Scanlon’s “Giving Desert its Due”

A couple of years back Tim Scanlon did a blog post and comment-section discussion on PEA Soup. Here’s one bit:

In earlier work, including my Tanner Lectures on the significance of choice and Chapter 6 of What We Owe to Each Other, I rejected the idea of moral desert because I identified it with the idea that the fact that someone has behaved badly can make it a good thing that he or she should suffer some loss. I still find the latter view morally unacceptable. But it now seems to me that this rejection of desert is too quick. Desert should not be identified with this retributivist idea. There is, I believe, a distinct category of valid desert-based justifications. A desert-based justification for treating a person in a certain way claims that this form of treatment is made appropriate simply by facts about what that person is like, or what he or she has done. By simply, I mean without need to appeal to other factors such as the good consequences of treating the person in this way or to the fact that this treatment is called for by some institution or practice that is independently justified. Moral blame, gratitude, and some honors and distinctions can be justified in this way, and these justifications do not presuppose that the qualities that form the basis for justification are all under the person’s control. The responses are justified simply by what the person is like, or has done. By contrast, legal punishment, insofar as it involves forms of hard treatment such as fines or imprisonment, cannot be justified purely on the basis of desert, nor can significant differences in economic reward be justified in this way. I argue for these views in “Giving Desert Its Due,” which has just appeared in Philosophical Explorations.

I’m just today reading the article in Philosophical Explanations, and it has some interesting features that bear on some of my recent work with Daniel Levine. For one thing, he tries to argue that when we distinguish moral from legal blame–that is, when we distinguish blaming from punishment–we can start to justify withdrawing our personal willingness to have special relationships and obligations to a person based on what they are like or what they have done. For instance, if your male neighbor abuses his wife, it’s reasonable to find yourself less trusting of him, less willing to enter into friendship or shared projects, and less happy for him when things go well in his life… and thus less unhappy when things go badly. (page 11)

But what’s important is that these attitudes are all of the “special” designation: conditional attitudes which we cannot grant equally to all and thus appropriately deprive most people of–and now the neighbor as well. It is appropriate to “withdraw good will” towards a person if they act in certain ways. This is the distinction: everyone, regardless of their behavior, deserves certain unconditional kinds of respect. But conditional forms of respect are conditioned and thus winnable and loseable: esteem, deference, and honor; disesteem, disdain, and contempt.

So far, so good. Now, we know on Scanlon’s account that in some sense responsibility is merely a matter of attribution: so we blame and praise and engage in all the special interpersonal relationships because our actions are attributed to our character. We don’t just blame or praise an action, we blame or praise the person for being the kind of person who would engage in that action.

Now as it happens, I am not convinced that we need to so quickly conflate acting and being. Because what happens in punishment, at least in our society, is that everyone simultaneously withdraws good will towards the prisoner, while simultaneously we become willing to inflict suffering upon them. Scanlon focuses on this second element, and deplores it as not appropriate when we decide not just to acquiesce (by being less unhappy) to their suffering, but to actively visit it upon them, to act (often at our own expense, and obviously so in the criminal justice system) to make them worse off.

Interestingly, this rule-following punishment that Scanlon deplores is at the heart of the social production of norms in community. It’s at the heart of common pool resource management, including the management of the common pool of social reasons and thus our community and its mores, so there’s a strong practical sense in which Scanlon is probably wrong. More on this in moment.

Where Scanlon really seems to go wrong is in the special kind of deprivation in the widespread withdrawal of special relationships that Scanlon calls for in addressing the wrongdoer. It takes an odd kind of individualist contractualism to assume that the universal deprivation of good will and willingness to share projects is somehow unobjectionable. Shared projects are at the heart of human agency. They are the basis not just of the special respect of friendship and love, but of the shared practices that make dignity possible. We have ample evidence of this, that the conditional and unconditional interpersonal relationships are not as easily prised apart as Scanlon claims here.

