Forum, Beyond Blame
Opening the Debate, Barbara H. Fried: The philosophy of personal responsibility has ruined criminal justice and economic policy. It's time to move past blame.
Responding: Christine M. Korsgaard, Erin Kelly, Adriaan Lanni, Mike Konczal, Paul Bloom, Gideon Rosen, Brian Leiter, George Sher, T. M. Scanlon
Reply: Barbara H. Fried
From Fried's opening essay
Retributive penal policy, which has produced incarceration rates of unprecedented proportions in the United States, has been at the forefront of the boom. But enthusiasm for blame is not confined to punishment. Changes in public policy more broadly—the slow dismantling of the social safety net, the push to privatize social security, the deregulation of banking, the health care wars, the refusal to bail out homeowners in the wake of the 2008 housing meltdown—have all been fueled by our collective sense that if things go badly for you, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Mortgage under water? You should have thought harder about whether you could really afford that house before you bought it. Trouble paying back your college loans? You should have looked more carefully at job prospects for sociology majors before you took out the loans. Unless of course “you” are “me,” in which case the situation tends to look a bit more complicated.repeat, this time in a comment at The Boston Review. So fucking obvious.
This has also been a boom time for blame in moral and political philosophy, partially in reaction to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), which is widely credited with reviving these fields. Rawls focused not on personal responsibility but on ensuring fair conditions that would create opportunities for everyone to pursue their aims. Within a decade, however, Rawls’s theory was under attack from the left and right for giving insufficient attention to personal responsibility and associated attitudes toward blame. On the right, Robert Nozick’s 1974 Anarchy, State, and Utopia heralded a major libertarian revival, centered on individual rights and individual responsibility. On the left, Ronald Dworkin proposed an alternative to Rawls’s vision of liberal egalitarianism, one that brought personal responsibility into the egalitarian fold. On the one hand, Dworkin argued, our fate should not be shaped by “brute luck”—circumstances, whether social or biological, not subject to our control. But as to anything that results from our choices, blame away. As the philosopher G. A. Cohen said of Dworkin’s argument, it has “performed for egalitarianism the considerable service of incorporating within it the most powerful idea in the arsenal of the anti-egalitarian right: the idea of choice and responsibility.”
Why exactly are we trying so hard to make the world safe for blame? What have we gained and what have we lost in the effort? And is there an alternative?
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More evidence that philosophy qua philosophy -feigning distance from the world it contemplates- is a waste of time.
Moral responsibility and drug dealers, bankers, politicians, and college professors: if we remove it from one group we remove it from all. But as usual in arguments such as the one above, the free will of the managerial class of philosophers and technocrats is somehow beyond biology: "Determinism for thee but not for me" is still the rule.
GA Cohen in If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? found two arguments that he found "reasonable" for a wealthy person not to give away much of his money, both involving the pain of loss, which would be greater for a rich man than a poor man who had nothing to lose, and the fact that it would be unfair to his children to be pulled away from the friendships they'd formed among their peers. Cohen is making the argument for prep schools.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/15/nyregion/foreign-parents-in-new-york-p... Affluent, Born Abroad and Choosing New York’s Public Schools
Miriam and Christian Rengier, a German couple moving to New York, visited some private elementary schools in Manhattan last spring in search of a place for their son. They immediately noticed the absence of ethnic diversity, and the chauffeurs ferrying children to the door.And then, at one school, their guide showed them the cafeteria.“The kids were able to choose between seven different lunches: sushi and macrobiotics and whatever,” Ms. Rengier recalled. “And I said, ‘What if I don’t want my son to choose from seven different lunches?’ And she looked at me like I was an idiot.”For the Rengiers, the decision was clear: Their son would go to public school.“It was not the question if we could afford it or not,” said Ms. Rengier, whose husband was transferred to the city because of his job as a lawyer and tax consultant. “It was a question of whether it was real life or not.”
What is it that allows German bankers in NY have a better understanding of moral philosophy than Oxbridge Marxists?
If you want to develop a "technology" to manage human affairs (the term is Cohen's) you're looking for a "Colossus" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064177/ or a "Skynet" (I won't bother with that link) to manage our affairs. The argument's absurd, and in the meantime we've ended up with the moral mediocrity of our contemporary class of scholastic philosophers, fixated on their own terminology of judging and judgement, seeing themselves as judges, that they can't see that their own self-interest is what drives them. Again: determinism for one means determinism for all.
Corey Robin, far from a favorite, at Crooked Timber (ditto)
Several people have emailed me to ask why no one at CT has posted on the George Zimmerman verdict. It’s a good question. I can’t speak for anyone else; as Chris said, we’re a loose-knit crew. I know that I’ve simply not felt up to the challenge. And not able to say anything as cogent as I’ve read elsewhere.
But this clip from 1968 of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show seems apposite. (The Milton Friedman lookalike trying to get a word in edgewise is the Yale philosopher Paul Weiss.)
"Yale philosopher Paul Weiss." Most college educated people and most academics have no idea who Paul Weiss is, but almost all know the name James Baldwin. That fact is important in any discussion not of philosophy but of philosophers, even in serious discussion of the subjects they claim to deal in.Originally I'd written, "Among other things, Cohen is making the argument for prep schools." The way it's written now implies that his broader arguments aren't equally pathetic. He had the time and money to make himself a better man. Others have done more with less, and with more. Cohen took responsibility for his ideas, and we have the right to judge his actions.
I'm fine with seeing the vast majority of animal behavior ruled by determinism but then the answer is as old as Aristotle and as new as Skinner: training and conditioned response. Raise your children to be better than you are.
I read Leiter's essay and none of the others. My response to the first was hardly worth making. Replace Baldwin with any Palestinian advocate for equal rights and the point becomes even clearer. King's "White moderate" hasn't changed a bit.