Sometimes people ask me whether I’m just making up the pro-gun position that I occasionally discuss on this blog (and that I tend to refer to as wingnuttery). I assure you I am not.
The above is the tail end of a conversation with someone who found my blog via the Washington Post and wanted to argue with me about whether or not Florida’s Stand Your Ground law constitutes an example of self-defense as an inalienable right found all the way back in the philosophy of Locke and Blackstone. [You can find the whole discussion here if you want to see how he arrives at this nonsensical position.]
Does Locke think you are justified in defending yourself if someone attacks you and there’s no other way for you to preserve yourself? He does. But, if at all possible, it would be better to let the proper authorities handle the matter; one of the main points of having a civil society is that it precludes every man from being judge, jury, and executioner. Locke suggests this over and over again.
Does Locke think you have a right to wander around with a weapon looking for trouble and then claim self-defense when you kill someone you’ve been following around for no good reason? No, sir; that’s utter madness. The only ones who think this way are people who like the idea of waving guns around to make themselves feel like big men.
The necessity of political philosophy arises because most policies are good for some people and bad for others.
That’s Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, writing in the New York Times today.
I don’t agree with any of the conclusions that Mankiw draws about particular policies … but I like this sentence. It’s a good one for some of my colleagues in political science, who are often rather dismissive of political theory as a subfield of study.
HT: Ted Goodman.
Last week, I wrote a little bit about an interview with Rebecca Roache in Aeon Magazine in which she seemed to endorse making punishments for prisoners as harsh as possible. I focused on the idea that I felt was at the heart of the interview, namely that offenders need to be made to suffer for their crimes and that sometimes offenders “get off easy,” either because prisons are simply too cushy, because they are put to death in a supposedly humane manner, or because they are able to live in prison (no matter how pleasant or unpleasant the prison) while their victims are suffering or no longer living. Here’s Roache in the interview:
Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?
But I soon realised it’s not that simple. In the US, for instance, the vast majority of people on death row appeal to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment. That suggests that a quick stint in prison followed by death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.
She goes on from there to talk about life-extension and the sticky philosophical wicket of continuing to punish someone who is 900 years old for an offense that took place hundreds of years ago.
A friend of mine, Drew Jacob, wrote a thoughtful critique to which Roache responded this morning. The crux of her response looks like this:
Had I anticipated the attention this would get, I’d have been at greater pains to emphasise that the point of the paper I’m writing with my colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen is not to cook up new ways of making people suffer, but to consider how developments in technology might interact with our punishment practices. That doesn’t just involve thinking up new methods of punishment, but also considering how technological developments might force us to question existing practices. (The point of my remark about life sentences was not that increasing prisoners’ lifespans might make their sentences more lenient and that this would be terrible, but that it’s actually unclear whether a longer life would make a life sentence more or less severe, and whether it would be permissible (I think not) to withhold lifespan enhancement technology from prisoners.) I don’t endorse any of the methods mentioned in the interview.
That’s all well and good, but what isn’t discussed here or in the interview is what I consider to be the most important point. That is, everything in the interview focuses on retribution and suffering; some crimes, Roache says, “require a really long period of punishment.” If those offenders seem to prefer a long period of punishment to death, then they should be killed or else there should be a way to make the long period of punishment worse. This is the way that both Roache and her interviewer are thinking about crime:
There is a long-standing philosophical question as to how bad the prison experience should be. Retributivists, those who think the point of prisons is to punish, tend to think that it should be quite unpleasant, whereas consequentialists tend to be more concerned with a prison’s reformative effects, and its larger social costs. There are a number of prisons that offer prisoners constructive activities to participate in, including sports leagues, art classes, and even yoga. That practice seems to reflect the view that confinement, or the deprivation of liberty, is itself enough of a punishment. Of course, even for consequentialists, there has to be some level of suffering involved in punishment, because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.
But this isn’t the only way to respond to crime, nor is it — I think — the best way. Why not, instead, think about ways for the offender to make things right (or, at least, better) for the victim or co-victims? Rather than focusing on paying the offender back in kind, why not ask whether doing so accomplishes anything for those who have been harmed? Why not consider how to achieve offender accountability and rehabiltation while also meeting the needs of victims? These are the questions at the heart of restorative justice and they are questions that would lead to an entirely different conversation between Roache and her interviewer.
If we’re only concerned with the punishment and suffering of offenders, then it makes sense to consider how altering offenders’ brain chemistry or lifespans might make their punishments more or less severe. But if we’re concerned with righting wrongs, rehabilitating offenders, and meeting the needs of victims, then it becomes fairly uninteresting to ask, as Roache does, “whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone” because her question presumes the point of criminal justice to be the infliction of harm by the state on those who have committed offenses and does nothing to address the wrong that has been committed or the victims of that wrong.
How is it possible that we haven’t talked about this yet?
Here’s my lone (and pretty tongue-in-cheek) contribution to the wailing and gnashing of teeth inspired by Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday op-ed about the lack of real world engagement by university professors (especially political scientists).
No word yet from Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth or Kristof on their reactions to my argument. I assume I’ll hear back once they’ve had more time to read and digest the points I made about the way a philosophical grounding that works in a pluralistic society impacts people who want to shore up the idea of human rights and prevent real world abuses.
When people can see with their own eyes that a talented person made a great fortune fair and square, they tend not to resent it.
That’s Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw, going another round in the unending class warfare discussion we’ve all been having of late, in a New York Times piece entitled “Yes, the Wealthy Can Be Deserving.”