I think we must probably accept that Scanlon has the wrong end of this problem. Probably it should work something like this: we deem it acceptable to visit suffering on another in a directed manner as a response to normative failures like wrongdoing. But we do so under the understanding that the punishment is a part of the restoration of the conditions of special interpersonal relationships–of good will. We punish so that we can go back to trusting and collaborating. Anything else is inappropriate. Thus we restore the priority of the conditional over the (allegedly) unconditional reactive attitudes, acknowledging as we do so that these never really were unconditional attitudes in the first place, that reactivity always trump unconditionality and honor always trumped dignity.

I need to think some more about what that means for the latter half of the paper, where Scanlon tries to tie these questions of punishment and moral blame to economic distributions and redistributions. I’m sympathetic to his conclusions there, but having undermined his foundations I’ll have to see if I can justify an alternative means to that end.

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.

I have some questions about violence

11736It looks like I’ll be co-teaching a course on violence with Daniel Levine in the spring, and I have some questions:

  1. Is it just me, or do philosophers rarely talk about violence? We talk a lot about killing, and war, and punishment, and even torture. We talk about peace and non-violence. But “violence” doesn’t come up often, and when it does it’s often (as in the Frankfurt School) mythologized or dealt with through a kind of negative theology. Am I right about that?
  2. Clearly there are some related concepts, like cruelty, domination, coercion, etc. But what do they tell us about violence? Is violence the worst thing that humans can do? Compare violence to cruelty, domination, destruction, and harm; are these the components of violence, or its frequent companions?
  3. Where does sexual violence fit? Is it an intensification, a different kind, or a mixture of violence and other things like domination and cruelty?
  4. More basically: is violence a natural kind? Is there a specific phenomenality attached to it, i.e. is there something all instances of violence are “like”? Or is it a family resemblance term? (Or is it worse than a family resemblance term, we don’t even know what it means in all the contexts where we’re using it?)
  5. Who is more violent: a sniper or boxer?
  6. Who is more violent: a drone operator or a torturer?
  7. Which is more violent: a bomb or a prison cell extraction?
  8. Is an explosion always violent? Are fireworks “controlled violence” or are firebombs “violent and destructive fireworks”?
  9. Why do we continue to speak as if peace is passive and violence active, even after generations of non-violent activists have shown us how active peace can be? What’s the bias, there?
  10. Can words and arguments be violent, or is it just that some words are backed by institutions of violence? Like, can philosophy be violent, or does it only get a little violence rubbed off on it when it’s justifying war or torture or the actual embodied violence of the state? Put another way, is an argument or aa discourse violent only insofar as it is an implicit but authentic *threat* of physical violence?
  11. Contrariwise: can violence be expressive?
  12. War is way more violent than most people  even give it credit for being, I think. There is a lot of peripheral violence, destroyed communities, and lost capacities, even in “just” wars. So is interstate and civil war more violent than totalitarianism? Is “legitimate” state violence better or worse than “illegitimate” non-state violence? Are they equal, i.e. violence is violence is violence?

Reflections on my Crime and Punishment Seminar

 

Old Ohio Penitentiary by J. Harris Day
Old Ohio Penitentiary by J. Harris Day

This semester I taught a course on crime and punishment, and in part out of competition with my colleague Seth Vannatta, I set out to give a final presentation on the dimensions of the course. This is the presentation I wrote.

Introduction

Our task was to explore the role of ethics in the law, and we began our semester worrying about standard ethical questions of responsibility and who to blame when things go wrong. The standard theories of punishment all revolve around these questions: whether we are utilitarians or contractarians, we are implicitly depending upon an account of what we owe to the criminal and to society. What’s more, the same assumptions underwrite our theories of what it is to deserve a grade (an A, an F), to deserve the love of our partners, or to deserve a particular job or a raise. This question of where to locate merit in our account of responsibility is particularly troubling, however, when someone is harmed, when a law is broken, or a right is infringed.

Simple questions of positive and common law or negligence, willfulness, and standards of care quickly morphed into a thorny metaphysical question: how can we be responsible for our acts if we could not have done otherwise, that is, if the mechanistic picture of the universe and our genetics and our society and our brains is true, and what I ate for breakfast or the crimes I commit before dinner are all predetermined?

