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This is set in the modern day but in a parallel universe. As usual we have a food crisis and climate changes, etc.
Imagine a serial killer was finally arrested and sentenced to death, as the country still practices capital punishment. It supposedly is a strong deterrence and sends a powerful warning against committing heinous crimes such as homicide or murder.

Then I had a thought: if I wasn't myself anymore, if - for example - my memories and personality somehow were altered so that nothing of my old self remained, wouldn't that mean that I'm as good as dead in the eyes of the public? Can we perhaps replace capital punishment with magical memory manipulation? And if this argument is valid then why hasn't capital punishment been abolished?

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    $\begingroup$ What does food crises and climate change have to do with the question of magically manipulating memories? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ The ability to change a person’s memories to such a degree introduces a whole slew of fridge logic, far scarier than the death penalty. I hope you run with this. $\endgroup$
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ why do we still kill people when therapy and rehabilitation exists? can do and political will to are different things. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ civilised countries in the real world have long abolished capital punishment without the existence of magical memory manipulation $\endgroup$
    – Aaron F
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Not a complete answer, but important to remember that punishment exists within a system that needs to feel just in order to be stable. It may well be more humane to wipe personalities, but it might not leave victims / survivors with sufficient sense of retribution or vindication for the suffering they have endured. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 4:17

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Because capital punishment is more efficient and no less moral.

Assuming you're reverting them back to the state of infancy, wiping someone's memory and personality is fundamentally the same as killing them anyway. The only difference is that now you have a mind-wiped adult who needs to be raised from scratch. Who's going to do it? Their parents are probably old or dead, nobody is going to "adopt" a mind-wiped criminal, and getting the government to do it will mean additional costs for taxpayers.

If you're wiping them to a more functional state, chances are good they still have the traits that led to them becoming criminals in the first place. Moreover, if you consider that criminal behavior is largely influenced by genetics, even a fully wiped person has a good chance of committing the same actions again.

In the end, it just makes more sense to kill them.

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    $\begingroup$ In Bablylon-5 a mindwipe on a criminal gives a new personality (much like the OP says "memories and personality are being altered") and is supervised by talented psi-corp members. They work great. That sort of thing seems to be the OP's idea. This seems like a frame challenge -- "mindwipes haven't been perfected yet". Which is fine, but it's a frame challenge. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ I would argue that capital punishment might not be "more efficient ". In the real world, criminals often sit on death row for a long time and get many attempts at appeal. In the end it often winds up costing taxpayers millions of dollars to execute someone. In another world, maybe that's different. $\endgroup$
    – user4574
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 1:53
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    $\begingroup$ "criminal behavior is largely influenced by genetics" - since when? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ Weird how this answer managed to turn a death penalty question into a eugenics debate. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ @user4574 I highly doubt that criminals on mindwipe row won't draw out the appeal process any less than those on death row $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 22:41
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They say the Force can do terrible things to a mind. It can destroy your memories and wipe away your very identity.

-- Carth Onasi, Knights of the Old Republic

Memory erasure and the death of personality has a long history in fiction and plenty of people faced with it consider it as bad as or even worse than death. Death at least brings closure and finality, but the idea of effectively dying, but some thing walking around, a thing with your face, your life, but not you... it haunts people.

With the option of a terminal and just plain ghastly fate of death of personality on the one hand, and the finality of true death on the other, convicts or society in general may feel that death is more merciful and morally superior.

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    $\begingroup$ If society was convinced of that, a first step would be legalized euthanasia for Alzheimer patients? $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Stef Famously, assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, and every other Western country has active campaigns for legalisation. Many people with incurable diseases like Alzheimers choose suicide before their disease progresses to the point they cannot carry out any action themselves, and there is indeed active discussion about whether powers to act in the best interests of incapacitated individuals should include euthanasia. In most countries you can currently withdraw food and water, meaning a conscious person dies in desperate pain, but not use a drug to kill them humanely. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Stef ... The ethical argument is that we already consider this treatment inhumane for animals, and anyone carrying out this on an animal would be prosecuted for cruelty. For this reason, I have yet to meet anyone who's ever owned an animal who does not positively want to be euthanised if they were in the same level of distress as their pet at the end of its life. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham What is "this treatment" in your comment? $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Stef Starving an animal to death, instead of humanely ending its life. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 16:26
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Even though the "death of personality" may erase the propensity to eat one's neighbors or make a lovely dress out of their skins, the families of victims could feel that anything short of the perpetrator actual dying is insufficient punshment.

