacts, and the fact that it was found in the dirt as opposed to being pawned, would indicate to me that it was never stolen at all.

I accidentally left a newfangled cell phone (retail price of $250) on a city bus not long ago. It was returned to a nearby Verizon store the next day; the manager called me at home, and I picked it up less than 48 hours since I lost the phone, never knowing the honest person who returned my phone.

Sometimes, people are better than you fear.

Anonymous   ·  September 21, 2009 11:14 PM

Ugh, apologies for the double-post.

Independent George   ·  September 21, 2009 11:14 PM

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