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Yesterday, the alien wizard Handwavius flew by our planet. He saw how violent we were and decided to put a stop to it. He cast a spell on all humans to make us stop us being violent, then flew away again, thinking his mission was done. Now we have to live with the consequences.

From now on whenever a human decides to commit a violent act, they can't bring themselves to do it. They can imagine doing the act just fine, but not actually perform it. This is a mental block, not a muscle one. It will also apply to new humans.

Violence here is defined as "causing physical harm to other humans", and however the individual human interprets that. If you think, on some level, that your action will harm someone - then you can't do it. This doesn't apply to psychological harm, harsh words work just fine. Neither are you compelled to act to save someone in danger, you can only be forced to nonaction.

The block also apply to chains of actions. You can build a robot with a gun, but you can't program it to shoot people. Neither can you order someone to program a robot to shoots people, and so on - if violence is the intended end result, the action is prohibited.

The only way to cause violence is to literally not understand that your acts could cause harm to someone. Violence can therefore still be caused by young children, some severely mentally handicapped people, and indirectly by people not realizing the consequences of their actions. Nonhumans aren't covered, including animals and eventual AIs.

How will law enforcement work when things settle down a bit? Can you stop or punish those committing certain crimes, and if so, how? Will new crimes or punishments be added to the law books to compensate, or old ones removed? Assume most current governments manage to stay in power.

Edit to clarify some things: You can be compelled to nonaction, but not to action. This means that if you're unsure, or you think any action will lead to harm, you will do nothing. If you think an action will do small harm and inaction will do greater harm you will do nothing. Also, a psychopath that has no empathy will still not be able to hurt people. You would have to be damaged enough to not understand what violence even really is to be able to cause it.


This is an attempt to narrow down a too-broad question that I posted earlier and then deleted. If popular, I might have follow-up questions about other aspects later.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jul 11 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ I guess what is stumping everyone is the definition of "harm". Would a surgeon be able to cut out cancer? Would a tech be able to insert an IV? Put Chemo into that IV? Could anyone set a broken bone? $\endgroup$ – Richard U Jul 15 at 14:15

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Simple: define ‘harm’ appropriately for the situation.

Clearly a person committing crimes is mentally ill and requires help. To leave them out in the open would be to cause them harm. Therefore the course of less ‘harm’ is to wrap them in a giant futon (Japanese police do this) and wheel them off to a nice safe prison cell.

Or, if they are threatening harm to others, by inaction a police officer will cause harm to another person. If they believe they can cause less harm to the criminal than the criminal will inflict then not only are they able to apprehend or even kill the criminal, they must do so

So just train your officers to have a slightly skewed definition of harm and you’re golden.

Oh, the same trick can work for anyone. Psychopaths who see no wrong in their actions are, under your rules, free to do whatever they like. After all, I was only stabbing the police officer so he’d stop trying to arrest me. Clearly arrest is more harmful to me than stabbing is to him.

Good luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ Yup I didn't feel I had quite enough for an answer but this is the shape of it the situation described hasn't made violence impossible at all, just skewed things very slightly. Actually this may make police more violent than they are today not less since you must mess with their concept of harm so they can do their job. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ Bit of a nitpick: you don't just have to think that an action is less harmful than another action to take it, you have to think it is harmless. If choosing between two actions and both cause harm you default to inaction. You also can't be compelled to action, only to inaction. Otherwise, good answer. $\endgroup$ – Grollo Jul 9 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Grollo in law enforcement you do have to think of items as less harmful over harmless. For example, we call tazers and other weapons "less than lethal" not "non-lethal" because there is always that chance. Therefore: Joe's answer is fine and you just illustrated the mental warp that LE would have to do. If you have a person with the personality that is required for military or law enforcement work - one which seeks to protect - your options are not "do nothing and just watch a person cause harm" or "pick a harmless option" they are: "watch until you go crazy and cause harm to stop harm" $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jul 9 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ @JGreenwell In real life that is true. Not in this scenario. No matter how angry or upset you get, even if the person causing harm is a total psycopath, you can't take and action you think would cause harm. Not if you want to with all your being, not if it's justified, not if it causes less harm overall. If you would harm someone with your action, you can't do it. That's the whole point. $\endgroup$ – Grollo Jul 9 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Grollo the point is either I can justify it in my mind ("there just scum anyway, I'm just taking out the trash") or I'll gain a mental condition (due to the stress of that duality) and now I just bypass the "magic mental block"...and probably become way more dangerous. Or, put another way, mental blocks don't work. People can justify anything. Read a bunch of case law and history - people have chilling reasoning for horrible actions all the time $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jul 9 at 14:30
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Apprehending criminals shouldn't be a problem. Since the criminals cannot harm the police, it should be enough to surround a criminal with police and gently guide them to a car. So the real problem comes in enforcement, since most punishments clearly cause harm.