Mankiw has some fun examples, like Robert Downey Jr., E.L. James, LeBron James, and Steve Jobs. These are all people, he thinks, who deserve their astronomical salaries because they possess great skill or talent, or because they do something that society deems very valuable or take great risks.
And, Mankiw argues, no one should be angry about these salaries because not only do the rich deserve their wealth, but they’re also paying a lot of money in taxes that benefit all of us (who are by extension, I suppose, deserving of our lack of wealth).
But this whole notion of someone deserving wealth or poverty seems so misguided to me in no small part because of the utter capriciousness with which a) talent gets doled out and b) society assigns value to various skills. Mankiw isn’t even going the traditional route of claiming that these people work harder than the rest of us; he’s relying on the facts that they’re exceptional and that they pay their fair share back to all of us to make the claim that they deserve their wealth.
What he’s arguing, in short, is that the rest of us who aren’t exceptional don’t really mind when we see someone who is exceptional getting paid for their talent … as long as the person isn’t in finance or banking or something like that. We resent those people, but we don’t resent actors and athletes, and so Mankiw wants us to start thinking about CEOs as being akin to athletes and actors: Better than the rest of us schlubs in some important way that justifies their earnings and explains our lack of earnings.
For my own part, I don’t resent any of the (many, many, many) people who make more money than I do. But I also won’t buy the claim that there’s something intrisically better about them when I compare them to me or to people who aren’t doing as well financially as I am. What seems more likely to me is that under different circumstances we’d all wind up in different places on the economic ladder and that kind of messes with the whole notion of what someone deserves.
Well, it seems 2013 was yet another year that Al Gore beat me out for the #1 spot on this list of global thought leaders.
Last semester’s course evaluations are in for my contemporary political philosophy course and I thought I’d post some of the highlights. As is the case every semester, students reported that they were overworked but that they enjoyed themselves. In fact, there wasn’t a single negative evaluation. In response to the question, “What, if anything, did you like about the instructor?,” several students wrote, “The cult of personality.”
So, this semester the results were crazily positive; this might have something to do with the fact that all the students who despised me, my class, or political theory more generally dropped or withdrew before the end of the semester:
- “He is amazing. He was upbeat and could banter with the best of them. He also could break down the challenging info.”
- "He’s cooler than he looks."
- "Could sometimes be a little arrogant. But the attitude worked well for the class. He was every bit a philosopher."
- "It’s a course you can apply to all other courses."
- "I always knew that if I didn’t understand the reading, I could come to class & get my questions answered."
- "The instructor was younger [than I expected]."
- "Maybe slow down a little so students can type the important parts of the lecture, many holes in my notes (and others) because we were all too busy listening to ask him to slow down — which is hilarious."
- "I thought, from what I’d heard, that he was an angry old man.”
- "Pushed students to work harder and think about their life and passions in addition to the material."
- "I didn’t know if I was going to like this class. I ended up loving it. It challenged me to think in ways that I haven’t before."
- “It was insightful, challenging, and captivating. I will never view the world the same.”
- “Dr. Kohen is the best prof. I’ve had in my 4½ years at UNL. The last three semesters w/him have changed me for the better.”
Unlike previous semesters, where one student would recommend one change to the course and another would recommend the exact opposite, students agreed about changes they’d like to see. They universally hated the 50 minute/3 day a week format, as I do, because our discussions were constantly interrupted just as they got underway, and they want the political science department to offer more political theory classes rather than fewer:
- Give him longer class periods. Maybe a seminar or TV show.
- Switch back to Tuesday/Thursday schedule.
- It will be very sad if this class is no longer offered.
- Make it longer than 50 minutes.
- The classes seemed a little more rushed than previous courses he teaches due to the 50 minute class length.
- The instructor would be more effective if he were allowed to teach more political philosophy classes.
Finally, there’s one question on the evaluation sheet that always makes me laugh; it asks, “Did the instuctor’s lectures, comments, and interactions with students display respect for (sensitivity to) differences in gender, race, ethnicity or other characteristics?” This semester, a bunch of students answered with a reference to the veil of ignorance in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (which we read at the very beginning of the semester).
That might be the best measure of the success of the class.
Technically, no one is required to take any of the courses I teach (at either the undergraduate or graduate level).
There is a political theory requirement for undergraduate political science majors, but it’s only one course and it can thus be fulfilled by taking the introductory course (which is taught by one of my graduate students) rather than one of my upper-level courses.
For the past six years, undergrads in political science at the University of Nebraska who wanted to make political theory one of their three subfields of study would have to take at least one course with me because the subfield requirement called for at least two courses. This won’t be the case any longer, as my department voted to eliminate political theory as one of the subfields of undergraduate study last semester. My suspicion is that, over time, the number of students in my courses will dwindle as more and more students simply elect take the intro course and steer clear of the upper-level courses (less because of my grading practices and more because they don’t fulfill any sort of degree requirement).
There might still be one or two students who choose to take all of the classes I offer. In his or her final semester, I might buy a weekly doughnut for such a student.
I spent some time chatting with someone who believes that a one-day-old ball of cells is a person. Plain and simple. For him, personhood means absolutely nothing more than being a member of the species homo sapiens, irrespective of development.
If you ever want to have some fun when you’re talking with someone like this, ask him this silly question:
Let’s imagine that your body dies but your brain continues to work. And let’s imagine someone else whose body is in good shape but whose brain dies. Now imagine that your healthy brain could be transplanted into the healthy body. Which person is you, the dead body without your brain or the healthy body with your healthy brain?