Justice

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

Taking Rape Allegations Seriously: How Should We Treat the Accused?

Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would not pursue further action against Oxford Union president Ben Sullivan, due to insufficient evidence arising from an investigation into the two accusations of rape and attempted rape made against him. In early May, Sullivan was arrested and released on bail, prompting a chaotic six-week period for the Union as the Thames Valley Police investigated the claims made against him. After Sullivan refused to resign, a number of high-profile speakers, including the UK director of Human Rights Watch, the Interpol secretary-general, and a Nobel Peace prize winner, pulled out of their speaking commitments as part of a larger boycott of Union events.

In an open letter (which has since been taken down) calling for the boycott, students Sarah Pine, who is Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, and Helena Dollimor wrote, “Remaining in his presidency continues to offer prestige and power to someone who is being investigated for rape. This undermines the severe nature of allegations of sexual offences.” In contrast, Oxford professor A.C. Grayling penned a response to the letter refusing to cancel his scheduled talk at the Union, noting, “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press…” In this post, I look at the spectrum of responses in the wake of Sullivan’s arrest, of which these two examples represent the poles. More broadly, I consider how we ought to respond – both as individuals and a society – when those in positions of power are accused of rape or other sexual offences. Continue reading

Compromising with Racism

Over at Slate, Tanner Colby has a critique of liberal US school busing policies that’s well worth reading.  Some historical context: in the wake of Brown v. Board’s 1954 mandate to integrate school districts, a pattern of ‘white flight’ emerged – white parents moving from city centers to the suburbs to avoid having to send their children to racially integrated schools.  School busing was a court-enforced reaction to this movement, designed to force the children of those who had fled to the suburbs to integrate by busing students in the whiter suburbs to more minority-dominated schools and vice-versa.  Busing has more recently been rolled back by various courts and local governments, much to the chagrin of liberals – but Colby argues the policy was actually a massive failure to begin with.  He makes some important points concerning a central goal of integration (to get students of different races to truly socialize and interact, not merely sit in the same classrooms and cafeterias) that busing did not achieve, and towards the end offers a glimpse of an alternative Colby thinks is superior.  This alternative essentially involves compromising with racism by having blacks be bused to predominantly white schools, but (acceding to the racially-motivated demands of white parents) not vice-versa.  Yet despite the allegedly good consequences of the compromise, there are inherent problems with it.  These problems, I submit, give us strong reason to reject compromising with racism in this instance. Continue reading

Google and the G20

The furore over Syria at the G20 meeting has distracted attention from the potentially highly significant agreement by the leaders of the world’s largest economies to support an ‘ambitious and comprehensive’ plan to address the massive global problem of multinational corporations’ failure to pay tax where they earn it, using transfer pricing and other methods to pay lower tax elsewhere or none at all. Continue reading

Sui generis, or generic gay? Pardoning Alan Turing

There is a new call for a pardon of Alan Turing, who in1952 was convicted of homosexuality. An earlier petition for a pardon was declined by the UK government (he got an apology instead 2009). Lord McNally stated in the House of Lords that:

“A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.

It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times”.

However, the eminent signatories of the new call counter by arguing:

“To those who seek to block attempts to secure a pardon with the argument that this would set a precedent, we would answer that Turing’s achievements are sui generis.”

Does that make moral sense?

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Does committing a murder make a 13-year-old an adult? In US courts it does…

Some days ago, two 13-year-old boys have been charged with first degree murder in Wisconsin (USA), as reported by the Daily News (New York). Allegedly, they went to one of the boy’s great-grandmother’s home, killed her using a hatchet and hammer, then stole her jewellery and her car – and went for a pizza afterwards.

After giving horrid details of the killing, the Daily News concludes its report with stating that the boys’ defence attorney tries to have the case moved to juvenile court. The reason why these 13-year-olds are not automatically charged as juveniles but stand trial in an adult court is that the USA allows prosecutors to try minors as adults when they commit certain violent felonies. In several states, children as young as 7 can be – and are – tried as adults for some years now. They can be convicted to adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences, and placement in adult prisons. (Since 2005, however, under 18-year-olds can’t be convicted to death sentence any more.)

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Are Open-ended Sentences Unjust?

The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled ‘arbitrary and unlawful’ the UK practice of indeterminate prison sentences for the protection of the public (IPPs). Currently more than 6,000 prisoners in this country are serving such sentences. The judges did not, however, rule the very idea of IPPs to be unlawful. What they quite rightly see as objectionable is the extension of sentences for prisoners who have failed to attend rehabilitation courses they have not been given the opportunity to attend. This truly Kafka-esque state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. Continue reading

Abortion and Equality

During the year I’ve just spent in the US, several of the ethical issues commonly discussed in the media – gay marriage, assisted suicide, whether there should be universal health care, along with several others – have seemed to me largely unproblematic in themselves. The main issue in each case is how to deal politically with the fact that many people have deeply mistaken views.

Abortion, however, is not one of these issues. Though I certainly believe abortion should be available free and on demand, deep ethical problems arise out of the apparent conflict between two serious interests: those of the fetus and those of the woman bearing it.

The weight of philosophical argument over the last five decades has been in favour of abortion. Here is one argument against. Note that it is an argument against, which may well be (and I believe is) outweighed by arguments for. The argument can be constructed on the basis of a principle of equality, or a principle requiring one to give priority to the worse off. The example I shall use is highly circumscribed, and the application of the argument to the actual world may therefore be quite limited especially in the case of equality, since how to measure equality is considerably more disputed than how to give priority to the worse off. And there are also philosophical assumptions which could be questioned – for example the notion that moral status attaches not only to actual persons or those with a currently exercised capacity for well-being, but to individuals with the potential for well-being or a capacity for well-being dependent on developing physical attributes. It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that standard versions of consequentialism or utilitarianism count against abortion in the case I describe.

Consider a world containing just two individuals: a woman, and the fetus she is carrying. The woman wishes to abort her fetus, and is able to do so. If she does so, she will live a life with a  high level of well-being; and her fetus will live a (very short) life at the zero level. If she does not, then she will live a life with a moderate level of well-being, and her fetus will live a life at a level slightly below that of the woman’s life.

Assume that these two outcomes are the only ones possible in this world. Then both equality and ‘prioritarianism’ appear to count against abortion. For if the woman aborts her fetus, she will bring about great inequality between herself and her fetus, and fail to give priority to the worse off.

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