What I think about what happened in Colorado

I guess living in America (and when I say America, I mean the United States) you get used to a few things: presidential elections every four years, a media that specializes in “infotainment”, and mass murder.

Statistically speaking, the U.S. is a pretty violent place to live.

There was a mass shooting in Colorado five days ago.

The shooting suspect, James Holmes, is accused of killing 12 people and wounding more than 70 others.

It’s pretty easy to become jaded about things like this (to dismiss this as just one more crackpot on another killing spree) or to make light of the situation by cracking jokes about the color of James Holmes’ hair or whatever else we can laugh at from afar. But, as a human with a family of my own and people who I care about (not to mention caring for my own safety), I am horrified by the actions of an individual who, for whatever reason, decided to take the lives of innocent people. As an American, I am saddened by the realization that along with the shock and horror, inevitably will come the media with their vulture-like fascination with all things violent and tragic. But, as a philosopher, I am left to wonder why philosophers are so silent (or have been silenced) in the media?

Let me get this straight; I don’t want to throw my two cents in just because everyone else has something to say about what happened. There’s enough speculation and entertainment-izing of this tragedy going on as it is. But when every news show, entertainment program and blogger has either thrown in his or her “this is what I think happened”, with an unending que of guests, therapists, and experts ready and more than willing to explain their version of the what and why behind James Holmes’ act (most of these guests are tangentially connected to the event — at best),  I am left to wonder, if the actor Stephen Baldwin is acceptable enough to go on Headline News’ Showbiz Tonight to talk about James Holmes’ act, why wouldn’t a philosopher be welcome on any media program as well?

I can’t be the only person who has noticed this.

After all, are philosophers not qualified to discuss matters of ethics? Certainly we would place a moral value on what James Holmes did. If we say that what he did is wrong, why would we not trust a philosopher to explain why we feel that it is? Again, I ask, are philosophers not qualified to discuss the morality of violent cinema or gun control? Are philosophers not capable or qualified to discuss the ethics of how we treat the mentally ill, punishment and retribution or the death penalty? Certainly, if there is any time when we should look to philosophers, shouldn’t that time be now?

Is there not one ethicist that the media can talk to?

I suppose not.

Instead of philosophers, we get this:


White Ford Polanski

Ithink that Chris Hedges says this so much better than I ever will so to hear him say it better, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch0fl0m60Oo And now for my pathetic take on something important… You know when someone is supposed to be important. It’s when you call them only by their last name.

Nietzsche, Reagan, Christ.

The world of entertainment is no different. We know the greater than famous only by their last names. Which means, conversely, if one is not great we would say the whole name. For instance, if I am watching Die Hard 2, I’m watching a Renny Harlin flick. But cinema belongs to Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Hitchcock, and recently, Tarantino.

You get the idea.

One of the great ones has drawn some attention to himself these days, but not for his filmmaking.


I’m in no way a movie expert but I’ve been told that Roman Polanski is a pretty heavy-duty movie director. They say that before I die, I’m supposed to watch these movies: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown — all directed by Polanski. Well, I’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby (and unfortunately its sequel, which may have started that horrible Hollywood tradition of following up fairly decent movies with sequels that you wouldn’t show to someone you really wanted to hurt). For those who don’t watch cinema, Polanski is probably more (well) known for being the husband of Sharon Tate, who was murdered in 1969 by members of the Manson Family. These things made Polanski famous, but recent attention given to the director has focused on something that made him infamous. Namely, the 1977 drugging and rape of a 13 year old girl at the home of fellow famous person Jack Nicholson following a photo shoot.

Polanski admitted that he gave the girl champange and quaaludes (now that says 70s!), and eventually pled guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor.

As a culture, we tend to look somewhat negatively at people who have sex with kids.

Knowing that this is so, and that he stood to find himself on the bad end of the law, Roman Polanski fled sentencing and went to France, a country that does not have a full extradition treaty with the United States — thus avoiding spending any time behind bars. After 30 years of avoiding his sentence, Polanski was arrested in September of 2009 while on his way to the Zurich Film Festival.

Better late than never.

In a not-so stunning move, the Hollywood community stood up and rallied to Polanski’s defense. Some of Polanski’s fellow Hollywoodites signed a petition calling for his immediate release. Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Debra Winger (who you almost have to ask “who?” when you hear her name), and Whoopi Goldberg (who, thankfully informed us of the difference between rape and rape rape) are among the stars who have called for Polanski’s release. Even the governments of France and Polanski’s native Poland have called for Polanski to be set free. Many, including the Swiss and the Los Angeles DAs office, haven’t been swayed by the pressure from our fine moviemaking community. Some have gone so far as to dismiss the chatter as Hollywood’s rallying around one of their own, no matter how awful the crime (funny, I remember a considerable lack of this reflex when OJ was accused of double murder). Although Whoopi Goldberg’s remark may have been another example of celebrity-induced boneheadedness, she brings up a point that most assuredly many have pondered since Polanski’s arrest — was what he did really a crime? Not only that, but if it was, has the passage of time lessened the offense?

