Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Puzzle About Justice

In this post I am going to introduce a puzzle about justice. This is a puzzle that I've been thinking about for a couple of weeks now and I think the version that I present here is the best that I have developed so far. Before I get started, though, I want to discuss some of the concepts that will be involved in this puzzle.

First, let me consider justice. There is a legal notion of justice. According to this notion, which actions are just and which are unjust depends on the laws. But, clearly, this is not the notion that I will be concerned with. There is another notion of justice. A moral notion. In some sense we can evaluate actions that are in accordance with laws as being just or unjust. In fact some laws are either flat out unjust or unjust in their implementation. For example, it is legally permissible to punish someone for possessing small quantities of marijuana. But it is arguably unjust to do so. If it truly is unjust to do so, then the law is in some sense unjust. It is this moral notion of justice that I want to focus on in this post.

This moral notion of injustice seems to have an egalitarian element and a retributive element. Justice, somehow involves treating people equally. This is the egalitarian element. It is this element of justice that is being invoked when we criticise certain laws as being unjust. For example, certain anti-drug laws are criticized as being unjust in virtue of the fact that they call for stricter punishment of the possession of drugs that are more widespread among minority or lower class groups than among other groups. Moreover, the way in which some laws are enforced seems to treat minority and lower class groups more harshly than other groups. This, too, seems to be an unjust.

But, the moral notion of justice also seems to have a retributive element to it. Many people think that is it just to harm someone who has inflicted gross harm upon others. It is this moral notion of justice that is sometimes used to justify state execution. People seem to believe that a person who has committed heinous may, for the sake of justice, be punished.

This last element of justice has been questioned in recent times. Sometimes, people claim that we should punish wrong doers in an effort to rehabilitate. Notice, though, that this is not enough to undermine the retributivist element of justice as a justification for punishment. We might accept that a person may be punished in virtue of the fact that it is just to inflict some kind of punishment on those who have committed heinous acts but the kind of punishment we should inflict is that which will best rehabilitate the criminal. The new position, the one that seems to have gained some kind of ascendancy, should claim that the following is false: A person who has committed a heinous act may, for the sake of justice, be punished. Some people claim that this is false on the grounds that justice does not have the retributive element mentioned above. But another position is that justice does have the retributivist notion, but sometimes the just act is not the morally right act.

For the record, I am inclined to think that the second option is the better of the two. This is because I am inclined to think that if the meanings of our words are determined by our use at all, then our use of the word 'justice' corresponds to something that has a retributivist element.
For the rest of this post I will assume that our moral notion of justice does have some kind of retributivist element to it. This, though, is something that might be questioned later.

The second things that I want to talk about is the notion of a morally heinous action. It is sometimes argued that some groups can commit morally heinous acts without the individuals in the group doing so. Consider, for example the meat eaters of the United States. One view holds that these people are collectively committing a morally heinous act by supporting the factory farming industry. But, some argue that individual meat eaters do not commit any heinous act by purchasing small packages of meat at the supermarket. according to those who hold this position, a person who purchases a small package of meat does not have the kind of causal influence to affect the farming industry. So, the individual has not committed a heinous act by doing so. (note that it is consistent with this claim to say that a person who purchases meat has committed a bad or morally wrong act).

So, lets consider the following moral non-distributivity thesis:

Possibly, some people commit a morally heinous act but no individual amongst those people commits a morally heinous act.

This is the first principle in the puzzle that I want to consider. The first quantifier is a plural quantifier whereas the second is not. So, this principle says, roughly, that some people might collectively do something morally heinous whereas no individual amonst them has done so. The next two principle are principles of justice. The first is the just punishment principle:

Necessarily, it is just to severely punish those people who commit morally heinous acts.

Again this principle invokes plural predication. Since some pluralities are pluralities of one person, it follows from this principle that it is just to punish a person who has committed a heinous act. But, this principle also says that if some people collectively commit a heinouse act, then it is just to punish them. This principle should be justified on the grounds that justice has a retributivist element to it.

Now, let's call the kind of punishement that it is just to serve to those who commit heinous acts 'severe punishments'. I take no stand on which punishments are severe punishments. But, clearly if JPP is true, then there are some severe punishments. Let's use the verb 'to severely punish' for the act of inflicting a severe punishment on someone. The next principle to be considered is the unjust punishment principle:

Necessarily, it is unjust to severely punish anyone who has not committed a heinous act.