There's also the possibility that overwriting memories and personality may not have prevented the killer from killing again (or being framed for a murder - this could be an interesting side plot). If the real or perceived recidivism rate isn't firmly zero, many people will believe that erasure can't cure someone with an inborn propensity for murder.

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    $\begingroup$ Funnily enough, with a PERFECT mind erasure the chance of that person committing murder would be the same as that of any random person committing murder, i.e. > 0, and that would lead people to think the mind erasure is not perfect. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ Typo in the first paragraph; presumably you meant anything short-of-death might be deemed "insufficient" to victims' families. $\endgroup$
    – DotCounter
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Blueriver - Good point. That could definitely lead to a lot of cherry picked examples "proving" erasure doesn't work. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ @LetEpsilonBeLessThanZero - Thanks, fixed. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ Framing the ex-murderers for murder could be a great plot. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 17:11
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The death penalty is still applied when a personality can be changed so radically as to be another person because personality does not exist alone. Personality is a function of the body. So, no matter how the personality of a murderer, traitor, drug smuggler or other death-penalty criminal may be altered by magical psychosurgery, that person is still a death-row criminal.

The criminals may not remember their crimes after magic alters their minds, but the bodies were still fundamentally flawed in that they housed personalities which were able to commit crimes for which the death penalty may be applied.

There may well be in-world research that shows that the mind-wiped body of a death-row criminal is significantly more likely to go on to commit further crimes for which the death penalty may be applied... or it may be a belief without a scientifically demonstrated foundation.

However, unfounded belief or scientifically demonstrated fact is irrelevant, if enough people believe it, whether it is true or not, that's what society will do: execute the worst criminals.

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If the country applies death penalty as a way to enforce the "eye for eye, tooth for tooth", simply wiping the memories of the culprit, or even reducing them to a vegetable, might not fully satisfy the above.

Moreover, even in a scenario where the reasoning behind the death penalty is not so extreme, deleting or altering the memories of the culprit also take away the chance that, at any moment, they might repent or feel remorse for their actions: with the memories gone, they cannot deal with them. It can be seen as you end up actually making them a favor.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the most apropos answer. Logic has nothing to do with the death penalty. The death penalty still exists in the real world because it satisfies society’s sense of vengence (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth”). Imagine how real people would react to, for example, their child’s murderer wandering around, blithely unaware of what some past version of him did. $\endgroup$
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 22:27
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Memory wiped people killed again.

Why did this happen? Genetics? Stigma? Bad luck? Who knows. Regardless, there were several high profile incidents where serial killers were mind wiped, and then went back to their old ways.

The general view, accurate or not, is that enough off the old memories survive in emotional memories that the person is still dangerous to those around them.

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    $\begingroup$ A memory wipe doesn't change the brain structures. Someone who lacks the brain connections to be able to have empathy for others will kill again. Psychopaths are still psychopaths after a memory wipe. It is biology, not training and environment that made them that way. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ One would have to assume that psychopaths can be reprogrammed. Now that's a good idea for a novel. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 14:54
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If you wipe the memories of an adult to the point they are no longer the same person, you're left with a major problem. You can't just start again with a new person.

So you effectively set their mind back to the level of a newborn. However babies and children have amazingly flexible brains which makes them excellent at learning and developing personality and emotions. This is how they turn from a blank slate into a functioning person. They lose this ability as they grow up, so the older you get, the harder it gets to learn new things.

If you wipe the memory of an adult, they will have a blank adult's brain but not the ability to fill it. Even if they can take in information, they'll have a really hard time processing information and likely be devoid of emotions and personality.

And you can't just leave the stuff they learned in childhood intact because a lot of this will likely be the stuff that made them become killers in the first place.

So in answer to your question, the death penalty is still carried out because it's considered inhumane to create these zombie like people, who, going by the logic of the question, are different people and therefore have to suffer this condition even though they aren't guilty of any crime.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think this justifies a bit of hand-wavery. If tech is good enough to perform factory reset without trauma, it's good enough to plug in some standard settings, which could be followed by education. With the intent of turning out - what? someone to atone for sins from another life? Now that's an interesting problem... $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 14:53
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There are a few religion-based possibilities, but one that I think is interesting is if the society wants to prevent redemption/salvation.

In Hamlet, act III, scene 3, Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius (to avenge his father's death), but Claudius seems to be in the middle of prayer, and Hamlet believes that this will send his soul straight to Heaven; so he chooses to hold off for a better opportunity.

We can imagine a society where this sort of perspective is, if not universal, then at least common; in such a society, it might be considered undesirable to give criminals "free" redemption/salvation by magically turning them into the sort of people who get into Heaven.


