Neil Levy’s Posts

Does the desire to punish have any place in modern justice?

Professor Neil Levy, visiting Leverhulme Lecturer, University of Oxford, has recently published a provocative essay at Aeon online magazine:

Human beings are a punitive species. Perhaps because we are social animals, and require the cooperation of others to achieve our goals, we are strongly disposed to punish those who take advantage of us. Those who ‘free-ride’, taking benefits to which they are not entitled, are subject to exclusion, the imposition of fines or harsher penalties. Wrongdoing arouses strong emotions in us, whether it is done to us, or to others. Our indignation and resentment have fuelled a dizzying variety of punitive practices – ostracism, branding, beheading, quartering, fining, and very many more. The details vary from place to place and time to culture but punishment has been a human universal, because it has been in our evolutionary interests. However, those evolutionary impulses are crude guides to how we should deal with offenders in contemporary society.

Our moral emotions fuel our impulses toward retribution. Retributivists believe that people should be punished because that’s what they deserve. Retributivism is not the only justification for punishment, of course. We also punish to deter others, to prevent the person offending again, and perhaps to rehabilitate the offender. But these consequentialist grounds alone cannot justify our current system of criminal justice. We want punishments to ‘fit the crime’ – the worse the crime, the worse the punishment – without regard for the evidence of whether it ‘works’, that is, without thinking about punishment in consequentialist terms.

See here for the full article, and to join in the conversation.

Professor Levy has also written on this topic in the Journal of Practical Ethics; Less Blame, Less Crime? The Practical Implications of Moral Responsibility Skepticism.

The Allure of Donald Trump

The primary season is now well underway, and the Trump bandwagon continues to gather pace. Like most observers, I thought it would run out of steam well before this stage. Trump delights in the kinds of vicious attacks and stupidities that would derail any other candidate. His lack of shame and indifference to truth give him a kind of imperviousness to criticism. His candidacy no longer seems funny: it now arouses more horror than humor for many observers. Given that Trump is so awful – so bereft of genuine ideas, of intelligence, and obviously of decency – what explains his poll numbers?  Continue reading

Living With Other Hominids

Written by Professor Neil Levy

The recent discovery of what is claimed to be a distinct species of the genus Homo, our genus, raises to three the number of species that may have co-existed with Homo Sapiens. Homo naledi is yet to be dated, but it may be only tens of thousands of years old; if so, it coexisted with modern humans. Homo floresiensis, the so-called ‘hobbit’, seems to have been extant well after sapiens evolved, and there is strong evidence that the Neanderthals coexisted with, probably interbred with, and may have been killed by, our ancestors.

If any of these species had survived into contemporary times, we would be faced with an ethical question which is novel: negotiating our stance toward a species that is not quite human, but too close to be regarded as simply animal (using that word in its common meaning, to refer to non-human animals). More specifically, we would face the problem of how to respond to another deeply cultural being. Naledi seems to have had a culture – so the researchers conclude from the placement of the bones, which they think indicates burial. Perhaps it was language using (floresiensis seems a very good candidate for language using). Yet they might not have been intellectual equals of modern humans (perhaps they were – genetic difference certainly doesn’t entail inferiority – but for the purposes of this post I will assume they weren’t). If they were our contemporaries, would we be obliged to allow them to vote? To have affirmative action for them in universities and in jobs (assuming that some of them, perhaps rare geniuses, could function at a high enough level to take advantage of these opportunities)? Should we treat them as permanent children, appointing guardians for them?

Some philosophers would say that the answer to these questions is quite easy: we should give them equal consideration. Equality of consideration is the kind of equality which philosophers like Peter Singer argue should be extended to chickens and chimps, just as much as human beings. Treating chickens equally in that sense doesn’t entail affirmative action or voting rights for chickens, because chickens don’t have an interest in either. It just requires taking their interests equally into account.

While there are strong reasons for thinking we ought to extend equality of consideration to homo naledi, floresiensis and Neanderthals, that doesn’t tell us the answer to the concrete questions. Insofar as they are self-aware, these people (let’s call them that) have an interest in self-government, and therefore in voting. But (let’s assume) they have a limited capacity to understand the issues on which we vote. As self-aware beings, they might be harmed by being treated as inferior. But there may be good grounds for thinking that they are inferior.

