a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Mass incarceration

One thing that I learned as a PhD student at Oxford was that philosophically interesting questions and questions about existing injustice do not always overlap – some existing practices are so obviously wrong from a normative perspective, I was told, that there is no point in writing normative theories about them. This seems right for certain cases, but I still haven’t quite made up my mind about whether it is always true.

I remember this Oxford seminar while reading this utterly depressing piece about incarceration and its effect on black communities in the U.S. in this month’s issue of the Atlantic. What this piece also makes clear is the long – and often unintended – reach of ideas that make it into the collective memory of the political class. In that sense, it is a case study that connects to David’s piece on the political nature of academic writing (although these ideas were published as policy pieces, not as purely academic texts in academic journals). But it also raises questions about how democratic citizens – and philosophers remain citizens, after all – can react to such injustice. Some U.S. philosophers have taken up the fight against mass incarceration, for example Christa Mercer, who writes about her experience of teaching in a prison here.

For those interested in philosophical considerations about incarceration – not so much of the normative kind, because the normative issues are so glaringly obvious, but in a broader sense – I recommend Lisa Guenther’s excellent book on solitary confinement that discusses, among other things, what it means to be an embodied person and how solitary confinement undermines the sense of self. It is a difficult read, but it is also one of the best philosophical books I have read in quite a while.

Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



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  1. Thanks Lisa, these are some interesting thoughts and a good (long!) read that you refer to. A few thoughts on the claim that you refer to from your Oxford time. It is echoed in this quote from Adam Swift and Stuart White (who I guess might both have been at Oxford at the time you are talking about!):
    “Some students are drawn to political theory because they feel strongly about a particular issue: the environment, poverty, racism, the violation of human rights, and so on. They judge that something is seriously wrong with the society, or world, they live in, and want their academic work to be about the
    things they care about, the problems that they regard as morally urgent. This desire to integrate one’s sense of what matters with one’s academic research is natural. Certainly our own has been motivated by it. But neither of us would claim that our academic work has been devoted to those issues that
    we regard as the most morally serious in the world today. What is morally urgent, and what repays serious attention by the political theorist, do not necessarily coincide. Putting it bluntly, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, what is wrong about the most serious wrongs in the world is often so obvious that there is little of normative interest to say about them.”
    I think this is very interesting, not least because it seems to be a widely held opinion and because it “rubs many the wrong way.” Having thought about it a bit, I am pretty sure I disagree with the claim, however. And I do so because I think political theory (/philosophy) is always about two things (which I think I said in my piece as well – and which is why, as you say, it connects very well to that): it is “descriptive” in the sense that it says what e.g. justice is or what a more just society would look like; and it is “action-guiding” in the sense that it potentially changes people’s behaviour by setting standards for their conduct and influencing their reasoning. One could say, then, that it both describes and changes what it seeks to describe at the same time.
    Because political theory is not just about describing moral “truths,” but also about influencing people’s behaviour, it is wrong to say that obvious wrongs are of little normative interest. Political theorists are always also in the business of trying to make people end these wrongs by telling them how they should be acting/shaping their institutions (whether they actively embrace that role or not), and so, can always say more about these problems as long as they persist.
    That said, it may very well be true that there is little normative interest to be found in talking about the wrongnesss of being a slave-owner or the wrongness of genocide giving that they are both obviously wrong AND almost universally held as being wrong.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Starting from your last sentence (which is what I take Stewart and Adam to mean, more or less): I guess the crucial question is which issues are relevantly similar to slave-ownership and which ones are different, and in what ways. And there is also a question about what kinds of publications and activities we should use to try to address them. Sometimes one reads papers (especially when reviewing) that sound very much like the authors would actually like to be political activists. But for some reason or other they ended up as political theorists and have to write certain kinds of articles. Sometimes, I wish they would use their energies in different ways, which would reach a broader and non-academic audience…

  2. Tom Parr

    I share a lot of your worries, here, Lisa. I’m not sure how best to proceed in the light of the factors that you mention, other than for us to continue to think more carefully about these questions.

    On solitary confinement, I should add that Kim Brownlee is working on this (and related) topics at the moment. She’s published a couple of excellent pieces already, and there’s much more to come!

  3. I will probably read Lisa Guenther’s book. I admire those philosophers who truly know true life in prison.

  4. Efforts to erase voting rights, trans rights, and abortion rights for millions of people are escalating across the country. I’m glad people are responding about it.

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