The “Humanitarianism” of Living in Prison Until Death

The profile of Judith Clark from last month has me worried:

We are more willing to impose death when the killer is painted in monochrome—if we can define him or her by the horror of the crime. Many think this is just; that is what blame and punishment are about. But in rare public comments to the magazine of Washington and Lee University’s law school, where she has taught, Clarke argued that no person should be defined “by the worst moment, or worst day” of his life. She laboriously constructs a complex and sympathetic portrait of the accused, working with a far more varied palette, sketching out the good and the bad, unearthing the forces that drove a killer to the terrible moment, and insisting that judges and juries and prosecutors see the larger picture, weighing not just the crime but the whole person. She seeks not forgiveness but understanding. It takes only a small spark of it to decide against sentencing someone to death.

It seems like such a laudable goal: to demonstrate that since even the worst criminals are ultimately unworthy of the death penalty, lesser criminals ought not to receive it either. Yet I see the appeal in the death penalty, too. As Arendt puts it in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

And just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

I’m sympathetic to Arendt here, but I worry that the great mass murders and our outsized vengeance justifies a whole system of lesser punitiveness (like the supermax) that we ought to rein in. Maybe we can’t.

And to a large extent that paragraph is self-refuting: “as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world.” On Arendt’s view, that kind of authority could never exist (what theory of political authority or consent would justify it? how could it be epistemically reliable? who would hold it in check? what does the claimed authority do to the regime that claims it?) and yet our courts regularly assert it. And, yes, this is the same boring claim made by opponents of capital punishment everywhere, an argument that Arendt acknowledges was just as valid in Eichmann’s case as in any other but “this was not a very promising case on which to fight.” Clark disagrees, of course: while hard cases make bad law, they do make good tests of general principles.

I think it’s notable how simple and straightforward the arguments against the death penalty are, and how convoluted and twisted the arguments in favor of it are. It seems we must go to considerable cognitive trouble to justify what we know is wrong (and we know it is wrong because murder is so often what we are punishing in the first place.)

So a life sentence is more humane. It’s the most ethical of the punishments, right? My friend Sarah Shugars challenges this humanism, again in the context of Tsarnaev:

a life sentence allows us to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done: our judgement was harsh but humane. Our prisoner will get no appeals while he lives in extreme isolation – cramped in a 7 x 9 cell and fed through a slot in the solid steel door. But at least he will have his life. We are progressive after all.

There is something wrong with this dynamic.

I’m not sure what to recommend in the Tsarnaev trial – whether life or death is ultimately a worse fate. But more broadly we need to rethink our options. We need to recognize the deep, systemic failures of our prison system and identify new strategies and options for reparation and justice. If we want to be harsh, we can be harsh, but let’s be honest about what we are and what we want from our punishments.

After all, if we’re quibbling over whether someone should die slowly or die quickly – we’re hardly arguing about anything at all.

Life without parole (LWOP) is a weird kind of humanitarianism. It’s often defended by reference to how easy death is in comparison, which hints at how little there is of humanitarianism in our drive to sentence wrongdoers to life rather than death… to make them live rather than make them die.

Perhaps thinking similar thoughts, Corey Robin shares this poem from Primo Levi, “For Adolph Eichmann”:

O son of death, we do not wish you death.

May you live long as no one has ever lived:

May you live sleepless for five million nights,

And every night may you be visited by the grief of everyone who saw

The door that closed off the way of return click shut,

the dark around him rise, the air crowd with death.

For Primo Levi, a life sentence is not about mercy: it’s the ultimate punishment, or it is supposed to be. It’s the only way to make the harms received equal to the harms perpetrated.

We see this same conflict in the work of the ACLU. They call LWOP both “a living death” and “swift, severe, cheap, and fair,” depending on whether they’re criticizing its use for nonviolent offenders or offering it as an alternative to the death penalty. It’s torture unless it’s justified; or, it’s torture, but some people deserve torture. That can’t be right.

LWOP seems to exist only to make sense of our greater economy of punishments, not because in itself it’s recognizably fair.

This idea–that there’s something like an order or an economy to all the bad things people can do–strikes me as pernicious and nonsensical. Arguably, it’s that first effort to rationalize our revenge that makes room for mass incarceration: it’s only when we try to make all this resentment and anger sensible and procedural that we end up with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Can we imagine a real alternative to the death penalty, though? And if we can’t, is there much point in pushing the issue? What about life with parole? Is this imaginable?

Anders Breivik got 21 years, so clearly it’s possible, though even in Norway he can be imprisoned indefinitely if he’s still considered a threat.