What comes to my mind is the apparatus that some jurisdictions currently have around lethal injection. I don't remember where I heard this, but I believe in some places, they have 3-5 people each pull a lever; one of those levers activates the infusion of the lethal injection, but the people pulling the levers have no idea which one is the real one. Each one can choose to believe that they pulled one of the dummy levers. The person who pulled the real lever, who actually killed the prisoner, is never aware of it. Perhaps this idea could be adapted; several judges sit on a single court case, each hands down a sentence in secret, one is chosen at random and delivered to the guilty party without the judges knowing which was chosen. The people carrying out the sentence, delivering the prisoner to jail or what have you, are not causing the harm, they are merely carrying out the wishes of the judge. And each judge can hand down a sentence secure in the belief that it won't be chosen.

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    $\begingroup$ @Lupus the police don't move until the criminal does, they leave a path open for him as his only way to move. It they get tired, they can switch out with other officers. The officer the furthest down will have food and water. $\endgroup$ – Richard U Jul 9 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ The criminal can eat and drink any time, he just has to walk into the jail cell first. If he refuses to do so, then he his harming himself, the police are not culpable. Yes, a lot of police would be required, but crime would also be extremely rare; the only crimes possible would be ones of negligence. Theft, assault, murder, rape, and fraud would mostly be things of the past since only those with extreme mental illnesses would be able to commit those crimes. Hell, the drug trade would probably collapse since so much violence is required to sustain it. $\endgroup$ – IAntoniazzi Jul 9 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ I like your 2nd paragraph but with the first I wonder what if the suspect starts trying to pull away from the police, push against them, or otherwise move so as to cause harm to himself (they did this a lot in my experience, esp. if their is a mental condition, or drugs/alcohol involved). The police would just have to move so he had a clear path to where the suspect wanted to go otherwise they would cause that person harm by trying to direct him. Still works if intended self-harm is not allowed because person would likely not be trying to hurt himself just get away. $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jul 9 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ @IAntoniazzi By adding conditions to someone's well being, is a slippery slope you may not want to take. I imprison a woman to a flat, and unless she has sex with me, she won't get food or water. I'm not harming her, she harm herself, she just have to do as I say... see? If you think those would be the past, you are overly optimistic. If people realize there is no way to punish them, they will look for loopholes. Those who can rewrite themselves WILL be successful. Not moral, but the winners as everything is their to take... they will replace the population in a few generations. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 9 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Lupus no conditions are added. Food and water are available, all he has to do it get it. Same as someone going to the refrigerator, unless you're suggesting that refrigerators are violence. $\endgroup$ – Richard U Jul 10 at 12:54
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This will be dark!

Psychopaths will reign free. The police, mostly consisting of normal people can't really do much. On the other hand, rapist aren't harming the other, they were just too shy to say they wanted it.

The only way, bribe the borderline psychos with material goods to take out the truly trashy and unmanageable ones.

Maybe use hypnosis, mental manipulation, drugs to create enforcers who don't think. But even this would be prohibited as it creates future harm. Hell, hiring psychos wouldn't work as it creates harm in the long run.

You may want to check out Psycho-Pass... not exactly the same, but quite close to what you are describing. That series still gives me nightmares.