Reactive Attitudes

The courts want to avoid such questions, but throughout the semester my contention was that they end up smuggling metaphysical accounts of agency into their descriptions of the non-culpability of children for trespass. Yet what we saw in Peter Stawson’s account of the reactive attitudes was an attempt to save responsibility, praise, and blame while jettisoning the supposedly-unavoidable metaphysical underpinnings. By redescribing blame and responsibility in terms of their own possibly-deterministic framework, Strawson allows us to say something like the following: “Maybe you could not have done other than what you have done, maybe your virtues and your vices are both unavoidable, but my reactions are no more avoidable. If you cannot be expected to have prevented your crimes, then I cannot be expected to prevent your punishment.”

This certainly appears to be a satisfying solution to the problem, because the law cannot requires a victim or a judge to achieve an inhuman level of restraint in the face of a dazzling failure of restraint in the perpetrator. Strawson’s “reactive attitudes” account comforts us by communicating just how unfair this asymmetry actually is. And yet… in beginning to spell out conditions for the defeasibility for responsibility, Strawson reiterates that not all actions and reactions are symmetrical. Under many circumstances, a victim truly does have more restraint than a perpetrator, and ought to exercise  it, too. (Not just to prevent cycles of reprisal, although that certainly counts in its favor; to get beyond a mere modus vivendi to what we might mean by justice.) Even more: a judge’s capacity to see beyond the dyadic relationship of injury and blame means that she can ask questions about the overarching justice and efficacy of a punishment.

Grammatical Theories

Thus we entered what we called the “grammatical” theories of agency and responsibility. We experience our own lives through the first-person lens, as “I.” Meanwhile, we can talk about the other person in two different ways: as a second-person “you” or as a third-person “them.” And underwriting these lenses or grammatical conventions is the fact that we tend to see ourselves as agents and others as passive, to an extent that is so asymmetric and inconsistent that it is hard to believe it can be warranted. For instance, we are much more likely to explain our own failings in terms of circumstances, while we tend to describe the failings of others in terms of character, intention, or predilection. “I” fail because of events and impediments beyond my control, despite my best efforts. “You” fail because you didn’t try hard enough, you just weren’t willing to work at it; “they” fail because that’s just what they’re like, “they” are failures.

So what starts as an attempt to avoid the difficult metaphysical problems gets bogged down in our cognitive heuristics and biases. In gathering the texts we read together, I tried to duck this problem by adopting the third-person perspective, moving the course from the questions of just deserts to systematic accounts of the problem. Of course, all the intutions and issues of first-person and second-person agency and responsibility are still lurking there for you to pick up, if you like, but we’re all fascinated by the political theory and history, so I followed our collective inclinations. “Don’t blame me!” I guess I’m saying. “We are collectively responsible!”

The Republican Theory of Punishment

In order to ground our discussions of justice, we tried to transition from metaphysical and psychological accounts of freedom to the political and legal theory of liberty, that thing of which coercion and the threat of interference and violence deprives us. At about this point it began to be increasingly difficult to ignore issues of race, even in the sense of putting them off until we got to Michele Alexander’s book. So when John Braithwaite and Philip Pettit offered a theory of dominion as the equality of social status and defended it explicitly with reference to the differential “costs of victimization investigation” that African-Americans face, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discriminatory intents and impacts of things like the death penalty.

Perhaps the most interesting insight that Braithwaite and Pettit offer is the conclusion that much punishment is simply an attempt to preserve hierarchy rather than to right an inequality. This is something we well-recognize in looking around at the race and class of those who get punished in the US, but philosophers too frequently ignore it. What’s more Braithwaite and Pettit offered us an explanation of what makes coercion and domination so difficult: not the harm or loss of utility, nor the shear loss of doing what you want to do, but the way that it harms our social standing, makes some “better than” and others “less than.” Many political philosophers have concluded that a democratic society cannot function if it is not populated by social equals. The only problem is that so many so-called democracies *do* seem to have serious social hierarchies, and as university students and faculty we inhabit an elitist institution that sets out to distinguish erudition from ignorance and good work from bad.

