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Suppose technology becomes available that allows bad people to be "cured". Instead of going to prison for decades or being executed, for example, a murderer has his brain adjusted. Now cured, there is no reason to punish (beyond the forcible mind surgery). These people are released into society.

How would that affect social interactions and day-to-day business? Imagine your doctor admitting, "yea, I killed 13 people in high school, but I'm perfectly adjusted now".

I envision that these very people would be among the best of society! After all, people have a natural spectrum of behavior, but if you are going to "repair" a mind you won't stop half way, right? You will make it as "good" as you can. And these people will have some feeling to make up for their previous self and make a positive influence on society, more so than the average person.

Edit: a number of answers and comments have raised the issue of abuse by a distopian or opressive government. But it generally implies that it would allow such a government to exist. But, such a government can imprison or kill people now for the same ends.

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Imagine Rosa Parks admitting "Yeah, I used to think it was unfair that I had to give up my bus seat to a white man, but I'm perfectly adjusted now." Good/Bad really is in the eye of the beholder, and the holder of this would be whoever is in power now. – Karen Feb 28 at 12:39
Have you watched A Clockwork Orange? – 2012rcampion Feb 28 at 18:01
Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Serban Tanasa Feb 29 at 15:29
You could do with giving some more context for the society. In a Star Trek-type society it might potentially be seen as a mental illness and treated in the same way- by talking it out and/or correcting chemical imbalances medically. In ours, it would be more like actual mind control, which would be less nice. – PointlessSpike Feb 29 at 16:24
So I feel like this question is perfectly on topic just overly broad and somewhat unclear what you are exactly asking. A quick edit to explain the society and to make the question you are asking more obvious and I would vtro – James Feb 29 at 19:17

10 Answers 10

Several issues here ...

  • Most legal systems include an escalating ladder of punishments. Letting perpetrators off with a warning, fines, community service, probation, prison time, in some cases the death penalty or other unusual punishments. Where do you put mind control in that ladder of escalation? Between prison and probation? Between a warning and a fine?
  • The same technology would be used for medical purposes, right? So how do you draw the line between a criminal mind and an insane mind? Could mind control be used preemptively, for the good of the patient? His refusal is just one more symptom of his illness, right? What happens when your society goes down that way?
  • For that matter, how about curing non-conformist behaviour? If tax evasion is a crime that gets cured, how about tax avoidance by failing to get a job? Turn that hobo into a productive citizen, for his own good. Any society which starts down that road is on the way to dystopia.

Regarding the follow-up question:

Even dystopian governments have problems with mass imprisonment or mass killing. For one, people rise up if their relatives get killed. For another, there are not many humans who can kill on that scale. Killing the free will rather than the body would be just as gruesome but less bloody.

We're on a site for building fictional worlds. Bad worlds make good adventure. But never forget that you're dealing with a bad world.

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Making unemployed people want to work and homeless people want to become productive doesn't sound especially dystopian to me. – Richard Feb 28 at 18:27
But making them willing to work for starvation wages rather than go out on strike makes for a pretty grim workplace. And, of course, there's the whole political prisoners bit. Essentially, you have to assume (against all historical example) that a government with enormous power will remain benign. – WhatRoughBeast Feb 28 at 18:41
@WhatRoughBeast that sounds rather cynical. Have you seen a doctor recently, comrade? – PyRulez Feb 28 at 19:04
@PyRulez "Turn that hobo into a productive citizen", for example ship him off to some strange foreign land and have him work on the plantation. If he isn't productivity then we shall condition him with the whip. It's for his own good. – Aron Feb 29 at 5:12
"dystopian governments have problems with mass imprisonment" seems disconnected from reality - sure, weak dystopian governments can't get away with many things as in the quoted example, but there are many modern counterexamples of successful mass imprisonment for political reasons, including Stalin, Pol Pot, the Cultural revolution, etc. In those cases, if some scaleable "mind control" technique had been available, it would definitely have been used on millions without regard for their wellbeing. – Peteris Feb 29 at 12:25

The problem is there's different types of "crime", and they would be affected differently...

Crime of Malice

This is where somebody has a beef against another person and deliberately seeks to do them harm. Curing somebody of their ability to commit a crime doesn't necessarily resolve the original issue. The offender will just find legal ways to screw with the person they have an issue with. There's plenty of legal things you can do to completely ruin somebody's life without it technically being against any laws...