We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Map of WalkoutsToday is National Adjunct Walkout Day, but instead of participating I’ll walk-in to the Jessup Correctional Institution and I won’t walk-out until my class and other responsibilities are done. Mostly that’s because I think the adjunct problem is less important than the mass incarceration problem, and my students would be worse off if I decided to stay home. I’d be a cad to complain to them about my plight, in any case: they make less than a dollar a day, if they’re lucky enough to get jobs at all. But my situation is probably a bit unique: most students won’t complain if their teachers cancel class. They consider themselves better off when we stay home.

On the commute to Jessup, I’ll get caught in traffic. It seems like I always do! And there’s something I like to remind myself as I’m driving: I’m part of the problem. It always seems like the car in front of me is the problem, the one who just cut me off. But to the car behind me, I’m the one in the way. Traffic works that way: we think we’re the victims of traffic, but really we’re the perpetrators. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Low wages work sort of the same way. It seems like they’re the employer’s fault, or the competition’s. But the employers are just trying to save money (and yes, that means they don’t care as much about the quality of the education they provide as they do about costs, though adjuncts provide high quality educations anyway). And our fellow adjuncts are bidding down wages because they are willing to work for so little, but they can rightly point to me as the problem, working–for free!– at a prison alongside three other jobs when I ought to be bidding wages up. Collectively, we have made ourselves cheap. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Anyone with a PhD can make more money in another field: we’re smart folks, with skills that other people will pay to learn, which they will then use less well than we could–for more money. So a walkout makes sense. What makes less sense is coming back. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Now of course I’m ignoring the obvious: universities are corporatized businesses run in such a way as to exploit their labor force, to separate us from the value of our labor. Without shareholders, the primary beneficiaries of that exploitation are other workers in the same firm: administrators, senior faculty, and the like. But still: that exploitation depends on a reserve army of underemployed PhDs willing to take the job, which of course pays poorly but comes with great heaps of respect and esteem. So it’s still true: we’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

So all we need to do is decide who will stay home. For that we’ll need collective bargaining–unions–and we’ll need to understand that the unions are only going to be effective if, after the walkouts, some of us decide (or are forced) to stay home. But maybe in that case we won’t all be better off: maybe the people who have to stay home or leave the academy will be worse off. Or maybe many of us would be better off if only someone would convince us that working at GEICO would be a better job.

Three reports worth looking at if you want to have an evidence-based discussion of these issues:

On Minority Genius in Philosophy

Is this what genius looks like?

There’s a lot of reasons to worry about “genius” and other evaluations of general intelligence. My own character skepticism militates against the notion of measurable general intelligence, or even field-specific genius. But the report last month that women and racial minorities in the humanities are less likely to be described as geniuses is another such reason: it looks like genius is often merely a way of saying “white male.” Thus perhaps we should give up on genius and cultivate other virtues, especially if we want to create diverse faculty communities.

And yet.

My experience in philosophy has usually been the opposite: women and African-American philosophers have usually struck me as brighter, more insightful, and making a greater contribution to the discipline than their male and white colleagues (including of course myself.) I wrote my dissertation on a woman, Hannah Arendt. I’m frequently struck by the amazing work done by women and Black philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson, Angela Davis, Christine Korsgaard, Elizabeth Anscombe, Kristie Dotson, Karen Stohr, Chris Lebron, Shannon Sullivan, Sharon Meagher, Charles Mills, Noëlle McAfee, Anthony Appiah, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Tommie Shelby, Rebecca Kukla, Elinor Ostrom, and Jacqueline Scott.

And so I wonder if the error is the language and preference for genius or our poor ability to recognize it. That is: is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that genius exists, and it doesn’t? Or is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that they can detect genius, and they can’t?

There’s a plausible explanation of the feeling I have of being awed by women and Black philosophers, of course: in a field that values genius but has a bias against believing in the genius of women and Black philosophers, the only women and Black philosophers who survive the gauntlet of graduate school and job market will be those who can project that genius. They’ll be exceptions that prove the rule, tokens that demonstrate that the whole business of evaluating genius can’t be flawed because, after all, we recognized the greatness of these few scholars.

Moreover, the failure of all the mediocre and merely above-average women and Black philosophers will go unmentioned. We’ll rarely ask: why is it that almost every minority scholar is a genius? Why are all the merely-really-good and maybe-slightly-below-average scholars white and male? One possibility is that genius (of the particular sort preferred by humanities scholars) is unevenly distributed to non-white and non-male scholars: they bring a perspective that comes naturally to them (by virtue of their exclusion from the majority) that makes it especially easy to make outsized contributons. Another possibility is that average scholars are ignored when they are women or Black. What’s more, both of these explanations could hold for part of the injustice we observe: we might need to start talking about the comparative effect size of each of these explanations and not an exclusive disjunction between them.