Did time heal these wounds?

Some of Polanski’s supporters (and some people in general) say that attitudes were different in the 70s. I suppose that this sentiment has something to do with the fact that, at the tail end of the sexual revolution, sexual attitudes, even concerning children was more laxed than they are now. So, some say that determining whether an actual crime was committed has to do with whether a child is able to consent to sexual activity.

Psychologists say that children much younger than 18 are morally aware (thus responsible) for their actions. Chlidren as young as 9, according to psychologists, have moral distinct sensibilities.

A 13 year old is, according to Freud, in the genital stage of development — a stage wherein children begin to initiate romantic and sexual relations with members of the opposite sex (or same sex if that’s the way you roll). Traditionally, common law recognized that children as young a 14 could be held legally accountable for their actions. And anecdotally, we’ve all either seen or heard of the kid who neither looked nor acted like a child. So, in the minds of some, a child of 13 is more than biologically capable of deciding of she wants to have sex with a grown man.

But this assertion doesn’t sound right to some people (myself included). It can easily be stated that there is a difference between biological maturity and mental maturity or moral awareness. When we say that someone is “mature”, we’re including the idea that he is capable of rational decision-making. Rationality is connected (if not required) to the ability to consent to any activity. So if we bring up the idea of rationality as required for engaging in consentual activity, we must ask when is a child rational? When can a child make decisions concerning sexuality.

I’ve decided to take a look at what Kant says about rationality.

Kant says that moral judgments are products of reason or the rational mind. Rational beings possess rational minds. And having rational minds, humans are rational beings. Rational beings possess a free mind and are capable of deciding according to their free will ( meaning that we are free moral agents). Moral agents must be treated as ends-in-themselves, that is, we are obliged to treat others as rational moral agents and not as a means to our own ends. Although Kant says a great deal about what free moral agents are, he spends little time telling us when a person is a free moral agent — he doesn’t specify at what age a person becomes a moral agent. It is obvious to us that an 18 month old child does not share the same moral capacity as his 28 year old mother. But, if we look at the toddler’s 6 year old sister, the distinction between the moral awareness of adults and children aren’t so clear. We can see that a child of six possesses some capacity to perform moral judgments. But, according to Kant’s view is “some” enough? I think this is Kant’s answer: Kant says that when we interact with others, we must treat them as if they are rational beings — irrespective of whether the individual is in fact a free moral agent.

So, if psychologists say that children as young as 9 can render moral judgments, and Kant suggests that we treat people as if they are rational moral agents, then Whoopi Goldberg may have a point.

Roman Polanski is not guilty of rape rape.

But this still doesn’t sit well with me. I still feel like he has done something wrong for which he should be punished. But I realize that, despite my gut feelings, the supporters may be right. But then, I remember one, small, detail. He drugged her.

We know that when it comes to sexual activity and the law, a person who is inebriated or mentally diminished cannot legally consent to sexual activity. This is why if you give a girl a roofie (even if she said that she wanted to have sex with you hours eariler), you could find yourself facing rape charges. The fact that she was unable to consent to sexual intercourse at the time that the activity took place meant that you performed an unconsentual sexual act with a drugged person. You could not only find yourself facing rape charges, but also charges for administering the drug (I think in some states it’s considered poisoning). Kant’s idea of rationality requires that a person be fully engaged in their decision-making ( which means that in addition to being sober, a person cannot be forced or coerced into moral judgments according to Kant). If a person is under the influence of drugs, Kant would say that the person is not fully capable of using their ability to reason. By drugging the girl, she became a mere means to Polanski’s ends. So, in this circumstance, she could have looked Roman Polanski in the eye and demanded that he make her a woman, but the fact that he filled her full of booze and ludes made her unable to participate in the act as a free moral agent.

So Whoopi is wrong. He is guilty of rape rape.

But still there are others who would hold that Polanski’s arrest is unjust. Debra Winger stated that Polanski is being punished by a “philistine” legal system. The French Culture Minister said that Polanski has been “thrown to the lions”. They feel that he is being treated like a dangerous criminal when he is not. They argue that he is a good man and a humanitarian who has not hurt anyone. Treating a good man like a hardened criminal they say, is a makes a mockery of the concept of justice.

Of course this claim forces us to look a little at what justice (exactly) means.

We ask, what is justice? Some suggest that justice is each getting what he deserves. Others say that justice is equal treatment under the law. Others say that it is acting according to one’s virtues, or that justice is whatever the ruler says that it is. Kant’s theory of retributive justice holds that those who harm others ought to be harmed in return. In short, you get what’s commin’ to ya. But, Kant states, the punishment must be proportional. If an offender commits a minor offense, the punishment must be minor as well. If he commits a major offense, then we must punish him accordingly. In this way, Kant’s justice is much like justice under Roman Law which held that “the constant and perpetual will to render to each what is his due”. In our system of justice, prison sentences are either long or short, depending on the severity of the crime.

