Tag Archives | social science

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

What is the relation between a criminal justice system and the society of which it is a part? Danu asks what Breivik, James Bulger and Bastøy can tell us about ourselves.

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

“A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.” – Paul Eldridge

The way a society treats its criminals can be thought of as a reflection of its character. It seems banal to observe that a society’s criminal justice system reflects the broader values of that society, so allow me to unpack what I mean by that and why it is of some interest.

This begins with an acknowledgement of the essentially constructed nature of the phenomena we are describing. We may say things like ‘society’, ‘justice’ or indeed ‘criminal’ and assume we can agree on what they mean, but such categories are far from fixed — indeed, like most categories, upon closer examination they turn out to be quite fuzzy.

For instance, it is hardly novel to point out that a criminal only exists because of the law that created him. To observe this is only to remind ourselves of von Feuerbach’s maxim nullum crimen sine lege — there can be no crime without laws. We have thus already established the political nature of law and crime — it is part of the apparatus of state. Let us leave aside for our present purposes considerations of natural law and focus instead on the positive law made by states.

That such laws are a reflection of a society’s values and preoccupations is evidenced by the way they change over time. Alcohol was prohibited entirely in the US for a time, heroin was dispensed as an over-the-counter children’s medicine before it became an illicit substance and gambling was at various times outlawed before it became a major source of government taxation revenue.

Although these examples should be sufficient to make the point, it is important to note that frequently the categories of activity and people they describe are themselves social constructions. If bigamy is to be a crime, then we must first have some understanding of what we mean by ‘marriage’. If it is a crime to outrage a woman’s modesty, we must first have constructed an idea of modesty and linked it to certain social actions which are themselves placed somewhere on a related continuum of acceptable behaviour. It would be a grave (though common) mistake to assume that these terms behave as labels we can simply pin on concepts that exist ‘out there’. With Ian Hacking, we could ask, rhetorically:

Were there any perverts before the latter part of the nineteenth century? According to Arnold Davidson [1990], “the answer is no … Perversion was not a disease that lurked about in nature, waiting for a psychiatrist with especially acute powers of observation to discover it hiding somewhere. It was a disease created by a new [functional] understanding of disease.” Davidson is not denying that there have been odd people at all times. He is asserting that perversion, as a disease, and the pervert, as a diseased person, was created in the nineteenth century. Davidson’s claim, one of many now in circulation, illustrates what I call making up people.1

This ‘making up’ of people is an essential part of how a society understands and regulates itself. The social structures and power relations by which this process occurs make for fruitful and fascinating study. Continue Reading →

Too Much Reason

In this instalment I continue my exploration of our public character by asking is there such a thing as too much reason?


Regular readers will be familiar with the quotation by Tony Judt that I like to roll out from time to time, as I feel it captures succinctly something of our current state of affairs, how this came to be and what’s at stake. Let’s revisit it:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.1

There are a constellation of factors and forces that have led us to the picture Judt describes; in this piece I’d like to continue the process of examining one small patch of sky at at time. As usual it will necessarily be an abridged discussion — a full treatment would take at least a couple of bookshelves.

The essence of the argument is that over the years, there have been things — an increasingly large number of things — we have decided are not important, and in some cases have forgotten how to see. The tools that we now use to craft our societies, though as sophisticated as ever, are brittle and incomplete. We have simply become blind to certain things that matter, and worse, we do not know that we are blind.

Much of the problem has to do with an over-reliance on reason. As Jonathan Haidt argues:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude … as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.2 (emphasis in original)

For many, this will be an odd proposition. Surely reason is an unqualified good — a gold standard which we should strive to attain and by whose marker we shall know we have become fully enlightened, whether it be by the rule of philosopher kings or our arrival in the kingdom of ends. Continue Reading →