Crime of Passion

Somebody gets angry and does something rash due to being provoked. This could be anything from road rage or a bar brawl to finding your lover in bed with someone else and causing harm to either or both of them, etc. Substance abuse may play a major role (particularly in the bar brawl scenario). These are typically more difficult to predict as you never know what'll send someone over the edge, and by the time you do, it may be too late. Even in reality, these types of crimes are unlikely to be repeated, unless the person has extreme violent tendencies, so mental reconditioning might not be applicable.

Crime of Opportunity

These are typically more petty crimes like shoplifting, and are generally the result of poverty or desperation. No amount of mind wiping is necessarily going to cure poverty. If a person can't afford to get an education and work their way up into a job sufficient to feed themselves and their family, it's going to be very difficult to stop them from crossing the law every now and then just to get by. The best case scenario is they'll just end up begging on the street instead, causing a significant increase in homeless populations and shanty-towns for the people who aren't able to break the law, but also aren't able to earn a living legitimately.

Crime of Neglect

These would be pretty much impossible to regulate, because they usually just involve the perpetrator breaking laws without even being aware they are doing so, or possibly by accident, or even simple laziness. Losing control of a vehicle because you haven't been maintaining it properly and the brakes fail would fall into this category. Forgetting to claim a small investment on your tax filings would be another. Fact is, there's so many laws on the books, even most legal experts have a hard time keeping track of them all, so it's pretty much a guarantee that you're going to break several laws every day without even knowing it. Unless your mind-wiping also inserts a complete codex of all laws applicable to every person in every jurisdiction in which they live, including ways to resolve conflicts when one law directly contradicts another (actually a fairly common occurrence), you're going to have lawbreakers running around all over the place without their knowledge.

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You've missed: "Things that don't hurt anyone but the government has decided are now crimes" which is the point of failure for this system. – Separatrix Feb 29 at 8:07
@user16295 - I'd say those would mostly fall under Neglect. The list isn't exhaustive, to be sure. I also didn't include white collar crimes such as pyramid schemes, insider trading, insurance fraud, etc. Not sure where blackmail would fit in this, as it's about threatening to expose someone else's crime, so it's a morally grey area. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 29 at 14:41
This morning I heard on the radio that parts of the UK have made things like, being under 18 and out after 23:00, sleeping rough, and being in a group of more than 2 people and not at a bus stop illegal. I wouldn't class these under neglect. – Separatrix Feb 29 at 14:46
@user16295 - Okay, I can see that. Not sure where those would go. Here in the states, some places have silly arbitrary laws like a man and a woman can't be alone in a room if they're not related - unless his shoes are on, or laws that require you to disassemble your car and hide it in the bushes if you encounter a horse to avoid spooking it. Needless to say, these are no longer enforced, but are often still on the books due to laziness. I suppose it all depends who's in charge of the mind-control... – Darrel Hoffman Feb 29 at 15:15
"Forgetting to claim a dependent on your tax filings" in almost every tax regime, dependent claims are a benefit (reduce taxes) so this is an odd thing to try to persecute – Jeff Meden Feb 29 at 19:25

Society will continue to demand punishment. If incarceration is seen as unnecessary and too costly, other forms of punishment will return to common use.

A criminal cannot be seen to have "got away with it" by being cured. There will be a demand for revenge. I would expect there to be corporal punishment, torture and public humiliation used to demonstrate society's intolerance of criminal behaviour.

The ex-criminals will reinforce this. They will be given morals that are "good" in the sense that they don't deviate from societal expectations. If the trend in society is to expect harsh physical punishment, followed by a cure, then the "cured" will be the strongest supporters.

There is a question about how far the surgery will extend. If it is not only for career criminals, but for crimes of passion, or misdemeanours, or anti-social behaviour.... stealing sweets? not respecting mother?

Perhaps people will choose to elect to have the operation, for themselves or more likely for their children. Peer pressure could be very strong "We don't want you playing with Jonny, he hasn't had his naughtiness removed yet."

Finally there may be some who reject the operation, and who are then exiled and you get a "Brave New World".

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First thing

It seems obvious that bad people having committed a crime would be cured.
Or possibly executed. But certainly not put in prison then released uncured.

Preventive cure

The society will probably decide to detect and cure all people before they make something bad.

This way, everybody is good, not only law breakers.

Punish anyway

If no universal preventive cure is in place then society needs to punish offenders (or at least, malevolent offenders).