Costs and Benefits

One way to articulate the appeal of the theory of non-domination that Pettit offered is the way in which it gives us a tool to balance the costs of victimization against the costs of investigation and incarceration. But the balancing act favored just one variable, equality, and it seemed that this is not the only way to proceed. Sometimes, as in markets, equality should take a back-seat to other values, like efficiency and optimality.

In his book When Brute Force Fails, Mark Kleiman offered a different account. He suggested that given how much we spend on and lose to crime-avoidance, perhaps some large amount of criminality is simply inefficient, and we’d be better off spending even more of our scarce resources on eliminating it. What is more, he suggested, we not only need to spend more preventing crime, but we need to spend these greater resources more intelligently. (Work harder AND smarter.) Yet the real strength of his argument is not so much the cost-benefit analysis but his prescriptions: that infrequent, uncertain, and severe punishments are simply not much of a deterrent, while swift, certain, and light-but-escalating punishments could be much more effective, saving us costs to the criminal as well as the victim.

Given how much crime costs us as a society (and Kleiman includes the cost to the criminals!) there is much benefit to be had from preventing it. Yet so long as we organize our response to crime around the concept of punishment rather than prevention, we will tend to choose more severe and less effective regimes of investigation, correction, and incarceration.

Surveillance and Punishment

Despite its appeal, Kleiman’s prescriptions fall under the rubric of an increasingly surveyed disciplinary society, one that simply uses new technologies from psychology and economics to do a better job of controlling its citizenry. The justification for this increased control is that citizens desire safety and security more than they wish to be free from such disciplinary technologies, and Kleiman is undoubtedly right that that is our preference. However, we should worry.

The heart of the course was a close reading of Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, and if his history taught us anything, it is that social knowledge always has two faces: the production of justificatory knowledge and “truths” by experts who stand to gain from their expertise, and the development of practices and techniques for the regulation and management of bodies.

Much of the first half of the semester was devoted to the production of knowledge and the progress we have made in discerning the true and the just ways of investigating and punishing. But what Foucault attempts to lay bare is the way in which our contemporary treatments of prisoners’ bodies are only intensifications of historical brutalities we think of as inhumane. The intensification follows an introverting path: we have certainly lost the stomach for the spectacle of the regicide being drawn and quartered or the criminal hung on the scaffold. But incarceration and rehabilitation, the watch-words of criminal science, take up a set of tasks related to the ordering of unruly and delinquent bodies that is much more effective but no less self-serving. We now have the tools for more power, and if Foucault is right then we will generally put these instruments to use in asserting our own advantage by dominating others.

Both the concerns about social hierarchies and the recognition of the radically racialized form that incarceration and punishment take in the US suggest that “our own advantage” may include my students and I, but it is unlikely to include the majority of black people and it is unlikely to include the majority of people without college degrees. Recognizing the power that our knowledge allows us does not mean that we can necessarily bend that power to our wills; it is much more likely that it will continue to accrue advantages for us even if we try to betray it, just a rich person’s Capital continues to make money even if they purport to be egalitarian communists.

Punitive Isolation and Bare Life

Deepening our understanding of the techniques of imprisonment, we read essays (including a great one by Lisa Guenther) on the horrors of solitary confinement and the sometimes bewildering Homo Sacre by Giorgio Agamben on the forms of exclusion that seem to have a permanent place in our prison system.

If Agamben is right, then these new forms are all a part of an overarching paradigm, that of the reduction of human beings to their mere physicality and biology. This political movement towards reduction transforms flourishing into survival, and it does it in a way that has been continuously experimented with since the first colonists started to round South African natives into “concentration camps” for ease of management. When those colonial overlords returned home to Europe, they brought their techniques of domination with them, and so in that sense the Holocaust was Europe’s chickens coming home to roost, a “boomerang effect” by which European Jews reap what European capitalists sow.