So, using Kant’s theory of justice, we can say that Polanski knowingly and willingly gave drugs and alcohol to a child and then had (forced) sex with her ( did I mention that she says that she initially put up a fight and that she said “no” repeatedly?). Kant says that, as autonomous moral agents, we are to repect Polanski’s actions. If we fail to do so, we are not giving him the proper respect that is required for him to act as a free moral agent. Since he acted freely, we are bound to respect his actions. And since he acted in a manner that was (and is) against the law, we must give him the proper punishment for his crime. Failure to do so is not only harmful to Polanski, but also harmful to us as well.

(Here’s the thing… his pals in Hollywood think that they’re doing a good thing by saving their colleague from a corrupt justice system. But in reality what they’re doing is preventing Roman Polanski from being responsible for his own actions. This is what over-protective parents do when thay want to save their children from every harm in the world. Ultimately, all these good intentions serve to do more harm than good, as the act to protect is less protective than it’s paternalistic, thus robbing an individual the ability to make their own moral choices).

So, using Kant yet again, we must see to it that Polanski serves his time.

But, for every Kantian there is an equal and opposite Utilitarian waiting in the wings, ready to say his peace. A utilitarian may say that punishing Roman Polanski now is of little use. So much time has passed and he hasn’t done anything like that crime since. Polanski is not a threat to anyone and that sending him to prison would be a waste of time and money, and it only goes to dredge up old memories that even the “victim” has suggested that we let go. To punish him now would be a negative (as it detracts from the common good, and it wastes resources that could have been spent bringing real criminals to justice, and by incarcerating Polanski we’re locking up a productive, upstanding, creative member of society). On the first notion, that too much time has passed, and that to do anything now would be useless, Entertainment Weekly contributor Chris Nashawaty put it like this: Roman Polanski may be a great director but he’s still a convicted felon. The fact that 30 years has passed has not made the crime any less morally repugnant. If we wanted to argue that time lessens offenses, we can use the same argument to release Manson family member Leslie van Houten, and likewise argue that it was morally wrong to keep a dying Susan Atkins in prison (there are those who would argue that the passage of time has not made the Manson murders any less morally repugnant –even if Atkins was dying). The utilitarian not only has to consider those who are directly affected by the crime, but everyone who stands to be affected (which in te case of the justice system means everyone). If Polanski is released without serving his sentence, the utilitarian must consider the negative effects of that decision as well, including the possibilty that the integrity and reputation of the justice system might be damaged if people percieve that the legal system is unjustly weighing in favor of Polanski. We see justice is a matter not only of conviction but also of serving the sentence. By fleeing before serving his sentence and possibly getting away with not serving one at all the public may lose confidence in the system’s ability to administer justice equally under the law ( as there is already the popular perception that there is a different system of justice for celebrities). Letting Polanski go may seem like the utilitarian thing to do, but may in fact do more harm than good.

And it’s this point of two systems of justice that I would like to end.

Rawls held that we could bring fairness into society if we pursued justice from under a veil of ignorance. Rawls believed that if we made laws that benefitted everyone and reduced inequality that we could maintain a just society.

There are those who believe that this idea is complete bullshit.

When we watch TV and complain that OJ “got away” with double murder, or that Leif Garrett paralyzed his friend in a car accident and served not one day behind bars, or that Robert Downey, jr., pulled off a B&E and we were supposed to feel sorry for him, we often say that it seems that there are two systems of justice — one for the rich and famous and one for everybody else. And seeing Hollywood types like Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg rallying around a convicted child rapist only goes to show that some of our beliefs about a multi-layered justice system are true. We think that the fact that Roman Polanski is a celebrity earns him better treatment than the average barber or computer programmer or some poor undocumented dude who some kid says that he touched her in the park on her way to school. If Roman Polanski were anything other than Roman Polanski, we say, he’d be behind bars before you can say Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby? sucked eggs. Perhaps this is why: maybe the real problem is not that there is no morality in Hollywood, but that the famous operate under a different system of justice than everyone else does. Perhaps their view of justice is Aristotelian.

According to Aristotle, some people, because of their character or virtues deserve more. Unlike Rawls, who seeks to minimize inequality, the Aristotelian thinker sees inequality as a mere fact of life. Some people are, by nature, better than average. Inequality is natural. I remember Sharon Tate’s sister saying that her former brother-in-law is a philanthropist. And we see that if she is correct, he is not only philanthropically-inclined, but as an artist, he gives his art to the people. By doing his natural talent, he is enhancing the lives of all — he contributes to Happiness. Aristotle called these types of men magnanimous. And of magnanimous men Aristotle writes, “… since he deserves most… for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most”.

And perhaps this is it.