Imagine it's not the case. If you hate somebody, you can just kill him.
It fits your bad nature and you won't be punished.
The worst thing that can happen to you: they will make you a good person (possibly with remorse)

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You should read "The Culture" books. Murder and other similar crimes is incredibly rare, when it does happen they just "slap drone" the offender. Basically a drone follows them around for the rest of their life and makes sure they don't do it again. – Tim B Feb 28 at 10:31
If there is something TO fix, then there must be a way to detect it (else we would just be lobotomizing the poor sod). So we would probably be able to "screen and cure" all deviants, who's view differs from the inner circle of THE PARTY/Tetragrammaton Council. – Aron Feb 29 at 5:08
@TimB - and furthermore, no-one invites the former offender to any parties. I mean, imagine the scandal! – perfectionist Feb 29 at 17:54

I feel that such an idea is intriguing to say the least, and I feel that it is desperately needed in order to get rid of some of the major problems that we now face in today's society as it stands at the current moment; however, with further ado on this matter, I would have to say that the whole idea is somewhat utopian to some degree, but maybe it's not. What if we did have the potential to use this for the greater good. Well, my assumption is that those who trade stocks on how many prisoners there are in the cells won't be very pleased to hear that criminality will be cured.

Additionally, those who use the prison system in the United States to justify the expansion of the war on drugs will be dissatisfied to hear that when most prisoners that will have become reformed - would be something that would interfere with the policy of imprisoning such individuals for the purpose of justifying the whole thing as most already turn to crime once they get out.

But more interestingly, the idea of crime can fit a whole variety of narratives going from being very minor (talking back to your mother or being rude and or insulting as well being a casual prostitute for the sole purpose of pleasure not profit) to incredibly serious crimes such as rape, terrorism, human-trafficking, or even worse - the trafficking of slaves for labour or sexual services.

More importantly, the whole concept of crime can be either cute as it's romanticized or severely ugly. In spite of all this, the question arises is when crime does become something that is rather cute. Then, we have to assume that it is a naughty rebellion of some kind that is the idealistic passions of the libertine soul.

By the basic definition of eliminating those who fit the whole narrative of crime - would in my sense of the idea - be something that would resemble the policies of a totalitarian bureaucratic dystopian state like mentioned by some people in this post. As such, I feel that those who just merely fit the definition of minor crime should not be subjected to such treatment as opposed to the psychopaths and rapists that do.

As a personal side note to all of this, I feel that those who do indeed fit the whole narrative of minor crime ("casual prostitution, extremely minor theft like stealing chocolate bars from the dollar store, having sex at an age you shouldn't as your parents indicate, or even doing things like living an unorthodox non conformist lifestyle") should not be persecuted in any sense of the question due to the fact that some of these people are in a sense - among the most creative in society. Just look at the generation of hippies in the 1960s that brought us the sexual revolution that helped the LGBTQ community to gain their rights for the first time in the last 2000 years (think - the Romans were pretty tolerant of the homosexual community previous to the Christian era).

In addition to this, I feel that we should be tolerant of those who are the so-called outsiders. Because without them, we would not have great geniuses like Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, some of the unorthodox thinkers of the 1920s as well as the 1960s that helped to create the final foundation of modern society that was culturally democratic (different from political democracy) as well as fully open of those that are only embraced in secular societies.

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I like your answer although I think it maybe is a bit long for many to read and could use some headlines to make it easier to navigate. – mathreadler Feb 29 at 7:31

Interesting point but there are several problems:

  • If that was possible why wouldn't you "adjust" every human to prevent such horrible things can even happen?
  • Who says what's right and what not? Think of all horrible things that were/are perfectly legal for example death penalty in the US and other countries. And on the oder side think for example the french revolution, that also would have been considered "wrong".
    Or even our understanding of the universe...what if they just "adjusted" Galileo Galilei's brain.
  • There are lots of crimes which could not be cured. Like don't paying your taxes for something because you didn't know. Or killing someone by accident in a car crash or something.

But I don't think that our lives would be much different. If humans never invented clothes you wouldn't mind if your doctor was naked.

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I like what the answers thus far have described. There is one aspect of this that has not been covered. If this technology exists for the good of the people presumably it could be used for the opposite as well.

Currently Mind Surgery seems open ended as to how it functions and what it is capable of doing.

I think you would have to strongly consider the possibility that the technology will be stolen and used maliciously. You could take a criminal with the drive to commit certain crimes and then possibly change his ambition to something like that of a murderer. Memory implantation to make an innocent believe they themselves committed a crime... Im sure the list could go on.

Not sure where else you could go with that specifically but if this type of thing is too be avoided you should nail down how this works and its limitations. This would add an interesting element to a story though.

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There are many great insights here, but I'll try to speak more directly to your questions:

  • How would it affect social interactions and day-to-day business?
  • If you are going to 'repair' a mind, you won't stop halfway, right?

We'll address these in reverse order.

