At first sight, Caruso’s public health quarantine model for criminal behavior (Caruso, 2021) looks quite revolutionary, since it not only discards the idea that criminals are ever morally responsible for their crimes, but also does away with the notion of punishment, a step which not all free will skeptics are willing to take. The only reason why the state may incarcerate or incapacitate criminals, according to Caruso, is out of self-defense, not because the incarcerated deserve it, and not even to deter further wrongdoing. By analogy, if we quarantine those infected with COVID-19, we intend no harm to them and are not even expressing moral disapproval.
Pushing back against Caruso, Dennett argues that such a model would always need a punitive stick behind the door. But Caruso ably defends his thesis that, strictly speaking, enforcement of quarantine does not necessitate punishment. It may just require more effective incapacitation, with as little inconvenience as possible. When a tiger escapes from the zoo, you do not punish it. You just erect a higher fence. Likewise, although mandatory quarantines for COVID-19 are often enforced with punishments for non-compliance, such enforcement is not strictly necessary. If someone breaks his quarantine, try to reason with him. If he will not be persuaded, just lock him up in a hotel room. If he trashes the room and deliberately coughs in the face of the hotel staff bringing him food, push the food through a hatch. If he refuses to pay for the damage, too bad.
The question is not whether treating humans like zoo animals is theoretically possible, but whether even Caruso would do it if push comes to shove. Moreover, what if we discovered more effective ways for protecting society against criminality apart from incapacitation? In public health, quarantines are lifted as soon as the infection risk has subsided, since, as Caruso rightly points out, we are not punishing people for being infectious. At some point, Dennett brings up the thought experiment of the perfect anti-crime pill, which extinguishes all criminal tendencies with no side-effects. Caruso bravely bites the bullet: if such a pill was to exist, there would not be any reason for society to incapacitate or otherwise inconvenience murderers for even a single day. In such a desert-less utopia, all murderers would go scot-free; at least for one crime, after which their criminal tendencies would be extinguished. As Dennett says, however, in such a world our laws would neither command respect nor deserve it (124).
The trouble is that the sheer radicalism of Caruso’s proposal is conveniently disguised by our lack of effective protection against recidivism. With the current state of technology, Caruso’s model would still include a form of incapacitation and other decidedly unpleasant measures—all of which would still feel like punishment even though Caruso can plausibly deny that they are. “Prisons” would still exist in all but name. And if incapacitation happened to deter crime, that is welcomed by Caruso as an unintended “natural side-effect” (147). Quite convenient!