It really isn’t a matter whether a child consented to have sex with a man more than twice her age in the home of a mega-star in 1977. It doesn’t matter whether she gleefully and rationally entered into sexual relations with Roman Polanski. What matters, we see, is that people like Roman Polanski are just different than people like me and everyone who isn’t famous. If he had played his cards right, he should have looked the judge squarely in the face, announced that he was better than everyone in the courtroom, and walked out. I’m sure that it would have worked.

I don’t see whay he’s hesitating to do it now.

And if anyone believes that I actually think that he shouldn’t be behind bars, I need only say that I may be an egoist, but at heart I am a Kantian.

They guy shouldn’t know what sunlight feels like for some time.

…For They Know Not What They Do

I was watching season three of The Family Guy last weekend. As I am philosopher, I’ve trained my eyes to find the philosophic significance of any and all that I see on television. Now, initially, I enjoyed the episode “Petarded”, because it was politically incorrect, and because. it’s fun to mock the afflicted. But when I watched last weekend, I realized that there was more there than meets the eye. Lurking behind the juvenile “retarded” jokes was the age-old question dealing with moral inclusion — namely, the question dealing with the culpability of mentally challenged people. In this episone, Peter is diagnosed as mentally disabled (he says retarded, because saying that is funnier than saying he’s disabled or challenged). Peter, realizing that he’s now mentally feeble, uses his challenged state to his advantage. He starts a Bible fight in church, he opens the occupied stalls in the ladies’ bathroom — all the while excusing himself by announcing that he’s “retarded”. Normally, we would say that Peter’s behavior is inexcusable. if a “normal” person took a peek at us while we were in a public bathroom, that person would probably have an asskicking headed his way. (This is exactly what Sasha Baron Cohen does with his character Borat. By pretending to be ignorant and a little stupid, he gets away with things that we wouldn’t tolerate from someone who we thought was normal. There is much more at work with the character, but I won’t go it to that here). But, if someone is in a position that he is unable to control himself (or unable to understand what he’s doing) we tend to treat those people differently. They do not share the same level of moral culpability as someone who is considered fully functional and rational. So what do we do with people who are not rational? Are they (can they be) responsible for what they do? The emphasis on rationality is one of the drawbacks when we consider human behavior philosophically, especially when we look at the behavior of people who clearly are not rational. There are those who are mentally handicapped — born with or by way of accident — who are not able to control or understand their actions (morally, consequences, etc). This is why we do not punish children as we punish adults (except in extreme circumstances) in the legal system. Children do not understand the full extent of their actions. Likewise, we treat people who are mentally handicapped in a manner tha is different than we treat “normal” people. But Peter isn’t organically damaged, he merely believes that he’s “retarded”. What if someone isn’t mentally challenged but believes that they are? They say that hanging around crazy people can make a person crazy. And certainly there is alot of anecdotal evidence to prove this to be the case. I don’t remember what the name of the movie was, but there is this movie about this dude who wasn’t mentally disabled, but was raised in an institution his entire life before someone figured out that he was normal. All I remember is that it was made in the 70s and it had Frederic Forrest in it (I should probably IMDB it someday). So, if someone said that you were mentally disabled (but yoy weren’t) are you still responsible for what you do — assuming that you are actually rational? Are rational people who think irrationally still responsible for what they do? We know that in Peter’s case, even though he seems to take his diagnosis seriously, he’s still morally on the hook for what he does (and CPS seems to think this as well, as they threaten to take his children away from him). But what about people who really are mentally disabled? Our attitude tends to be “it depends”. When we see, for instance, a mentally challenged person who is accused of committing a crime, our first inclination is to ask how mentally challenged that individual is. If a person is merely “slow”, we tend to show less sympathy for their condition than if a person were fully incapable of understanding their actions. If a mentally disabled person were accused of murder, we would ask if he demonstrated signs of knowledge of what he had done. We would ask if he ran from the scene of the crime or if he showed remorse for what he did. If he does, we would say that he understands that what he did was wrong, and that he should be punished. But then we ask, to what extent is to be the proper punishment? When Bill Clinton was runnig for president in 1992, he went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally challenged man who was condemned for committing a murder. Clinton’s decision to uphold the death sentence was blasted by those who felt that the condemned man lacked the mental capacity to understand what he had done. They felt that the punishment was excessive considerning the fact that the man was mentally handicapped. Questions of dimished capacity also arise when we think of the treament of children in the justice system. When a 6 and an 11 year old perpetrated a massacre of their classmates in Jonesboro, the question of whether a child as young as six can understand the implications of his actions came to national prominance. If a child that young can conceive of shooting and killing his classmates with high-powered firearms, does he have the mental capacity understand his actions and be held responsible for what he’s done? If the child is not mentally disabled (meaning that besides his young age, he’s normal), and we agree that all humans have the capacity for rational thought, then at what point is the child rational enought to be held accountable for what he does? Kant says that we should treat people as if they are rational, free moral agents (this avoids the urge to be paternalistic, which would, according to Kant violate an individual’s autonomy).But if we treat all people as if they are rational, are we not treating people in a manner that they are not? The appeal of Kant’s theory is that it is cut and dry. There is no room for ambiguity. But in real life, there is more ambiguity than we know what to do with. We’re often left to wonder how rational a person is. A person may be able to function in society (even function without anyone else helping them), but they aren’t fully rational people. I think of the character Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Lenny has the capacity to function in society. He’s capable of holding a job, and does it well. But mentally, he like a child. When Lenny kills Curley’s wife, the act is unintentional. He was trying to feel her hair, but he panicked when she began to scream. Nonetheless, Lenny murdered the woman. He knew he had done wrong, but also seemed incapable of controlling himself when he did it. (Much like how a child acts). What would Kant have to say about Lenny? When the men on the ranch learned that Lenny killed Curley’s wife, they gathered a lynch mob to kill him. When we read this, it seems like their punishment for Lenny is unfair –it’s not fitting considering that Lenny lacked the mental capacity to fully understand his actions. But, when Lenny’s BFF George kills him, somehow when George kills Lenny, we aren’t as offended. We understand that George didn not kill Lenny out of revenge, but for the need to protect Lenny from the gang (and maybe to protect Lenny from himself). When George kills Lenny, another ranch hand, Slim, tells George,” Never you mind… A guy got to sometimes”. There are those who say that this is why they see no wrong in executing prisoners with dimished capacity. It’s the “rabid dog” defense. They reason that it is inhumane to allow a rabid dog to go around potentially hurting other people. We don’t kill the dog because it is cruel or because we necessarily want to kill the dog, but because we are saving others from an animal that cannot control itself. To put a mentally challenged man behind bars for the rest of his life, they argue is wrong because he may not understand why he is being held (the reasoning being if he doesn’t understand that what he did was wrong, how could he understand that he needs to spend the rest of his life in prison for it?). We worry about punishing mentally challenged people excessively, but we know that we cannot simply let them go either.