Finally, the last principle I want to consider is a principle according to which severe punishment is distrbutive. We'll call it the 'distributivity of severe punishment principle':

Necessarily, if some people are severely punished, then someone amongst them is also severely punished.

This seems like a plausible principle. It is hard to imagine how we could punish a group of individuals without also punishing some individual in that group. Moreover, it seems hard to imagine who we could inflict a severe punishment on a group without also inflicting a severe punishment on some individual in that group.

But, these four principles generate a puzzle For suppose that some people have committed a heinous act but no indivual amongst them has committed a heinous act (as MND says is possible). Then, by (JPP) it is just to severely punish those people. But, by (DSPP) it follows that if those people are severely punished, then someone amongst them must also be severely punished. But, since no individual has done anything morally heinous, it follows that if the group is severely punished, then it follows by (UPP) that someone is unjustly severely punished.
This is, of course, inconsistent. But it is certainly weird. It seems to show that the following weird consequence is true:

it is possible to justly punish some people yet thereby unjustly punish some individual as well.

If (WC) seems false to you, then one of the above principles is must be false. In other words, the original four principles, (MND), (JPP), (UPP) and (DSPP) along with (~WC) are inconsistent. That is the puzzle about justice. I have some ideas about which principles are weaker than others and which are probably false. But, I'll remain silent about those opinions for the moment.


Blogger Brad said...

My first thought is to question the asymmetry between MND and DSPP that you build in to the problem -- the asymmetry that has the actions of groups non-distributive but punishment for groups distributive.

I'm inclined to think that both are non-distributive.

Consider the case of institutions. It seems plausible that an instution can be responsible for an action that none of its members are individually responsible for, as you suggest. But it also seems plausible that an institution can be punished to a degree that none of its members are. Suppose for instance that the G8 suspended Russia's membership as punishment for stifling democratic freedoms. This would be a severe punishment to Russia, but it's unclear it would be a severe punishment for any Russian individually. Whether or not that is right in this particular case, it seems a strong claim to say it would be impossible.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Chris Tillman said...

I think I agree with Brad. Non-severe punishments can add up to a severe collective punishment. (Maybe what counts as severe is really important here.) Here's a case where I think it's clearer that blame does not distribute: Micromanaged Nazis. Suppose some people collectively did just what Nazis did but for any temporal stage of any Nazi that did any Nazi stuff, a micromanaged Nazi did only that thing and otherwise did not participate in any Nazi activity. Now what the Nazis did is heinous and it is just to mete out punishment. Now I'm no history expert but I believe that what we did in response was try the bosses and make it so no one else was allowed to participate in Nazi activities. Micromanaged Nazis don't really have a boss. So maybe it would be appropriate to just prevent anyone from engaging in a Nazi activity. But for each participant, this amounts to refraining from some split-second act. No real harm. But collectively, it is the end of Nazis--basically, nothing is allowed to instantiate Nazi properties. So a death sentence for Nazi-ism but less than a minor inconvenience for anyone who participated in a Nazi act.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Brad and Chris,

I think that there is a difference between punishing a political entity such as Russia and punishing the Russian people. This is because the Russian people are not identical to Russia. So, I think Brad's example clearly shows that the following is false:

(DSPP*) Necessarily, if some political entity is severely punished, then someone who is governed by that political entity is also severely punished.

However, I do not think that is shows that the original plural version of (DSPP) is false.

I think that Chris's example is a bit stronger. However, it is not clear to me that the micromanaged Nazis have been punished. They are no longer allowed to associate in a Nazi-like way. But why is that a severe punishment? If it is severe because they want to so associate, then it seems that it may be that they are being individually punished as well. Howeer, if they had no such desire, then it is not clear to me that they are being punished.

You might think that this response confuses a distributive sense of 'they are punished' with a non-distributive sense. "Of course", you might say, "they are not distributively punished. However, they, as a collective, are punished". I am not sure how to take this response. This is because I am not sure I have any idea about the conditions under which some people are (collectively) punished. Do you have some reason to believe that the micromanaged Nazis in your example are really collectively punished but not individually? Is it really the case that preventing some people from associating in a certain way (even if they have no desire to so associate) is enough to collectively punish them?

5:13 PM  

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