Biopolitics is a form of legal sovereignty in which “modern man” is a depicted as “an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question” but it makes sense only as a development of the totalitarian interpenetration of politics and private life. The modern sovereign no longer decides between ‘letting his subjects live or making them die,’ rather he chooses to ‘make them live or let them die.’ Thus he distinguishes the form of a power that disciplines its subjects and channels their activity from one that simply responds to infractions with infrequent but grotesque punishments.

Trying to spell out exactly how these new techniques and knowledges serve the purpose of domination is something of a challenge precisely because they are still in the experimental stage, still being contested. In the absence of opposition, however, they have been allowed to remain in unquestioned use for far too long. The very nature of bare life and isolation means that the contestation that would normally be working through these techniques and forcing them to receive some form of justification has been slow to form even among those academics who are supposedly most opposed to domination and who purport to ally themselves always and everywhere with the downtrodden and silenced. Let me suggest one reason, at least, why you should think that there is still work to do.

Agamben suggests that we ought to see ourselves in solidarity with the least of us; the immigrants and refugees, those without rights. No doubt he is motivated by the idea that the rightless are marked by the fact that they rise in status when they have committed a crime, because only then are they granted procedural rights (like the right to a trial) and recognized within the legal framework. In practice, however, it may be more effective to view prisoners through the lens of the nomos of the camp.

The New Jim Crow

One concept we did not discuss in our class in much detail is race solidarity and race treason. But when we turned to Michelle Alexander’s book it became obvious just how difficult such a discussion might be. Having made a persuasive case for the differential intention and impact of the current system of mass incarceration, Alexander then asks her readers, who she assumes will be bourgeois African-Americans like my students, to engage in a radical act of political solidarity. Rather than putting our hope in a Black president, Alexander suggests that quietly celebrating civil rights victories from fifty years ago while enjoying the benefits of what she calls the “Racial Bribe” is a kind of racial treason: selling out the majority of African-Americans for the spoils of white supremacy by becoming complicit in it. In contrast, she suggests that true opposition to white supremacy will require a rejection of the racial bribe and a laser-focus on the policies currently at work in the domination of African-Americans.

We started this class asking what sort of punishment we owe to the criminal: at the conclusion, Alexander proposed that what we owe to the criminal is solidarity. I suspect that this is a difficult proposal to accept. I do not know how to make the case any stronger than she made it, so I will simply quote Baldwin, as she does:

these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off…. We cannot be free until they are free.

Yet as a white professor of African-American students, I cannot quite countenance her proposals, like when she took to the pages of the New York Times calling for a plea-bargain strike, suggesting that everyone accused of a crime act in solidarity to force the courts to a halt: “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System.”

“What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?”

I tend to think this kind of collective action is unworkable, in part because it puts the responsibility to act on people who are risking very serious jail time if they proceed.

However, the key focus of this proposal is not only to increase demand for lawyers and judges beyond the point the system can handle, but also to increase the demand for jurors so that we must actually face what we have collectively done. Right now almost no criminal can afford to take advantage of his supposed constitutional right to a jury trial. We do everything in our power to coerce them not to use that right, and the results are spectacularly unjust even if every one of them is guilty. As a result, most citizens don’t have to face up to the decision-making a jury trail entails. That’s part of why mass incarceration is of so little interest to most people: out of sight, out of mind. At least a plea-bargain strike would put citizens back in the drivers’ seat. When we get tired enough of jury duty, perhaps we will vote to decriminalize some of the things that are taking us away from our work and families. But so long as we can leave the job to prosecutors, we’ll likely continue to vote for tougher laws and more “tools in the arsenal of prosecutors,” which is an arms race prosecutors have long since won.

Throughout the course we saw a very diverse set of authors arguing that something akin to an abolution of incarceration was required. I didn’t always realize that a text could be read in that way, but it was a running theme. It’s almost impossible to imagine, now; yet I think that these unimaginable things are often what most needs philosophical work. Why not imagine a world where almost 2% of our fellow citizens are in some way dominated by the criminal justice system? Why not imagine a world where we regularly isolate  prisoners, depriving wrongdoers of the social bonds that would be required to reenter society?

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.