Thanks to everyone who commented on my first post and made the discussion so useful and rich, at least from my point of view! Happily, that discussion led into issues in mental health, public policy, and criminal justice, connecting to what I had planned for this second post. So it’s natural to pick up the thread here.
As well as working clinically with patients, I’m also currently developing a training for prison officers, to teach them how to distinguish responsibility from blame in theory and in practice, as part of an initiative to increase awareness and skills working with personality disorder (PD) and promote a more rehabilitative environment within prisons. On a purely personal note, going into prisons has been hard. Over time I’ve become much less scared, but I still can’t bear being locked in, dependent on the officers and their keys to get out. Every time I go, I can’t quite believe we’ve ended up doing this to people, no matter what they’ve done. So I certainly think there’s reason to re-think radically the entire system, on multiple grounds. However the training I’m developing and the theoretical work that underpins it aims to be pragmatic rather than revolutionary – and that’s what I’m going to blog about today. No utopian ideals!
We currently spend millions and millions imprisoning offenders. Meanwhile there’s some real and plenty of anecdotal evidence that one of the best ways to increase re-offending is to put people in jail – arguably, you really couldn’t design a better environment to entrench criminality if you tried. Yet 66% of male offenders and 50% of female offenders have PD – they have many of the same mental health problems and psycho-socio-economic backgrounds as patients in the community who we know we can help in Therapeutic Communities and other forms of treatment program. Therapeutic Community prisons have a relatively long history now in the UK and indeed recent research suggests they reduce re-offending among violent offenders and other perpetrators of serious crime by about 25% (with certain caveats, e.g. a prisoner who has completed treatment within a TC prison cannot then be returned to a normal prison or the gain in reduced risk of re-offending is lost). Why not aim to shift the culture in all prisons to a Therapeutic Community / Responsibility without Blame model, thereby helping to address mental health needs while at the same time reducing re-offending rates? We’re spending so much anyhow this would cost next to nothing in comparison – especially if you factor in the reduction in spending on re-offending it would hopefully achieve. The main thing required is the training of staff and the alteration of the nature and structure of the prison environment, as well as a real shift in attitudes towards offenders – in the courts, prisons, probation services, and of course also society at large.
What gets in the way? Well, culture shifts are not easy to orchestrate, so there’s that major practical issue. But I’ve been extraordinarily impressed by the commitment and initiative of many of the staff I’ve met in prisons – it’s of course not universal, but there are plenty of people who are really up for trying to change the system. I believe we could do this, if we wanted to (as they already have in Nordic prisons). But we don’t. Why not? One of the major obstacles, in my view, comes from the idea that people who are responsible for terrible crimes deserve to be punished for their actions. In other words, part of the problem is the prevalence of ‘just deserts’ theories of punishment.
Punishment requires justification. Step back for a moment and think what we actually do to people when we imprison them. We condemn them, ostracize them from their family and community, deprive them of liberty and access to goods and opportunities that we normally and arguably by right expect, and may further allow them to be the victims of mistreatment, violence, and rape within prison walls. Such ‘hard treatment’ (as it’s blandly known) requires justification if it is not to be a flagrant violation of the basic moral norms in our society. Just deserts theories recognize this demand and argue that punishment is justified only and exactly in so far as the hard treatment is inflicted in response to, by reason of, and in proportion to blameworthiness. Blameworthiness in turn is a function of degree of responsibility and severity of offense. The requirement of responsibility ensures that punishment can never be justified on purely consequentialist grounds, while proportionality provides a limit to punitive excess. Thus constrained, just deserts theories typically hold that it is right that people who do wrong are punished for that harm – made to suffer for their offense.
Just deserts theories certainly do not need to uphold the criminal justice system in its present form, or believe that the kind and degree of punishment meted out is on the whole proportionate or that the brutal conditions found in prisons are in any way acceptable. But these theories nonetheless typically offer a justification – with conditions and limits, of course – of retribution and retaliation. They therefore invite, encourage, and feed affective blame towards offenders. After all, we might think, given what these people have done, how could it not be right to respond with anger, resentment, disgust, contempt, or hatred, to judge their character harshly, and to act in ways that are aggressively or passive-aggressively expressive of these emotions and judgements? (For a sobering recent example of this kind of attitude, check out David Cameron’s “victory of common sense” speech applauding the decision that prisoners not be given the right to vote – a possibility he earlier remarked made him feel “physically sick”: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10382322/David-Cameron-hails-victory-for-common-sense-as-prisoners-lose-right-to-vote-ruling.html )
I don’t deny that we all, myself included, feel this way at times when faced with truly terrible crimes. But it is one of philosophy’s roles to questions and probe aspects of our conceptual scheme that, in ordinary life, we take for granted. Why, then, is it right to respond to criminal wrongdoing with retributive and retaliatory emotions and attitudes? They are not essential to our concept of punishment even if they are commonly associated with it, especially in criminal contexts. Consider e.g. how a parent can punish a child, not out of any anger or vengeance, but with love, both to uphold a rule and teach the child to do better. So here’s a challenge: if we are going to cleave to retributive and retaliatory attitudes towards offenders, we need to specify and justify the sense in which it is right to have these in response to serious crime as a component of punishment. Just deserts theories do not typically offer this. Rather, they justify and limit punishment, but without offering a specific justification for the emotions and attitudes that commonly, although not necessarily, accompany and motivate punishment in criminal justice contexts.
