Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dogville on Punishment

For those who feel some reluctance to affirm negative judgments about other people, the film Dogville really helps to illustrate a more retributivist viewpoint. Consider the following exchange: [spoiler warning]
The Big Man: You do not pass judgement, because you sympathize with them. A deprived childhood and a homicide really isn't necessarily a homicide, right? The only thing you can blame is circumstances. Rapists and murderers may be the victims, according to you. But I, I call them dogs, and if they're lapping up their own vomit the only way to stop them is with the lash... Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.

Grace: So I'm arrogant. I'm arrogant because I forgive people?

BM: My God. Can't you see how condescending you are when you say that? You have this preconceived notion that nobody, listen, that nobody can't possibly attain the same high ethical standards as you, so you exonerate them. I can not think of anything more arrogant than that. You... you forgive others with excuses that you would never in the world permit for yourself... you must maintain your own standard. You owe them that. You owe them that. The penalty you deserve for your transgressions, they deserve for their transgressions.

Grace: They are human beings --

BM: No, no, no. Does every human being need to be accountable for their action? Of course they do. But you don't even give them that chance.

Of course, even a utilitarian can agree with the first point -- that people must be held accountable for rehabilitative purposes, to shape and improve their character. But what do you make of the second argument, that respect requires us to hold others to the same high standards we would apply to ourselves?

As Strawson famously noted, to suspend the reactive attitudes altogether would be to no longer treat the other as a (moral/rational) agent at all:
To adopt the objective attitude to another human being is to see him, perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account, of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided... But it cannot include the range of reactive feelings and attitudes which belong to involvement or participation with others in inter-personal human relationships; it cannot include resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger, or the sort of love which two adults can sometimes be said to feel reciprocally, for each other. If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you may fight him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel, or to reason, with him.

I'm tempted by the thought that there's not much worse for a person than to have their agency denied, to be stripped of one's dignity or "recognitional respect" as a reasonable person. (On the other hand, the criminal facing punishment probably doesn't appreciate the respect we thereby show him.) What do you think?

7 comments:

  1. I don't know, perhaps the criminal can appreciate the respect shown by holding him/her responsible. The exhibition of such appreciation may be unusual, but there are possible explanations of this fact. Maybe this is because we live in a culture which propagates the value of pursuing what satisfies one's short-term interests (i.e. it is more comfortable for me not to face up to my crime).

    A related thought: I've always found the following type of fictional scenario morally reprehensible in some respect. The hostage negotiator convinces the hostage taker that he/she will get a bus or plane or money etc. The negotiator is lying and when the opportunity arises, reneges on his/her deal to capture the hostage taker. All things considered this is probably the best course of action, but the negotiator is blatantly failing to respect the agency of the hostage taker. That is at least a bit reprehensible, no?

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  2. Colin -- that's interesting. Do you also think it's reprehensible to lie to the inquiring murderer? (I don't think I've ever before heard anyone come so close to endorsing Kant's view here!)

    For what it's worth, I'm more inclined to think that the hostage taker has given up their right to have their agency (freedom, promises, etc.) "respected" in your sense. Bad agents should instead be thwarted in their pursuit of bad ends. This is not in any way to deny their agency, I don't think, but simply to refuse to co-operate with it the way we would for non-criminal agents with legitimate ends. So, it seems a different kind of non-respect from that discussed in my post; would you agree?

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  3. I guess I do think there is something reprehensible about lying to the inquiring murderer. What can I say, I've got pretty robust Kantian intuitions :)

    You are right about difference between denial and non-cooperation, but I guess what I was pointing to with the hostage negotiator is that he/she is lying. That's worse than just refusing to cooperate with the hostage taker.

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  4. This is a great quote. I wonder if there isn't another idea built into it--not just that holding others responsible involves respect, but also the first-personal nature of responsibility: the importance of holding others to the standards to which you hold yourself. The point of punishment, on that view, would be to train people to do the same, to become responsible animals who can hold themselves to high standards.

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  5. Yeah, that's an interesting thought.

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  6. Dogville is a great movie, especially because of this scene. Yes please, respect enough to hold me accountable for my actions.

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  7. "On the other hand, the criminal facing punishment probably doesn't appreciate the respect we thereby show him."
    "I don't know, perhaps the criminal can appreciate the respect shown by holding him/her responsible. The exhibition of such appreciation may be unusual, but there are possible explanations of this fact. Maybe this is because we live in a culture which propagates the value of pursuing what satisfies one's short-term interests (i.e. it is more comfortable for me not to face up to my crime)."

    In response to this, I would like to point out something. While I have never been a convicted or even suspected criminal IRL, I have wound up in trouble and punished on multiple occasions (excluding school and parental instances). I have, in the past, actually waited to apologize and explain things until AFTER I was through with whatever punishment(s) in certain situations. The reason behind this was that I did not want to be treated differently due to whatever "caused" my actions. Though at the time I didn't recognize it as this, but in a way I DID want to be held fully accountable for my actions - even though situations, emotions, etc. may well have impaired my judgment.

    This being said, though it is uncommon to see proof of, I believe it is not only possible for criminals to appreciate that respect but that it has already happened.

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