Friday, October 13, 2006

Crime, Punishment and the Bernard Williamization of the U.S.

The title refers to a dead British philosopher whose book Shame and Necessity was read by a few of us at the Huffy Crew. One of the major themes of the book was this concept of "shame," with one of the implications being that where it was once a critical component of Greek life, it is now largely lost to us moderns.

One quote from an article in this week's Economist which highlights the rise of shaming punishments in the U.S.:

"Many support shaming punishments. Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University has argued that they are a good way to express communal values. Fines, in contrast, imply that you can buy a clear conscience. And shame seems to be a powerful deterrent."

When you read the kinds of examples listed in this story, I have little doubt they will do the trick of deterring -- at least in these cases -- petty crime. What's more, I'm all for expressing "communal values" and treating crime as a profoundly anti-social matter, but there's something about this shaming business that gives me the creeps. Perhaps because anytime I think of such public shamings, I'm reminded of far worse times, and far worse places: the so-called "spectacles"of public hangings, stonings, disembowlings, parading of captives, etc.
Also, the artice's first example, of the frat boy having to stand outside in his toga, reminded me more of a pledge activity than a mature form of social punishment. Is this what shaming is? Fraternity initiation?


Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I agree about the toga punishment, but think that that reflects the nature of the crime: how can we really believe that someone should be punished at all for drinking, etc? Isn't the fact that it's impossible to embarass someone for this kind of crime evidence that it's no crime at all?
On the other hand, I think that the child support car clamp is brilliant. There is nothing so vile as refusing to support your own flesh and blood, and, because this opinion is held universally, there is no one who would not be ashamed because of this punishment.
Finally, you can take shaming too far, and I think that's what we've done with a lot of the sex offender laws. Sex offenders can now expect to be punished for the rest of their lives and this seems wrong. A punishment should not only be proportional to the crime, but it should help prevent the offender from committing another crime. When you've got a Mark of Cain on your back for the rest of your life, I imagine you stop caring about society's norms completely. So the key is to remind people of the value of others' respect while giving them the chance to win it back.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

It doesn't surprise me that Etzioni's a communitarian. They seem especially enamored of this whole shaming notion. If you read MacIntyre's After Virtue, that's the creepy outcome of much of his "Aristotelian" prescription. If you deviate from the cultural norms, you get ostracized, not only for some dictated span of time, as punishment is meted out now, but presumably for life, or until you can prove yourself. This happens already, but is not explicitly institutionalized. To enshrine it in law seems dangerously illiberal.

You realize this is where Foucault pops in to tell us that those far worse times and far worse places were simply a different, even naively simple, form of power structure compared to today's more insidious forms of subject formation. But we poo poo Foucault around here these days. Come to think of it, are any of our old foils (Foucault, Fish, Strauss) still standing? I mean in a stronger sense than "we've taken some useful tools from you, but we're no longer totally vexed by you."

2:31 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home