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19.5.06

"The Secret Ambition Of Deterrence" and the HPV Vaccine

An FDA advisory panel has just approved a vaccine claimed to be 100% effective against Human Papilloma Virus, which causes 70% of cervical cancers and genital warts. But widespread use of the vaccine is opposed by conservative groups who claim that it will encourage promiscuity. Abyss2hope neatly dispatches that argument. Even granting for the sake of argument that sex is a (moral, if not legal) crime:

Since I doubt the fear of cervical cancer is the deciding factor when girls choose whether or not to have sex, this vaccine won’t spark a sexual boom.


But I wonder if it doesn't miss the point to focus on deterrence arguments. Dan Kahan has a great article (from which I took the title of this post) arguing that deterrence arguments are typically a publicly-palatable rationalizaton for a policy supported for substantive reasons. Thus, rather than a direct clash of ideologies, we agree to present our disputes in the idiom of dueling deterrence arguments.

Conservatives' real preference is not for a deterrence-based theory of punishment, but a retributive and message-sending one. Deterrence is guided by seeking to reduce the number of crimes committed in the first place. But retribution cares less about the number of crimes than about making sure that if a crime is committed, it is followed by commensurate punishment. Given our society's insufficient willingness to directly punish sex, the natural consequences of sex -- STDs and pregnancy -- become the fall-back retribution. The HPV vaccine may not stop anybody from having sex, but it stops some people from being punished for it, thus robbing them of the retribution that they deserve.

But why is it that deterrence theories have so few genuine adherence, despite the seeming reasonableness of them that makes them a good rationalization for our substantive preferences? I think Erving Goffman was on the right track in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman argued that social life is all about putting on a show of doing things, even at the expense of actually accomplishing them:

In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged ... But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realizing those standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that those standards are being realized.


Deterrence focuses exclusively on actually accomplishing things. A genuine consideration of deterrence may lead us to the realist conclusion that there's nothing that can affordably be done about a problem, or the pragamtist conclusion that a small fix can correct a big problem. Neither realism nor pragmatism make a good show, however. The dictates of the dramatic form insist that a big problem requires a solution commensurate in scope and cost. Yet that commensurability is the central axiom of retributive and message-sending theories of punishment. The tendency to emphasize performance over substance is stronger when an issue is a more central dramatic stage in society -- and there are few stages more central in modern American society than sex.

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