We might offer them limited rights: rights to vote in elections for people who have the special role of looking after their interests. That would entail that they are not as self-governed as we are, since they would be living in a broader society (or in a world, at any rate) in which decisions are taken over which they have less say than we do.

I don’t think there are good answers to these questions. That is, while I am sure there are better and worse answers, I think this would be a true moral dilemma: the best possible response would have big moral costs. There seems to be no way to act that would involve some harms to a properly cultural being that couldn’t be fully autonomous: harms that would arise from its awareness that it was less autonomous and less able to govern its own life than others.

Julian Baggini sees in the discovery of naledi good news for humanity; it shows that in some sense we are not alone. Perhaps, but had they survived, we would face a tragic dilemma. To that extent, we are lucky that they didn’t. Genetic diversity among modern human beings is tiny, with genetic differences between groups swamped by those within them. That ensures that the questions we face about how to treat members of other groups are in one central way easier: they are in every important respect our equals. Our ethics would struggle to settle how to treat a deeply cultural group distinct from us which is in some respects not our equals.

Left, Right, and Belief Formation.

A recent article by Jeff Sparrow on the Australian writer Helen Dale/Darville/Demidenko has left me pondering the way that we form beliefs. Under the penname ‘Helen Demidenko’, Dale published a novel that told the story of a Ukrainian family, members of whom were perpetrators of crimes against Jews during the Holocaust. The novel was instantly successful, winning major awards, and equally controversial. It was described as anti-Semitic in its sympathetic depiction of ordinary Ukranians and its (alleged) caricatures of Jews. The book gained an aura of authenticity from the author’s claims that she based much of it on interviews with members of her own family, who had lived through the events depicted. Demidenko’s bubble burst when it was revealed she was born Helen Darville, and had no Ukrainian relatives to recount these tales. Continue reading

Self-control and Public Policy.

I have just finished a series of lectures at the University of Oxford on the topic of self-control, the culmination of my first stint in Oxford as a Leverhulme visiting professor (for which I am very grateful to the Leverhulme Trust). My theme has been self-control as a problem of self-management; taking ‘management’ seriously. The idea is that we need to think strategically about ourselves: rather than deciding how to act as temptations arise, we ought to plan for those occasions, or avoid them. That, I’ve argued, is how people who are successful at avoiding temptations when they conflict with their longer-term goals actually do it. Continue reading

Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Defense lawyers are increasingly calling upon the services of neuroscientists to give evidence excusing, or mitigating the guilt of, their clients. A recent case illustrates some of the risks of doing so, as well (perhaps) of the potential benefits to lawyers and their clients.
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Was Marx Right?

In The German Ideology, Marx claimed that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. The idea, roughly, is that the way the dominant class frame and view the world comes to be the ideology of the entire society. If the ruling class sees people as divided into castes, for instance, then most people – whether they belong to that class or not – will absorb this way of thinking and see the world in the same way. This explains why – according to Marxists – people may be complicit in their own subordination: it seems natural to them. Continue reading

Discrimination against the (historically) privileged

Most cases of discrimination involve someone who belongs to a historically subordinated group being unfairly treated, because they belong to that group. Must all cases of discrimination fit this mould? Here are two, involving people who claim that they are being discriminated against because they belong to a historically dominant group. The first has been in the news recently: a group of workers at university in Wales are claiming sex discrimination on the grounds that they are paid less than their female counterparts. The second has not been in the news, since the case is more than a decade old. It concerns a man rejected by a US police force because he scored too high on an IQ test (the force has a policy of rejecting those who score too high, on the grounds that applicants who are too intelligent might get bored with police work and move on, which would entail a waste of the time and resources devoted to their training). Continue reading

Cricket and mental illness

There is a lively debate in the philosophy of psychiatry over what makes a condition a disease. The debate is particularly heated with regard to addiction: it is a moral failing, a brain disease or something else altogether? People who hold that addiction is a brain disease often claim that their view is more humane, because it removes the stigma from a condition that is not the sufferer’s fault. Unfortunately matters are not so clear cut: there is some evidence that the disease model actually increases stigma, or at least makes mental illness seem more a fixed part of the person’s identity. Continue reading

Is it rational to have children?

Laurie Paul’s fascinating paper on the rationality of choosing to have children has already received a great deal of attention in the blogosphere. Perhaps everything worth saying has already been said. But I wanted to point to some evidence that we ought not place the kind of weight on people’s experiences, in the context of assessing how their choices have gone, that Paul suggests we should.

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