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.