"We don’t want people wandering in when we’re bopping perverts": On Kant’s Theory of Retributive Justice As Demonstrated In Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul

A, if not THE big question in Plato’s Republic is “what is justice?”. This is one of those easily asked, but not so easily answered questions. Kind of like asking which one is better, Alien or Aliens? In Republic, Thrasymachus says justice is might makes right. When I was doing the Christian thing, justice is saved for God, who doles it out on the Day of Judgment — each is saved or condemned according to his faith. Still others, like John Rawls, say that justice is a matter of fairness. Of course when we think about justice, what we’re thinking about is punishment. what is the proper punishment for wrongdoing? Moreover, are there people who have certain kinds of punishment coming to them? A punishment like, say, the death penalty? One objection to the death penalty is that death as a method of punishment is not justice, but vengeance. Justice, the objectors say,has nothing to do with revenge. Those who support punishment by death may say, it is not mere vengence than plays a role in the punishment (although it is a part), but to punish someone by taking their life is merely returning the favor. This is what, I think we’re getting at when we demand an eye for an eye. It’s not revenge, it’s retribution. Ok, semantics alert: I realize that the words ‘revenge’ and ‘retribution’ are synonyms. I argue that, in everyday usage, we tend to treat them as two differing concepts. Revenge, as we use it, is more connected to the notion of a vigilante or someone who exacts vengeance without regard for the legality of their actions. For instance, a man whose daughter is raped may exact revenge on the man accused by removing his manhood, shooting him several times with a high calibre firearm, and then dumping his body in a shallow grave. He does not care that he has committed murder (among several other crimes). He wants to inflict as much — if not more pain on the rapist as was inflicted on his daughter. To many, revenge suggests arbitrariness. Whether we inflict pain or how much depends entirely on the person doing the revenging. The person committing the revenge is willing to do anything to anyone in pursuit of exacting their pound of flesh. On the other hand, when we think of retribution, we tend to think of something like vengeance on the part of some higher judge or authority, as in the idea of divine retribution. God tells you exactly what is going to happen to you if you do bad. For any unrepentant sin, you burn in Hell. It’s not personal or arbitrary, it’s just what the punishment is. So back to our story. Retribution, according to Random House Dictionary, is (def 1) “requittal according to merits or deserts, esp. for evil”. So, on this point of view, punishment is not excessive or arbitrary — it’s not done to inflict pain — we do it because the wrongdoer deserves it. This is exactly what Immanuel Kant suggests in his theory of retributive justice. Kant says that a rational individual who commits a crime that harms another individual ought to be harmed in return. Kant’s reasoning is based on the notion that a rational individual who chooses their actions deserves to be respected (as a rational moral agent — individuals who possess a free mind and are capable of deciding their actions according to their own free will) and that punishment for their harmful deeds is, in actuality, a means of respecting the freely, rationally-chosen actions of the individual who is punished. We must respect the choices of other rational actors, Kant tells us. According to Kant 1) people should be punished for no other reasons than the fact that they have committed a crime, and 2) punishments must be in proportion to their crime — small punishments for small crimes, big punishments for big crimes. Oftentimes, satire offers us an opportunity to see philosophy at work ( I guess I’d give a plug to Orwell’s Animal Farm, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, and the films of Monty Python. Watch and read). Given this opportunity, I ask this question: is cannibalism an adequate punishment for murder? Before anyone answers no, what if I add that the cannibalee is a murdering thief? This thief, in addition to murder, steals another man’s wife, tries to kill that man, and supplies a local dog food factory with the bodies of murdered perverts, would that change anyone’s mind? The thief in question is Raoul Mendoza, played by Robert Beltran (who is probably better known for his role on Star Trek: Voyager. Well, better known by Star Trek geeks, anyway) in the late Paul Bartel’s 1982 comedy Eating Raoul (Bartel also directed Death Race 2000, which I highly recommend. Not only is it a damn fine movie, you also get to see a pre-Love Boat, and future Republican congressman Fred Grandy’s ass, which may be a bonus for some folks out there). Described by the tagline as a “Comedy of bad manners”, the plot goes something like this: Paul and Mary Bland (played by Bartel and Mary Woronov) want to open a restaurant , but don’t have enough money to do so. After clubbing a swinger on the head with a frying pan (while he attempts to rape Mary), the couple discover that the swinger has a large amount