There’s been a lot of work, lately, chipping away at the sense that the university is meritocratic. Far fewer are working on whether merit is even a meaningful characteristic to evaluate. That still seems like an important question to ask, an insightful and bright question. But I’d also like to see more people take genius as a possibility, to be “genius realists” and question whether the current crop of white, male elites just don’t have it or the ability to recognize it. I am suspicious of the effort to withdraw the merit that accrues to great philosophical scholarship just as women and Black philosophers are eligible to claim it in larger numbers. (The solution to unjust distributions of the pie is not always to throw out the pie.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on genius just yet: perhaps we just need to accept that we’re not smart enough to recognize it when we see it. And perhaps, too, we can give up on the innateness of genius in favor of an account of intelligence as plasticity, as the result of environment and treatment: perhaps philosophical geniuses are not born, but trained and prepared.

Evidence-Based Parenting, Spanking, and Authoritative Parenting Styles: or, How to Get My Daughter to Brush Her Teeth

Crying Baby, but not My Crying Baby from Flickr user donnieray (CC By 2.0)
A crying baby, but not *my* crying baby from Flickr user donnieray (CC By 2.0)

My daughter doesn’t like to have her teeth brushed. She’s not even two years old, yet, so while that worries me, I guess it’s something we’ve still got time to correct. But one question I often wonder about is whether there’s something we could do differently to change her behavior. She’s maybe twenty-five pounds, right now, so one possibility is to hold her down and force her mouth open. I’ve had to do that to administer medicines, so I know it can work, and that she’ll forgive me afterwards. But frankly it’s terrible, and if it hadn’t been necessary to do to preserve her physical health, I wouldn’t have done it. I tried everything else on the bribe/bargain and disguise/distract continua first, I assure you.

But my personal style, which is also my parenting style, is one that avoids force and authority. Spanking makes me uncomfortable, for instance, though I’m amenable to evidence there too. And it turns out that there’s a lot of data on that.

The American Psychological Association opposes it, and so that’s become something like the default position, sometimes even ensconced in law. Much of the concern there is that open-handed, conditional spanking (i.e. “If you steal from the grocery store, you will get five carefully administered slaps on the buttocks later in the day after an explanation for the reasons for the spanking.”) can lead to more immediate and customary physical abuse, like facial slapping or the use of instruments like belts or canes, when the behavior returns. The evidence seems to suggest that spanking is closely associated with many, many bad outcomes, including noncompliance, aggression, adult spousal abuse, and more.

But that work, primarily linked to one researcher’s meta-analysis, has been seriously challenged in the last decade. It seems reasonable to protest that lumping caring and careful parents in with child abusers may muddy the data a bit, especially when the anti-spanking research was quickly transformed into advocacy that led to outlawing spanking of any sort in more than thirty countries. There was always the risk that the correlation between, say, noncompliance or aggression and spanking ran the other way: noncompliant, aggressive children got spanked because parents had exhausted other options.

So the work of Larzelere and Gunnoe is relevant here. They have also done meta-analyses, but tried to account for more variables, including differences in spanking style and positive developments like school performance. And what they’ve found is that conditional, open-handed spanking for children between two and six years old is associated with positive outcomes later in life.

I think this is a great case for research that challenges the orthodoxy (which is no spanking) but doesn’t actually resolve the question. We thought we knew spanking was unequivocally bad. Now we don’t. That doesn’t mean we know that spanking is good, though.

In fact, even Gunnoe’s research is not clear that spanking is the cause of the positive developmental factors associated with it. In fact, it may well be that willingness to spank is merely a marker for authoritative parenting syles more generally. Being authoritative is associated with both positive outcomes for children and spanking, and Gunnoe tries to argue that it’s really that style that is the cause of the positive developmental outcomes.

Which is a problem. Because even if I was willing to spank my daughter, I don’t think I could do it in a way that evinced authoritarian parenting more generally. Like the medicine I had to force her to take, I’d be deferring to the authority of the experts in my use of force. Call it the Obedient Parenting Style, deferring to the authority of experts. No thanks.

I’m kind of okay with this being a place where the facts are too murky and our values take over. But that makes parsing the data, when it does become available, a difficult task that raises all sorts of concerns about the role of science in law-making, the effects of subtle political biases on research, and the ways that motivated reasoning and motivated skepticism can impact results.