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    $\begingroup$ Psychopaths know that they're commiting violence, they simply don't experience empathy or remorse. As the OP described it, the mere knowledge that an act is violent should be enough to prevent it; no empathy required. Similarly, I believe most rapists know that they are causing harm and use the "I know (s)he secretly wanted it" defense disingenuously after the fact. Either way, arresting them should still be easy; even the most impaired mind can see that punching a police officer who is only doing their job is a violent act. A few cops gently taking them by the arm should be all it takes. $\endgroup$ – IAntoniazzi Jul 9 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ @IAntoniazzi I don't think so. Without empathy it is easy to convince yourself that a) they aren't truly hurting b) they aren't truly human. I'm pretty sure they aren't. You have no idea how messed up human minds can get. Police can't move anyone. The moment they try against someone who isn't willing, they would be hurting them. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 9 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that a lack of empathy removes the understanding of the violence. I can swat a fly and I know that I've harmed that fly, I just don't care because it's a fly. I have no empathy for the fly, but I still know that I've harmed it. OP defined violence as "causing physical harm to other humans." Perhaps OP can clarify whether humanness depends on the perception of the perpetrator. $\endgroup$ – IAntoniazzi Jul 9 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ @IAntoniazzi I reference my earlier comment for a small list of atrocities which show the ability of humans to see other humans as "not human". Also, the suspect would start fighting the officers (their just sheep or bugs in his way) causing himself harm by bashing against their shields and then they would have to back off (drunks do this when you just put them in the back of a squad car sometimes). Less-than-lethal is not the same as no harm $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jul 9 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JGreenwell As evidence I would cite the Nuremberg trials, where many said they didn't believe the indoctrination, they were just following orders, and the accounts that I've heard from former child soldiers where they have talked about fearing for their lives if they didn't obey the group they were fighting for, despite not wanting to participate in violence. I'm sorry, I'm not able to link to those right now. But I agree that this is unknowable without such a wizard in existence. Thank you, too, for a lively debate. $\endgroup$ – IAntoniazzi Jul 10 at 16:52
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This reminds me of the methods used in the book World War Z: there, due to lack of resources to police the jails, people who broke the law were put in stocks or otherwise publicly punished. These punishments, instead of being about violence, were intended to shame the criminal into compliance. More importantly, they also persuaded the rest of the population not to break the laws; public humiliation in small communities was a very harsh punishment.

This method could be used here, capitalizing on the leeway allowed for psychological harm. And then, for those people who didn’t care about public scorn, the non-violent prisons other answers go into detail about could be used to separate them from the rest of the population.

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    $\begingroup$ That's called "deterrence" punishment, there's a fierce debate about it as a parenting tool and it has been used with "shaming" cases recently ... which are also debated (though not with stocks themselves as that is very much a corporal punishment which also carries a dark history involving the slave trade) $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jul 10 at 0:44
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If I interpret your wizard's spell as preventing humans from acting with violence towards one another then crime reduces to things like theft, vandalism, extortion and similar things that don't require violence or the threat of violence to carry out.

If law enforcement identified a suspect, then your own rules would make arrests pretty simple. The cops couldn't use violence, but the suspects couldn't resist much more than running away or saying no. So the police could use overwhelming numbers to box the suspects in and literally pick them up and carry them to jail-- since they are not intending violence this would be okay. I imagine this would really mess cops heads since its not that they must show restraint but that they must not want to injure someone physically to do their jobs

I imagine incarceration would change. I am visualizing prisoners riding around on Segways or automated carts that moving from their cells to courts to prisons. This would deny them their capacity to not cooperate.

If on the other hand, I interpret the wizard's spell as preventing harm. Then almost all crime also vanishes. Certainly any deliberate acts. You'd be left with manslaughter, speeding, and violations of city, state, and federal ordinances. Most of these are dealt with fines. And the rare cases when someone inadvertently kills someone with their car or their poorly designed airplane then the solution for the thought-experiment (above) would work.