I think repair isn't the right word. You also used the word adjust, so I'll go with that. Repair doesn't sit well with me because some things you might 'repair' aren't necessarily wrong. For example, I like to watch anime and read SO sites. Most of us don't think these are bad things, but no one would disagree that making anime and contributing to SO sites are better. Am I a bad person because of that? Most people would say no.

The next issue is that criminality is also subjective. I'll cite scripture from the LDS church to support this point. I'm sure there are other examples that would work better for the wider audience, but alas it is the only thing coming to mind right now.

Be warned: The following is perhaps the most gruesome passage in this book of scripture, though I daresay it is not the most graphic.

For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue—and after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery.

Moroni 9:9-10

If you skipped the reading, then take my word that the acts condoned by the society in that passage would not be condoned today. (At least, not in my country.)

Now let's assume we're all on the same page, criminality is well defined, and we're only going to adjust criminals. There are ethical issues with adjusting someone "all the way"—At what point are you done remaking the criminal and begin remaking the person?—but let's assume we go all the way. There's still one thing we can't really do much about: agency. The person is still free to choose and be who they want to be. They still have the option of becoming a criminal, again.

Say we resolve that issue by falling on the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debate. People we adjust can't innately choose to return to their criminal ways. This finally brings us to your first question:

How would it affect social interactions and day-to-day business?

It depends on the scope of our definition of criminality. The large the scope the greater the effect. I'm going to suggest that you would see the following in order of increasing scope:

  1. Fear generally decreases
    No matter where I go, I have peace of mind that I won't killed, mugged, taken hostage, sold into slavery, etc. Such incidents would become so rare as to not warrant the worry.

  2. Our standards rise
    Let me explain this one. The spectrum of murderer to saint, for the common man, narrows down to, say, petty thief to saint. While this is an improvement, the prejudice or opinions we have of major criminals now shifts to minor criminals.

    For an analogy, let's use the political spectrum. Let's assume we have a party halfway to the left and another halfway to the right. Both parties are equally moderate, right? Now let's remove the left quarter of the chart. The party on the left is now really close to an edge, and that makes them radical, right?

    Similarly, we've artificially adjusted the common man's scale of right and wrong. It's hard to gauge what all this does to society, but I'm going to say we net zero with this.

  3. Good faith abounds
    You implicitly trust that no one will do you wrong, and that people try to do well. You don't lock your bike because there is no theft; you come back and it's there or someone took it to the local lost & found.

  4. Altruism is abundant
    You care about everybody, and she cares about everybody; Everybody cares about everybody! The ideal culture to support socialism has been born.

For my last point, I'll simply note that this doesn't necessarily make a cookie cutter population. At the highest level you can still have artists and scientists and politicians. You can have the devout and the atheist. Many values may be shared—perhaps all of them—but priorities, personalities, and experiences can make all the difference.

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First what are even considered to be crimes varies largely with society. Some societies have been quite brutish and barbaric because at the time strength was necessary for survival (wrestling with lions and wolves and stuff) and in contrast todays crimes involving physical violence are often considered to be some of the worst crimes.

To connect to Darrels great points.

Reducing peoples emotion could reduce crimes under both Malice and Passion departments, but may increase risk of crime of opportunity as less emotions probably leads to a bit of less drive to work hard to better ones' situation. Neglect could probably be helped at least to some extent through education of various types. But reducing strenght of emotions can not only reduce risk of crimes but also make life less exciting and enjoyable.

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To add to the already extensive answers here, such a technology would have a distinctly dystopian flavor unless it made use of some "objective" conception of justice or morality- the idea being, it must be impossible to use this technology to subdue violations of the law that are nonetheless worthy and good actions (as per Karen's point, for example.) Taken this way, the technology would essentially align an individual with some perfectly elaborated and unassailable ethical theory of correct behavior; nothing more than a perfect moral education.

Believe it or not, there are serious academic philosophers who would assert that, whenever someone is tempted to do something unethical, it's simply because they're misunderstanding why the "better" option is morally right. In this view, a perfectly educated (and sufficiently intelligent) person would just do the right thing, always. And its hard to say that perfect education and sufficient intelligence are dystopian... right?

Storytelling-wise, of course, this could have severe drawbacks- not only would readers have to be willing to (suspend-) believe that such a perfect objective moral theory exists, but this would also imply that in any moral conflict your characters face, they know that there's simply a "right thing to do" and they just have to calculate what it is. This might make certain kinds of narrative complexity difficult to achieve, to put it lightly. But, on the other hand, restrictions and strange conditions often make for interesting stories!

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