Funnily enough, the exact opposite reason works as well: the dominant religion might teach that a mind-wipe makes it impossible for the criminal to repent, and the society might consider it unacceptable to create a mind-wiped individual who's doomed to Hell no matter how good a person (s)he tries to be.

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Because of how the specific spell works and the laws of magic as they operate in your 'world'.

You start by assuming spells were tried which physically erased the memories and/or personalities of subjects but there were inevitably severe side affects i.e. the brains of the victims were traumatized. This was because the effect of the spell was physical ie it directly effected the biochemical processes involved in forming and retaining memories. Since these are innate to the nerve cells and networks involved in memory & personality the effect was like concussing all the nerve cells in the relevant parts of the brain at once. The result, if not death was a coma like state and permanent brain damage.

So instead after some research magicians decided try using magic to induce a 'Geas' on the target instead. The Geas involves a couple of spells working together on a permanent basis. In part the spells impose a command 'do not remember X'. The next step is 'You must remember Y' With 'Y' being whatever false memories the caster or their commanders wishes the person to believe are true. Perhaps another spell then effects personality traits the same way.

This approach works because your not physically destroying any memories just compelling the victim not to remember/change etc. But there's a cost.

And that's where the laws of magic come in. The first (unsuccessful) spell was more or less a one shot physical attack, or at least several of them in a row i.e. the spell is cast and a permanent effect is caused, job done. Everyone walk's away happy - except of course the victim.

However the second type of spell is an induced effect or set of 'instuctions' that needs to operate continually in order to be effective. Its a permanent magical 'construct' not fire and forget. This means the spell has to be maintained/checked at intervals and worse that another magic user can remove it if they wish. Not only is the spell more time consuming and arduous to maintain, its also reversible.

So the death penalty stays in place, especially for any rogue mages who decide strike down another practitioners memory spells without authority.

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The Wipeys, Nulls, or Reseted

Because the memory wiped inmate is now a slave of the state or the victim's family and they´re put to work to compensate for the damages caused.

The justice system wipes the memory of the inmate and now raises him as a slave to the government, using him to do menial labors or even specialized work after specific training.

All major crimes have a currency value specified in a table and the inmate must work untill his debt is paid. He can work for the state when the case is the people vs him or for specific individuals in person vs person cases. (Even at their house as butler, gardener, if the magic makes them behave)

If you´re allowing magic you can maybe use it to condition the inmate to be obedient but surely something will go wrong someday and you´re going to have a nice rebellion on your hands to deal with it.

Groups of civil rights defenders would probably rise against this procedure and that would give you some nice political implications.

And after the debt is paid would you have a new chance to live free? Would people accept this new personality back in the society?

There are many things to consider specially if after being free some of them return to commiting crimes.

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Two possible reasons. One a downside of the wipe. The other because of the less-than-pleasing motives of the Powerful People.

First: A certain type of contract killing could become quite popular. Joe Nastyperson wants somebody dead. He finds Bill Downofluck and offers to pay his family $BigStacks. Bill does the do, admits it, and gets wiped. Joe is then utterly protected because the only evidence of his conspiracy was erased with Bill. He can probably even manage not to pay since the only guy who knew what he promised was the guy who got wiped.

Second: The organ banks are always hungry. If the newly short is divided up for spare parts then he can be made to help several possibly terminally ill people. Corneas, heart, lungs, kidney, liver, about 8 pints of blood, bone marrow, fingers and toes, and a coupld squre meters of skin. Cheese and crackers, he's got hair that can be transplanted. Powerful People want there to be available spares. Not just for themselves but for people they want to buy favors from. So they are working behind the scenes to keep the dvide-and-profit method going.

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Memories are wiped but environment is same

Magic will change memories only. What about habits, mentality, customs, society and many other stimulants which made him a killer in the first place?

Feelings of the dear ones

What about the feeling of revenge in an orphan or a widow? No one is satisfied when he sees that the killer of his dear one is wandering while he is in jeopardy.

Once a killer, always a killer

A killer can become a killer again when he is already a serial killer.

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I understand this question is already answered, but I want to share this answer anyway.

Afterlife

People believing in an afterlife do not know what would happen to them if their -or the memory of criminals- would be erased. Do they get to go to the 'good place' when they don't remember being a bad person anymore? Does the second personality end up paying for the crimes of the first? Will they remember what happened in both lives in whatever place they go to? Does this count as creating a person, and therefore can be seen as playing God?

There have been many debates about if an afterlife exists, and if the government had to take the believers (minority) into consideration. Ideas were suggested of removing/changing/adding faith(s) into the newly re-uploaded personalities to ensure they would (not) end up going to 'the good place'.