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  • $\begingroup$ "The cops could use violence" No? That is pretty much the point, they can't. $\endgroup$ – Grollo Jul 9 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Grollo That looks like a typo, based on the following sentences. $\endgroup$ – Paralyzoid Jul 9 at 23:25
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This problem was actually at the root of the first of Asimov's 3 laws of robotics.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

This was intended, of course, for robots, but your wizard has a related effect on humans. Asimov's robots were physically incapable of intentionally harming a human being. Many, upon finding they accidentally harmed a human were driven into a sort of shock, unable to recover from the contradiction with the first law.

And, of course, Asimov didn't make a career out of how the 3 laws work. He made a career out of showing how they don't work. The Solarians in one of his works created a set of robots which had a warped definition of what "human" was, so that they interpreted the first law to only apply to Solarians. Individuals not of Solarian descent were simply not considered to be human, so could be exterminated with impunity if so commanded.

Thus the first step to breakdown in this society is the development of a pathologically raised group of enforcers who are taught to not believe normal people are actually "human." They are less than human. Perhaps they are demons. Indeed, it's well recognized that the first step to waging war in our world is to demonify the opposition so that you may commit violence against them without concern for its morality.

Now all that is required is to have the ruling class be able to issue commands to these enforcers knowing what they are capable of. This is trivially done by setting it up such that the agent issuing the orders is not the cause of the violence. Orders are issued such that, should the suspect merely comply, no violence occurs. It is only the subjects own actions which cause harm to them. Once again, there is prior art in fiction. Frank Herbert's Dune has the Tleilaxu Face Dancers, brutal shapeshifting assassins. As a ritualistic rule, they always ensure there is one way out of their trap, and that the subject could find the solution. Of course, such a solution is typically not found, resulting in the death of the subject.

This is not just fiction, of course. The concept of "proximate cause" is already in our legal system, assigning "fault" for an accident based on the last individual to be able to act to avoid the accident. We tell our children "Well if you just ate dinner like you were supposed to..." or "Well if you just did your homework when you were supposed to..." This way of thinking is not new, and its relatively easy to fall into.

One could also leverage the idea that inaction can cause harm as well. This is at the heart of a recent abortion bill in the US which sought to require abortion doctors provide emergency care to failed partial birth abortion infants. One argument is that this was a superflouous bill, as said doctor was already under oath to provide care to all living beings (and the infants in question were clearly already legally living). However, on the other side, it points to the reality that inaction can cause the death of an individual. In a less politically charged example, consider moving out of the way of an emergency vehicle. Failure to act can cause harm by impeding motion.

Add to this any chaotic element, and we find that it's always possible that any action can cause harm, or inaction can cause harm. Anyone who finds this out will be stuck between a paralyzing inability to act in a way that might cause harm and a anti-paralyzing inability to fail to act.

The particular solution to that puzzle from Chinese philosophy is called Wu Wei... or more completely wei wu wei. Translated into English, its "action without action." Making sense of that philosophy using Western thinking is notoriously difficult, and in Chinese thinking, countless theses have been penned on the topic (and arguably a few religions). Needless to say, if everybody suddenly understood wu wei, we would find the structure of the world dramatically changes, and we have to rethink the meaning of things like "law enforcement."

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  • $\begingroup$ and then of course the most famous perversion of the 3 laws of Robotics comes in the Foundation novels where it turns out one robot has reprogrammed itself to have a 0th law that overrides the first law, a law to protect humanity against itself that allows that robot to cause insufferable harm to billions as long as humanity as a whole is better off as a result (according to that robot's own definition of being better off). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jul 15 at 4:00
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Effectively this has been played out many times over the centuries.

Religions often state something like "love your brother like yourself", "do no harm to other people", etc. etc..

People tend to then just redefine those they dislike as not being covered by those statements. If you redefine criminals as not being fully human, you're no longer restricted by your mental block on not harming humans.

This would of course lead to a system in which people are convicted first, THEN arrested, never being present at their trials and thus incapable of defending themselves. Which is of course exactly what happens and happened quite often in totalitarian countries already.

And such mental gymnastics are not uncommon of course. The Germans in the 1930s/40s defined Jews, Slavs, mental health patients, blacks, basically anyone not of Germanic descent as "Untermenschen", literally "underpeople" but more accurately translated as "subhuman" and did things to them that they'd never dream of doing to "real" human beings.

