Status Emotions and Punishment

I haven’t written much about status emotions, recently, but I came across one of my favorite Facebook memes and remembered again how central it seems. I don’t endorse the misogyny here, but it perfectly describes the way that fundamental attribution bias transforms resentment into contempt, and thus leads, in my view, to both epistemic and moral error:

Funny Confession Ecard: Once you hate someone, everything they do is offensive. 'Look at this bitch eating those crackers like she owns the place.'

I’ve also been thinking a bit about the role of status emotions in our treatment of criminals in the US. It’s important to recognize when your differing judgments are leading you away from the common sense moral community, and punishment is one place that this seems to be occurring for me. Put simply, I just don’t see any good reason to disdain or show contempt for convicted criminals. This follows quite self-evidently from my claim that status emotions are immoral and unreliable. But this puts me outside of the mainstream society’s judgments about criminals, and I wonder if I’ve missed something, am wired differently, or am simply altering my intuitions in order to bite the bullet on my idiosyncratic account of the moral emotions.

Recall that Michelle Mason just assumes that some people are better than others in her account of contempt as a reactive attitude. But the genius of Strawson’s account of the reactive attitudes was that it allowed us to sidestep tricky metaphysical questions about agency and determinism. Mason does the same thing, sidestepping tricky metaphysical questions about personal identity and the persistence of character traits over time and context. Yet she doesn’t thematize the question of persistence or identity in the same way that Strawson thematized determinism and blame.

Blame and punishing seem appropriate, but what I notice is that the prisoners I teach are thoughtful human beings who are interested in the texts we’re reading. They are polite, respectful, and in my judgment genuine. Almost every day that I come to class, someone thanks me for the lesson. At the same time, they have criminal histories. Some were simply caught up in the war on drugs, but some of them allude to having done truly bad things; this is not just a matter of a self-selected group of victim-less criminals. And yet, that doesn’t seem like it matters to me. It doesn’t seem like it should matter: to my mind, they are due the same esteem as anyone else.

Criminals could be the perfect test for status emotions, if you set aside all your concerns about the US’s problems with mass incarceration, innocence and plea bargaining, the racialization of justice, and the war on drugs. Of course, we shouldn’t set those things aside when we’re talking about policy, but at a certain point you have to admit that some people really are guilty. If the claim is simply that they wouldn’t be guilty in a radically different society, we’re back to begging the question in Strawson’s original use of the reactive attitudes: in that case, determinism actually does matter, and these crimes were [over]determined and thus deserving of neither blame nor contempt.

I think we can preserve blame while jettisoning contempt: we resent the criminal for the harm they do, and don’t worry about determinism. We can’t disdain the criminal without assuming something like: “You are the sort of person who would have done that in a different context. I am the sort of person who would not have done that in any of the proximate possible worlds.” I doubt such assumptions are warranted. Perhaps I am wrong. But the policy debate that takes all those political-economic-racial questions seriously would otherwise shift to seeking better means of distinguishing the truly innocent, those whose moral and social status has been wrongly undermined, from the truly guilt, those whose moral and social status is rightly low. My claim is that there is no fact of the matter about trans-modal character, and that this is morally relevant to status.

Contempt depends on the fiction of the doer behind the deed; it disdains the sinner in addition to hating the sin. If someone admits to having committed a bank robbery or a murder, they’re still: (a) human beings, (b) autonomous agents, (c) members of my moral community, (d) capable knowers, and (e) subject to the same moral luck as all contingent creatures. Thus, they are my moral equal and ought to be my social equal as well: an intuition that reports otherwise is simply in error, no matter how many people share the intuition.

Here’s where it’s helpful to be a contrite fallibilist, though: does anyone who has the status hierarchy intuition also have a reflective defense of it? Macalester Bell doesn’t. Mason doesn’t. But maybe somebody does.

5 thoughts on “Status Emotions and Punishment”

  1. I’m not up on status emotions (and I’m not directly answering your question), but I think you at least have Kant on your side in intuitions about status emotions. And I think Kant has right at least that you have some legwork to do if you *both* want to punish someone, properly speaking, *and* hold them in contempt.

  2. Incidentally, I also talk about some related things re: Johnson’s comments about the withering-away of the universal penance that Augustine took to be natural in the wake of warfare in the framework chapter.

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