As you can no doubt guess by now, I am sceptical that this can be done – I will leave it to you to make suggestions if you wish. Rather, I want to end this post by trying to describe the attitude towards emotions we take in the clinic (and that came up at different points in the thread following my previous post) because of how unusual and decidedly non-justificatory it is. As such, I think it offers an interesting and welcome alternative to the attitude we so often take to our emotions, in philosophy and outside it. I’m not yet sure quite how best to articulate this clinical position (and really welcome any questions and suggestions to help clarify that you have). But one way to describe it is this: in the clinic, we validate emotions without evaluating them. By ‘validate’ I mean we acknowledge and try to understand how a person is feeling. By ‘evaluate’ I mean we don’t hold to the idea that people should or shouldn’t feel a certain way – that there is, from a moral point of view, a right or wrong way to feel.
Let’s start with a distinction that is essential to any proper theory of the emotions and which is well-articulated by D’Arms and Jacobsen (“The Moralistic Fallacy: on the ‘Appropriateness’ of Emotions”): the distinction between the truth of whatever representation an emotion is responsive to, and the appropriateness – as it’s typically termed – of the emotion. To take the kind of example we’ve been discussing in these posts, suppose I feel affective blame towards one of my patients. That blame is responsive to a representation of the patient as blameworthy. That representation may be conscious or unconscious, justified or unjustified, true or false. In the ideal rational case, it is conscious, justified, and true. At the other extreme of irrationality, it may be unconscious, unjustified, and false – it’s “my issue” as we say in the clinic. If I come to realise that my representation of the patient as blameworthy is false, then that may affect my feelings towards them – again, this is the ideal rational case. But we and our emotions are often less than ideally rational. My feelings of affective blame may persist despite my knowledge that it is “my issue” – and however much I wish they didn’t.
Now let’s suppose, further, that in this particular case my patient is indeed blameworthy. It’s still inappropriate of me to feel affective blame in my clinical role. Quite often in philosophical discussions of emotions, this notion of “appropriateness” carries a moral connotation. In the clinic, it doesn't.
What does it mean? People’s emotions can certainly be out of sync with cultural expectations or conventions and so "inappropriate" in this modest sense. They can also be productive or counter-productive in so far as they fail to serve various ends, including but not exclusively moral ends. Here’s another example, to flesh this out. Suppose a patient is isolated, lonely, and truly desperate to make friends. But they are easily angered and lash out, sometimes even in violence, doing harm to others. Then there are two kinds of reasons to help them address and manage their anger, relative to two different ends they – and we – may have. On the one hand, there is the end of improved mental health and wellbeing: the anger is getting in the way of making friends, which is a clearly identified health need. On the other, there is the moral end of reducing violence: the anger inclines them to behave badly. But from the fact that their anger inclines them towards immoral behaviour it does not follow that their anger itself is intrinsically immoral or that it is morally wrong to be angry. All that follows is that their anger is instrumentally counter-productive, to health and moral ends alike. Equally, from a practical point of view, telling a patient that they shouldn’t feel angry is probably the worst thing we could do – it’s a bit like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant. So in the clinic, what we do is validate their anger: the anger is OK, even understandable (indeed, it’s OK and often enough understandable even when it’s totally irrational). It’s what they do with it that isn’t: violence is not OK. But that’s alright, because although patients can’t directly change how they feel, they can directly change how they behave.
So, although we often encourage patients to do a reality check, and reflect on the justification or veridicality of a representation guiding an emotion, we do not evaluate the emotion itself as morally appropriate or not. Rather, we assess emotions only as culturally in or out of sync, or productive or counter-productive as means to ends – instrumentally desirable or otherwise to various purposes, including moral ones, but not intrinsically right or wrong.
I think we spend far too much time in philosophy and in ordinary life justifying our emotions and getting on a sort of moral high-horse, e.g. about how other people warrant our anger, resentment or hatred, or how we are entitled to our vengeance and contempt in the face of culpable wrongdoing. So it’s not only first-order emotions that can get in the way of achieving valuable moral ends. It’s equally the second-order attitude we so often take towards these first-order emotions. So here’s the pragmatic proposal. Never mind anything so radical as abolishing prisons. Instead, as a first step, let’s try to change aspects of our typical affective response to offenders – in courts, prisons, parole services, and the wider world. Perhaps we can actually learn how to avoid the first-order emotions that are presently part of our typical response – although we can’t directly decide not to feel these things, there are nonetheless ways of changing our propensities, as found in the clinic (I discussed some of these ways in the thread following the previous post, although no doubt there is more to be said). But surely we can more easily change the second-order attitude we take towards any such emotions we have – rather than insist upon the intrinsic moral appropriateness of our feelings, we can instead ask whether they are instrumentally productive to indulge and to act on given the moral (and other) ends we have.
In other words, we can adopt a Responsibility without Blame model within criminal justice, and reconceive punishment as serious and no doubt also typically negative consequences imposed in response to, by reason of, and in proportion to the offense, but without inflicting these consequences with or out of affective blame. Rather than impose consequences self-righteously, to make people suffer and satisfy our retributive and retaliatory instincts, we can impose them (similarly to what we do in the clinic and sometimes as parents) to uphold the law, to help people change, and with an attitude of respect, and yes, compassion. Responsibility is still a necessary condition for the just imposition of consequences, and proportionality still an important limit. Equally crucial is the fact that the wrongdoing is condemned, and the law upheld, by the demand for accountability and the imposition of consequences in response to crime. But without affective blame, these consequences can potentially be used to further genuinely rehabilitative ends within criminal justice. Hate the sin – but even if you can’t bring yourself to love the sinner, you don’t have to think it’s right to affectively blame them.