The same has happened in many places and eras all around the world.

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Criminal prosecution isn't really about harm anyway. So the death penalty goes away, but statistics show it isn't a deterrent to future crimes, not really.

Jail, if managed properly, isn't directly harmful. Especially if the guards and other inmates are physically incapable of harming any inmates. And, over time, prison population should drop quite significantly as violent crime is done.

You also have fines -- at least, for those who have enough income that fines aren't a direct cause of harm.

Actually, this raises many interesting side questions: Would the spell consider repossessing a person's house as harm? What about denying access to medical care? Or enacting laws to reduce homeless people's access to public parks and park benches? I think how you define "harm" is going to seriously impact your world here.

Honestly, I think your world is going to have so many other problems that law enforcement is going to be the least of your worries. An entire industry just lost their jobs. What will the quite suddenly now-ex-military do? What will the weapons manufacturing industry do? You've just unemployed about 27 million military personnel. Plus the military-industrial complex that supports them. The world spends about US$1.82 trillion on military budgets. This doesn't count all the non-military weapons trading, etc. This will have some impact on the global economy. Is that harm? ...Sorry, off topic...

Jail, in your post-harm society, won't be directly harmful, so it is still on the table for the drastically reduced population of new prison inmates. And that jail time will be safer and less harmful for inmates the world over.

Fines, at least for well-off individuals, will still work, too. And we might find less need for the fines, as at least some people will be less likely to do things like contaminate rivers that feed into water supplies or let lead pipes poison entire cities, perhaps. So the need for fines should drop, and fines will be used less against those who are least able to pay them, hopefully.

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    $\begingroup$ The death penalty is the only technique available to the criminal justice system that has been demonstrated to reduce recidivism by 100% $\endgroup$ – EDL Jul 9 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ @EDL Added links to support that sentence, but basically, a death penalty doesn't statistically reduce violent crime in credible studies. Given that most violent crime is a crime of passion, that makes sense. $\endgroup$ – CaM Jul 9 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ @EDL Only 99.9999%. There was that Jesus guy who was executed for preaching sedition, then came back and did it again. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Jul 9 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Mike Scott, LOL $\endgroup$ – EDL Jul 9 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ @CaM as the convict is dead and can't commit other crimes, the fact that recidivism is 0 for those receiving capital punishment is inherent to the punishment. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jul 15 at 4:01
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I'm wondering how much crime prevention / detection actually requires violence by the police? (Even before the wizard comes)

Now, all violent crime is eliminated.

Since the criminals can't commit acts of violence, there is no need for the police to use violence to defend themselves. A criminal's only choices are to come quietly or run away. The police just need to be able to run faster!

So the police now train themselves in techniques of non-violent restraint - i.e. a martial art that allows them to use physical force to restrain a criminal, without harming them, or using strategies to out-maneuver the criminals trying to escape. Since the criminals can't fight back, just try to non-violently resist the restraint, all it takes is for the police to be better trained in this technique than the criminals.

Jails are surely easier to manage - sure the guards can't use violence to control the convicts, but neither can they use violence to threaten the guards (or each other!)

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Religion has already been mentioned, so I'll go with another one: Coventry. Criminals are regarded as beyond the pale of society. No one will hire one, no one will deal with one, no one will sell to one, no one will associate with one, no one will speak to one. They are treated as if they do not exist.

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A big chunk of the state has become unnecessary. What are soldiers and policemen to do? Protect people from tigers? There can't be that much demand for that. Many laws relate to preventing harm from getting done or compensating harm done. So courts will be a lot less busy.

This doesn't mean strong states can't be a thing. If he monopolizes enough essential supplies, like water and crops, a dictator that believes himself benevolent should still be able to get his way by not authorizing essential shipments of necessary goods to dissenters. He can protect his supplies by having people physically blocking access to his sources, because his enemies can't get those guards out of the way without there being a risk of them getting hurt. A lot of harm can be done through inaction.

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