of cash in his wallet. The couple soon discover that alot of swingers are loaded. The couple decided that they can not only rid the world of “horrible, sex-crazed maniacs”, but also make enough money to open their dream restaurant (which they want to call “Paul and Mary’s Country Kitchen) — if they lure perverts to their apartment, kill them, and take their money. After he breaks in and discovers the bodies of dead perverts, the thief Raoul makes a deal with the Blands where he agrees to get rid of the bodies (by dropping them off at the local dog food manufacturing plant) in exchange for a cut of the profits. Long story short (too late), Raoul makes a move on Mary, tries to kill Paul, and ultimately ends with Raoul getting his just deserts (pun intended) as a main course served at a dinner with the Blands and their real estate agent, James. Ok, first off, we admit that it is the Blands who kill the perverts. We can say that two wrongs don’t make a right, and that they are all guilty of wrongdoing. Despite their best motives, there is really no way that the Blands can excuse bopping perverts. That point is taken. The Blands are not innocents in this situation. But this fact does not mitigate the fact that Raoul’s fate was an appropriate punishment for what he did. We can attempt, however, to argue in the Blands favor. Let’s look at who they kill. First off, the people that they kill are perverts. They all respond to ads the Blands place in the local press that cater to perverts (unusual then, Craig’s List now). At least 4 of the “sex-crazed maniacs” are maniacs. There are at least 4 attempted rapes on Mary Bland during the course of the movie. One client, played by Ed Begley,jr., is a crazed Vietnam vet who tries to rape Mary and seems quite abusive. It’s easy to see that his intentions are truly malevolent. When Raoul strangles him with his love beads, it’s not only ironic ( a hippy getting strangled by love beads), but the creep gets what he deserves. We can argue for Paul and Mary, but it’s a bit harder to do the same for Raoul. He’s really not such a nice guy. When we first see Raoul, he’s leaving an apartment carrying a hi-fi system. We know that when he’s passing himself off as a locksmith in the Bland’s apartment, he’s relly casing the place to break in later. As we get to know Raoul, we discover that he’s fully capable od blackmail, and strangling a man with his own necklace. In addition, he seduces Mary and wants to kill her husband. The Blands also discover that Raoul has been keeping the profits from selling the perverts’ cars from the Blands while getting a cut from what the Blands find in the perverts’ wallets. Last but not least, he’s selling the bodies of the perverts to be used for dog food! One could argue that this is a pretty extensive list of some pretty big crimes. And, as Kant says, big crimes call for big punishments. So, given Raoul’s list of no-nos and Kant’s theory, one could also argue (could being the operative word) that, by killing Raoul, the Blands are doing some version of Kant’s retributive justice. If Raoul is a bad guy who is guilty of big crimes, was his death (in the manner in which he eventually ends up a meal himself) coming to him? I think that it was. Of course, one may object that revenge is never good, and that, the person doing the revenge (in this case the Blands) are in the end no better than Raoul. In Sam Raimi’s Darkman, Dr. Peyton Westlake asks himself, after he’s dished out some revenge killing, ” what have I become?” suggesting that he has become exactly what he sought to destroy. In fighting the evil that harmed him, he had become corrupted. This is a common sentiment that many anti-heroes such as Batman or The Crow’s Eric Draven wonder after they start on a path of get evenism. And, of course, when the credits roll, and we see a very happy Paul and Mary standing outside of their Country Kitchen (home of the Bland enchillada), we wonder what is in store for the couple. There is a darkness to their happiness. Afterall, they did more than kill Raoul, they ate him. But unlike Draven or Westlake or even that nutty-ass Bruce Wayne, Paul and Mary seem completely unaffected by their moral crimes. They see no wrong in what they’ve done. In a way, it makes the couple even more monstrous than Raoul. When Mary expresses some regret for killing Raoul, Paul quickly reminds her that Raoul got exactly what he deserved. Which is exactly, I think, what Kant would say. I believe that Kant would tell us that we are completely justified in being horrified by what the Blands have done. And the Blands should be punished appropriately. But, the fact that Raoul associated with people that were more evil than he does not mean that we should think that Raoul deserved less than what he got. Paul is right. Raoul got exactly what he deserved to get. Raoul was a pervert himself, but a pervert of a different type. Raoul had a perverted sense of morality. He stole, he committed adultery, he killed a hippie, he (gasp) smoked reefer. He was totally willing to involve himself in the business of feeding perverts to dogs. Unfortunately for Raoul, dogs aren’t limited to animals who walk on all fours. Sometimes, the most fiersome dogs are ones that walk on two legs — and occasionally, they eat us before we can eat them.

