Is blame warranted in applying justice?

Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 26 (1):71-87 (2023)
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The belief that people convicted of crimes deserve punishment is commonplace. Yet the punitive conception of individual responsibility commonly associated with ‘just deserts’ exaggerates the moral meaning of criminal guilt, normalizes excessive punishment, and distracts from shared responsibility for social injustice. The problem is, many people who get caught up in the criminal justice system cannot reasonably be thought to deserve their fate. Mental illness, intellectual disability, addiction, trauma, and poverty are morally mitigating factors when it comes to assessing how blameworthy a person is for criminal behavior. But with the exception of extreme forms of mental illness that fall into the very narrow legal category of ‘insanity,’ people who struggle with serious difficulties are not treated as less blameworthy by the criminal justice system. The criteria of legal guilt does not match up well with the moral concept of blameworthiness.The solution might seem to be somehow to refine legal practice to make blame more context-sensitive, but I argue that rather than try to revise our criminal justice practices to fit better with common notions of blame and desert, we should get out of the public blaming business altogether. A determination morally to condemn individual offenders is not helping us to resolve the disaster of mass incarceration or the problems faced by returning citizens. It does not help us to see clearly the connection between crime and other problems of social injustice, like poverty, lack of mental health care, drug addiction, racial discrimination, and violence. Were we to be less fixated on individual responsibility, and more cognizant of our shared responsibility to treat all members of society as equal persons, entitled to the same basic rights, liberties, and opportunities, we might be in a better position to work collectively to address problems of social injustice that contribute to the problem of crime.



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Erin I. Kelly
Tufts University

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References found in this work

A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition.John Rawls - 1999 - Harvard University Press.
Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform.Tommie Shelby - 2016 - Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Punishment and Responsibility.H. L. A. Hart - 1968 - Philosophy 45 (172):162-162.
In Praise of Blame.George Sher - 2008 - Philosophical Studies 137 (1):19-30.
Giving desert its due.Thomas M. Scanlon - 2013 - Philosophical Explorations 16 (2):101-116.

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