The Importance of Mentors, and Criminal Punishment and the Development of Virtue

I just completed a draft version of a book chapter for a volume titled From Personality to Virtue, edited by Jon Webber (Cardiff) and Alberto Marsala (Universite Paris IV-Sorbonne). The book is the result of an excellent conference organized by Jon and Alberto on virtue theory, and is now under consideration at OUP.

This is my first foray into virtue theory. Until recently I thought utilitarianism provided the best justification for criminal law and punishment. I love Bentham’s simple analysis of the functions of punishment: so clean! so clear! However, I found it very difficult to use utilitarian theory to critique certain contemporary punishment practices that were clearly violations of moral agency (e.g. chemical castration). Why would a utilitarian care about taking realms of choice-making away from offenders (e.g. sexual choices), given the positive results (incapacitation, and in a cost effective way)?

At the same time I was mulling over this problem, I was sitting on the American Philosophical Association’s committee to hire a new executive director with Michael Bratman and Julia Driver. (As an aside, I think we did a great job hiring Amy Ferrer. How about that new website?) Anyway, I told Michael and Julia that I had been thinking that virtue theory may provide an important ethical side-constraint to criminal punishment practices, because of its focus on development of character as central to moral agency. They both were dubious at the idea, and dismantled my arguments in one 20 minute car ride to a bar.

I love philosophy. In business, anyone who continued doggedly on with their plans after two clearly senior colleagues told them they were wrong might be fired. But in philosophy, being challenged by two great philosophers is reason to go back and reconsider, respond to their concerns, and come up with better arguments. I’ve been lucky to have philosophers smarter than me challenging my work my entire career, including my dissertation supervisor, David Papineau; Walter Sinnott-Armstong, who hired me for my post-doc; and Bill Hirstein, who hired me at Elmhurst. Anything I have written of any value owes a large debt to these mentors.

This paper was thus built upon my short discussion with Michael and Julia. I feel especially indebted to Julia, because I went back and read some of Julia’s critiques of virtue theory (see her great book Uneasy Virtue) before continuing on with my project. She’ll probably still disagree with me, and I hope we can argue about it in person at some point, over drinks.

What a long-winded way to introduce a draft book chapter! Follow the link below to read the paper. I’d be happy to hear any comments via email: sifferdk@elmhurst.edu

punishment and virtue

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