On the Subject of Punishment

I was watching One Life to Live a few days ago. I thought that my neighborhood was rough! These people are absolutely amazing! First of all, I think that Llanview has the lowest per capita rate of obesity. I think this is due, in part to the fact that that town must have the highest murder rate in the nation. I think that people don’t eat alot because it’s difficult to run from a building that is about to blow up on a full stomach. The last time I watched, which was well over a year ago, I think that Tod was in jail. When I watched againa few days ago, he was in the poke again. I don’t think he’d always been there. I think that maybe they released him and he tried to kill someone else this time. Either way, I was awe-struck by how often the people of this one town seem to commit crimes. I shouldn’t say crimes. People in this town don’t jaywalk, they commit murder. It must pay in that place to be a prison guard. Which got me thinking about the whole prison system here. I live in California. And, since our state is in the hole for more money than God can think of, the subject of prisons and whose going (or who gets released) comes up quite often. Recently, former Manson girl (I guess she’s a little old to call her a “girl”), Susan Atkins, requested compassionate release due to the fact that she is sufffering from terminal brain cancer. The idea is, is that given her condition, she’s no longer a threat to the people of the state of California. Needless to say, she was denied. At least I think she was. Anyway, the question is, though, is there a point when a person is no longer a threat? That, and the idea the a person has been punished enough, which is what some who argued for Atkins’ release suggested. I was listening to the DVD commentary for the movie Pink Flamingos, and John Waters was talking about the Manson gang, who had, in part, influenced his earlier work. He said that it had been many years since the members who committed the murders, and that some had managed to realize what they had done and (and I’m making some conjecture here) were capable of living among normal people again. Waters asked how long is long enough? That is, is there a point where a person has been punished enough for their crimes? I think that John Waters’ questionis a good one. But I’ll add this: Is there a point when punishment becomes counterproductive? Our idea of putting people in prison is fundamentally connected to the idea of justice. It is just not only that a person be punished for what they’ve done, but also that they realize themselves . the harm that their actions caused to others. Oops, We’ve already hit our first wall. Justice has some degree of subjectivity, especially when it comes to the degree of remorse on the part of the perpetrator. Well, assuming that we can somehow figure out someone’s motivation or thought processes, let’s continue to look at the matter. First things first: We might ask what’s the purpose for the law? What’s the nature of the crime? And what amount of punishment is proportional to the crime and what the law allows? Also, we need to consider the motivation of the agent, as motivation often detrmines the degree of punishment. Ok, we’ve got some preliminary questions to juggle around. But, we need to remind ourselves that the idea of justice isn’t just punishment (unless you’re a fan of Thrasymachus, then it’s perfectly fine), but to remedy injury and to make the victim and agent whole. It’s to set things right morally as well as placing the bad guy in a time out with bars. So, given that the aim isn’t to inflict harm on those who do harm, we realize that we cannot exclude others from the moral universe on the grounds that they hurt other people. We are still morally obligated to them, and we, even when we are punishing them, owe them equal moral consideration. So, what then is the right punishment? And, more importantly, when are we inflicting moral harm on those we punish? But first, a brief history lesson on punishment in California. During the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson enacted his “Great Society”, which was meant to improve the lives of the underclasses of society. In addition to civil rights legislation, care was to be taken to see that the lives of America’s underpriviledged would not end up… well… lousy and poor and enevitably in prison. The focus of the criminal justice system was rehabilitation. But, by the early1970s, many Americans began to think that Johnson’s”Great Society” had failed to deliver on its promises. Crime rates rose and the people demanded that the government do something to stem the rising tide of crime. The 1970s began the reverse of the policies stressing rehabilitation in favor of tougher sentencing for criminals. The goal was to keep criminals away from the publc for as long as possible, so the public began to demand longer prison sentences for offenders. In 1977, CA passed the Determinate Sentence Law, which instituted mandatory sentencing and increased the state’s prison population. The demand for toughter sentencing came to a fever pitch in the 1990s as the public saw the state unable or unwilling to get tough on violent crime. The public saw the state’s prison system as a “revolving door” through which violent “career” criminals were simply passed through and released to commit more crimes. Examples of laws passed during the 1990’s include Proposition 184, the “3 strikes and you’re out” law, which passed with an overwhelming 72% of the vote, and Megan’s Law, which aimed to keep sexual predators away from children (by the way, in the wake of Prop 184 and Megan’s law, California’s crime rate dropped by 44%). That’s my poly sci degree right there! So the aim of incarceration