a philosophy blog

“Marxists do it with class”

Notes on Jeffrie G. Murphy, “Marxism and Retribution”

Editor’s note: The contract theory of punishment gets a well-deserved lashing from Murphy with a borrowed Marxist whip. But Luno lashes out indiscriminately with the utmost discrimination: Let’s go after the theorists…

The only moral way to punish is the Kantian way but the Kantian way forbids the use of individuals for consequentialist purposes. This entails forbidding the punishment of, not only the innocent, but the guilty when they would be used for such purposes. Only when criminals are the true source of their evil, when they are complete moral agents and not passive victims of conditions, do we acquire the right to punish them and they to be punished. This can happen only when social conditions have been ruled out as the cause of the evil being punished. Since social conditions, as they exist, are so corrupted that this cannot be done, as Marx asserts, there is never a time when the only moral reason for punishment can be applied.

What we may learn from biological sciences (or maybe just opening our eyes)?

What can the philosopher learn from Marx? This question is a part of a more general question: What can philosophy learn from social science? Philosophers, it may be thought, are concerned to offer a priori theories, theories about how certain concepts are to be analyzed and their application justified. And what can the mundane facts that are the object of behavioral science have to do with exalted theories of this sort? [Or certain biological commonplaces such as that the field of moral practice—and more recently, of moral theory, too—is gendered.]

The answer, I think, is that philosophical theories, though not themselves empirical, often have such a character that their intelligibility depends upon certain empirical presuppositions. [Emphasis added.]

Unless one wants to embrace the belief that all these people are poor because they are bad, it might be well to reconsider [Wilhelm] Bonger’s suggestion that many of them are “bad” because they are poor.

[Probably the only factor greater than economic deprivation that correlates with criminality is gender. Men do crime. 94% of incarcerated people are male today in the US. The proportion has never been, anywhere significantly different. The fact that the number of white-collar criminals behind bars is not many times greater than it is is because crime does pay, especially when committed by educated criminals—of the same class that will enforce the laws (supposedly, without regard to class) against the others. But this socioeconomic fact is superimposed upon another even more basic one which undercuts liberal, no less than the Marxist, pretensions, one suggesting rather that the ignored empirical presupposition of the conventional theory is ultimately biological.]

239 (note 35 on this page)
Just because the freedoms and procedures we associate with bourgeois liberalism—speech, press, assembly, due process of law, etc.—are not the only important freedoms and procedures, we are not to conclude with some witless radicals that these freedoms are not terribly important and that the victories of bourgeois revolutions are not worth preserving. My point is much more modest and noncontroversial—namely, that even bourgeois liberalism requires a critique. It is not self-justifying and, in certain very important respects, is not justified at all.

[A more authentic and cogent critique will come from feminists, not from Marxists, however.]

Maternal Infanticide

Reaping what you sow,

For the psychological trait you have conditioned him to have, like greed, is not one that invites fine moral and legal distinctions. There is something perverse in applying principles that presuppose a sense of community in a society which is structured to destroy genuine community.36

In the footnote to the above:

36. Kant has some doubts about punishing bastard infanticide and dueling on similar grounds. Given the stigma that Kant’s society attached to illegitimacy and the halo that the same society placed around military honor, it did not seem totally fair to punish those whose criminality in part grew out of such approved motives. See Metaphysical Elements of Justice, pp. 106-107.

[But, for Kant, the “halo” placed on legitimacy of birth and military/masculine honor is what it is not because of arbitrary social prejudice. It is rooted in something deeper than that, something biological, if not, ontological.* We argue it is founded on his dim perception of the bifurcation of the species and the kind of moral metaphysics this entails. It became more explicit in Otto Weininger. Cultural manifestations of this metaphysics are contingent, but the underlying determination is not. It will be expressed one way or another, here brutally, there with the greatest refinement.]

What does Bonger offer? He suggests, near the end of his book, that in a properly designed society all criminality would be a problem “for the physician rather than the judge.” But this surely will not do. The [243] therapeutic state, where prisons are called hospitals and jailers are called psychiatrists, simply raises again all the old problems about the justification of coercion and its reconciliation with autonomy that we faced in worrying about punishment. The only difference is that our coercive practices are now surrounded with a benevolent rhetoric which makes it even harder to raise the important issues. Thus the move to therapy, in my judgment, is only an illusory solution—alienation remains and the problem of reconciling coercion with autonomy remains unsolved. Indeed, if the alternative is having our personalities involuntarily restructured by some state psychiatrist, we might well want to claim the “right to be punished” that Hegel spoke of.

[But if Bonger and Marx are right and their recommendations implemented, most of what we now term “criminals” would vanish. What would remain of them would be people who willfully broke their end of a social deal that, in fact, no one could deny, not even they, actually did benefit them. What kind of people would these be? Insane, ill, diseased? Or perverse, evil? If the former, a physician would indeed be called for, as Bonger suggests. If the latter, what?… Either there wouldn’t be any of these or, if there were, it looks like bourgeois retribution might still have a place, no? Murphy appears confused here… Liberal values simply do not apply in the pure Marxist conception. There is no problem left over to be solved. Not unless, of course, we are not fully convinced by the Marxist picture of things. In that case, indeed, no problem has been solved.

Murphy, we want to point out, very effectively makes the case that there is a fatal contingency underlying social contract theory and a retributive theory of punishment based on it. His mobilization of Marxist thinking to show this is genius. But Marx himself is in the grip of a set of presuppositions that are no better supported: namely that economic conditions determine the moral structure of society, that this has or even could be established scientifically, that the possibility of reciprocity in the rich sense Bonger intends could be the foundation for a society of humans as we know them, and finally—even if some or all of this could be accepted (and we confess a certain qualified sympathy with it)—that there may not be some empirical contingency even more foundational of the structure and moral character of societies than the distribution of material goods: such as the bifurcation of the species into distinct natural kinds: women and men—and the fact that punishment and criminality are almost exclusively problems of the latter. They are masculine problems. This is so with greater clarity than any we can attribute to the self-evidence of social and economic conditioning.

** Editor’s note: Luno emphasizes “paramount” here. As he makes clear elsewhere, autonomy, as conceived by women, remains a value to them, but it is not conceived in a way that permits it to trump all others. See his discussion of Berlin’s two freedoms, for example.

And it entails that class structure has the particular character it does because it is based on a value of paramount importance to one, but not the other, of the two natural kinds of moral being. That value is individual autonomy.** Its sacredness to the prevailing system is not accidental, given the natural kinds in question.]

Posted by luno in Marx, political philosophy, Criminality, sex differences, male criminality (Thursday February 28, 2008 at 1:26 pm)

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