The Indignity of Imprisonment

            Do we need to radically rethink the practice of imprisonment of criminals – not in the direction of novel forms of punishment, but rather in the form of vastly reducing punitive imprisonment altogether?  While prisons are integral to modern criminal justice system, a report from the British Academy earlier this month puts serious pressure on the institution.  Their overall argument is that we should move away from current levels of incarceration and focus on alternative responses to criminality like fines, rehabilitation programs and restorative justice.  Part of the report rehashes familiar empirical, consequentialist arguments for prison reform: prisons are expensive, they have deleterious effects on society, they have unclear deterrent effects, and so on.   Those arguments are relevant and important, but in this post I’d like to focus on the more theoretical, non-consequentialist arguments for prison reform.  The British Academy report argues that, in essence, current imprisonment practices are incompatible with the values of liberal democracy.  This is roughly in line with a growing body of philosophical literature militating against mass incarceration and other forms of punishment.  Here, I’ll go through some of the report’s arguments (and one of its weaknesses), as well as introduce an alternative account I’m developing that links up the imprisonment debate with the torture debate and emphasizes a respect for dignity and humanity. Continue reading

Autonomy: amorphous or just impossible?

By Charles Foster

I have just finished writing a book about dignity in bioethics. Much of it was a defence against the allegation that dignity is hopelessly amorphous; feel-good philosophical window-dressing; the name we give to whatever principle gives us the answer to a bioethical conundrum that we think is right.

This allegation usually comes from the thoroughgoing autonomists – people who think that autonomy is the only principle we need. There aren’t many of them in academic ethics, but there are lots of them in the ranks of the professional guideline drafters, (look, for instance, at the GMC’s guidelines on consenting patients) and so they have an unhealthy influence on the zeitgeist.

The allegation is ironic. The idea of autonomy is hardly less amorphous. To give it any sort of backbone you have to adopt an icy, unattractive, Millian, absolutist version of autonomy. I suspect that the widespread adoption of this account is a consequence not of a reasoned conviction that this version is correct, but of a need, rooted in cognitive dissonance, to maintain faith with the fundamentalist notions that there is a single principle in bioethics, and that that principle must keep us safe from the well-documented evils of paternalism. Autonomy-worship is primarily a reaction against paternalism. Reaction is not a good way to philosophise. Continue reading