is twofold: 1) the punishment of criminals 2) protection of society Ok, but at what point can we say that those aims have been achieved? At what point does a punishment no longer fit the crime? At what point is punishment counterproductive? Under the rehabilitation model of punishment, the main objective of incarceration was that the prisoner learn 1) that their crime was “bad”, and 2) they should not only feel remorse, but learn from their crime(s). The prisoner is to be penitent for what he has done ( hence calling prisons “penitentiaries” or “reformatories”). The prisoner is releasable if he acknowledges his crime and shows (genuine) remorse for what he has done. He must be willing to change (reform) himself and lead a good, crime-free life as a moral, productive citizen. Nost of us would say that this is still a goal. We appreciate the fact when people own up to what they’ve done and acknowledge the harms that they have committed against their fellow citizens. The second aim of punishment, to protect the people from wrongdoers, especially those who are prone to recidivism, is important in that we cannot, even if a person says they are sorry for what they’ve done, continues to commit or shows a tendency to commit more crimes. But what about prisoners who are no longer a threat? What about a murderer who, because of an inoperable brain tumor, can no longer physically threaten (let alone carry out) a murder or other crimes? Is it fair to keep an elderly or infirm prisoner incarcerated even if we know that they are incapable of harming any other people? Perhaps it is not morally right for us to do so. Immanuel Kant, who is a fan of retributive justice including the death penalty, says that there is a poit when a punishment stops being fair (in proportion to the crime committed, of course). Punishment is to be just that. A punishment. If we say that we keep a prisoner behind bars because of some possible harm that he may do (or worse yet, we keep him past the point of being a danger to anyone), we have stopped punishing the criminal and slipped into a paternalistic view of the prisoner. In acting as a paernt, we are denying him his full ability to act as a free and rational (assuming that he is rational) moral agent. When we act paternalistically, we are denying the prisoner’s autonomy — his ability to act according to his own choices. He should be free to chose how he chooses to act, and deal with the consequences. If he is autonomous, he is free to exercise actions for which he is morally culpable. If we deny him of his autonomy, we use him as a mere means to our own ends, and deny him the opportunity to achieve his own ( this one isn’t that so far-fetched to many Californians, who often suspect that the reason why so many prisoners are denied their parole is to serve the ends of the prisons — which is a well-stocked prison is a great ws to generate a lot of $$$$). If we consider this from a more utilitarian view, we can easily see that the moral costs of keeping someone incarcerated beyond the point of usefulness is not only morally damaging, but psychologically harmful for the prisoner as well. Humans are social animals. In order for a human to properly function in society, he must have many and positive social contacts with other people. It doesn’t take a great deal of training to figure out that a prison isn’t the most psychologically enhancing environment for an individual to live. The longer a person spends in a psychologically damaging environment, the more psychologically damaged a person will be. If a person who spends too many years in prison is released, how well do you think that person will be psychologically? It seems that the less time that we can feasably sentence a person would be best. Second, it’s a fact that incarcerating people costs money. Prevention programs are often cheaper to manage and quite successful (that is, if they’re not suddenly underfunded due to budget cuts). Looking into alternative programs may be a good way to both save a buck and keep one less potentially damaged person from spending too much time in prison. Lastly, if we take a Rawlsian view of the matter, we can see where slipping behind Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” comes into play. Rawls says that, when we are thinking about what kind of system we should live under, we should forget what we know about ourselves. That is, we should forget our race, gender, economic status, etc. If we don’t know who we are, Rawls suggests, we are more likely to set up a social system (craeting a system that is just) that is beneficial to as many people as possible. Rawls says the aim is to extend as much freedom and opportunity to as many people as possible. According to this view, we should not want to keep prisoners incarcerated longer than is necessary on the grounds that we may, when the veil is lifted, be prisoners ourselves. Second, Rawls’ justice requires that we attempt to benefit the least among us. It’s difficult to argue that prisoners are not amoge the least among us. We should, instead of laying on the excessive punishments, extend the benefit of the doubt to the incarcerated, and give them many opportunities to gain a better footing in our society. Long, drawn-out, exesssive sentences are counter to a prisoner gaining any benefit in society. Maybe in Llanview, where jail cells do seem to be equipped with a revolving door, keeping Tod behind bars might be a good thing. But, I know that, if he’s not out by now, he’ll be out next week. Everyone will have forgotten that he’s a murder/rapist/all-around shady guy, and will welcome him back into the good graces of Llanview’s well-to-do. Maybe we should take a cue from the beautiful people, and give Susan a chance.