In the end, with the various touchy political and religious debates surrounding the subject, and the inability to disprove an afterlife and the effect of memory resets on it, it was decided to just keep the death penalty.

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Because the Population Needs to be Culled

... as usual we have a food crisis and climate changes etc.

The world is over populated. Everyone knows in the back of their head that no amount of windmills and recycling plants will save humanity from itself. We need fewer mouths to feed; fewer people pumping CO2 into the air... and to do that, we need to stop trying to save everyone just because we can.

Since a mind wipe is already equivalent to execution anyway, there is no better candidate for culling than violent criminals. We may come up with other excuses like genetics or what not, but at the end of the day, it's about self preservation.

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Soylent Green:

The world is FILLED with people. There are vastly more mouths to feed than can possibly be fed. So what are you going to do? Kill old people because they aren't contributing? Kill children so they aren't a lifetime consumer? With hard choices like that, killing ANY convicted criminal (even for petty theft) makes perfect sense. You WANT the excuse to kill these people. It's population control.

Eugenics:

Your society is a strong believer in eugenics. Criminals are assumed to be genetically inferior to non-criminals. So the decision is made that even if you can fix an individual, their genes must not be passed on. Further, because you assume they are genetically flawed, then they are inherently likely to reoffend. Killing them both prevents them and their inferior genes from being passed on AND stops them from reoffending based on their genetics.

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There are three motivations behind criminal justice: rehabilitation, deterrence, and PUNISHMENT

Your society just happens to favour punishment. There are plenty of people out there, including those who have been personally victimized by crime, that just want revenge. They want murderers etc. to suffer and regret what they've done. They want consequences.

There are people who don't necessarily want this to be deterrence even; they believe some people are just inherently bad and that they belong in prison, or need to be killed.

A society that leans towards the punishment motive will view 'resetting' someone as like giving a serial killer anger management classes. "My brother doesn't get a second chance, but his murderer gets his memories wiped and just walks free?"

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The simplest answer would be "the wipes aren't perfect" in the vein of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Dissociative Identity Disorder is already a thing (used to be multiple personality disorder) in our world right now, play a bit loose with it and have one of the personalities be a serial killer. If you're in the mood for some light reading then the Split Personality page on TV Tropes has plenty of similar examples.

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Punishment serves several purposes. Wiping memory doesn't satisfy all of them.

Most importantly, vengeance/justice - while our legal system takes vengeance away from the victims (or their family), it is important that they get closure, and punishment to the criminal is one way of doing it. This is why the family of a murder victim participates in trials, why there are victim statements, etc.

A wipe-and-release will be seen by many as the murdered getting away without punishment. Vengeance is a base instinct and when you look at the murderer of your small child (for example) walking out of the room, the higher brain functions that tell you that it's not the same person anymore, his memory is gone, etc. simply are shouted down by the lower brain functions wanting to bash in his skull.

There will also be many cases in which the murderer doesn't actually consider a mind wipe to be all that terrible. People in bad life situations, killing out of desperation, might even welcome a fresh start. They'll be saying "thank you" to the judge and mean it - infuriating the family of the victim.

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Because doing so is just attaching a drawn out trauma and cruelty onto state-sanctioned murder.

The reality is, whether you're making a blank-slate person, or recreating them as a whole new person. That person is going to share the face and history of a convicted felon.

They will still be walking around, people will never ever accept them entirely, they will always share their identity with a monster, a monster they can't remember being, and most likely are horrified by.

How many people will struggle to put the past behind them because they see a monster at the shops every day?

How many New Men will be shocked and appalled by reading the excesses of their past self?

It's cruel for the victims, and it's cruel for the new person the state created.

The original person is very much dead anyway. Better that their face not be walking around, perpetuating the pain for others.

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What's the point?

So you say that wiping someone's memory and resetting is as good as killing them.

So what exactly is the value in doing this as opposed to just killing them? To not waste a perfectly good body? To save on burial costs? What exactly is the benefit in creating a new person out of an old body, when new people are being created all the time in much happier circumstances, and getting to live full lives from start to finish.

On the other hand, you have the body of a murderer or person who's committed a horrific crime still around as a reminder of the tragedy they caused to their victims. They might be stigmatised and receive undue prejudice and hatred because people don't get that they are not the same person or just can't get it out of their minds. They see their photo in the media constantly associated with the crime, etc. Could you find it as easy to fall in love with (say) a person who inhabited the body of a murderer? They only get to live a shortened life as they started about half way through it.

There just doesn't seem to be any benefit to a mind-wipe over the normal death penalty.

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