Philosophers and the One Right Answer

A very bright guy named Richard Marshall interviews academic philosophers at a site called 3 A.M. Magazine (as of his latest interview, Mr. Marshall is still “biding his time”).

This is from an interview with Thom Brooks of Durham University:

“Hegel’s Science of Logic reveals a fascinating insight into the philosophy of punishment. He writes that punishment should not be considered as either retribution, deterrence or rehabilitation. Instead, punishment is grounded in retribution – those punished must deserve it and cannot be innocent – but retribution is only one part of a larger view. Punishment is not retributivist, preventative or rehabilitative, but rather all three in one. Three in one. Why would we expect to find anything different in Hegel than this anyway?”

With all due respect to Hegel (one of the most influential yet incomprehensible philosophers ever), is it really a fascinating insight to note that punishment is justifiable for different reasons? Philosophers are too often prone to seek a single justification or analysis for some phenomenon. Philosophical arguments can sometimes remind you of that beer commercial (“Tastes great! No, less filling!”). 

The entry on “Punishment” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an example of this tendency:

“The practice of punishment must be justified by reference either to forward-looking or to backward-looking considerations [or both?].

If the former prevail, then the theory is consequentialist and probably some version of utilitarianism, according to which the point of the practice of punishment is to increase overall net social welfare by reducing (ideally, preventing) crime.

If the latter prevail, the theory is deontological; on this approach, punishment is seen either as a good in itself or as a practice required by justice, thus making a direct claim on our allegiance. A deontological justification of punishment is likely to be a retributive justification.

Or, as a third alternative, the justification of the practice may be found in some hybrid combination of these two independent alternatives. Recent attempts to avoid this duality in favor of a completely different approach [such as saying that neither theory captures the whole truth?] have yet to meet with much success…”

Practically speaking, meeting with “success” in this case means being found convincing by other academic philosophers. It might be that recent attempts to avoid this duality haven’t been successful because most philosophers interested in punishment (and ethics in general) are committed to an either/or solution, finding the single right answer. There is relatively little to be gained, professionally speaking, by pointing out that both sides of a traditional argument reflect part of the truth.

What sometimes happens in philosophical argument (aka “combat”) is that philosopher A offers his theory and philosopher B suggests a counterexample. Philosopher B then offers her theory and philosopher A suggests a counterexample. Philosopher C then concludes that neither theory is successful. An alternative approach would be to agree that the counterexamples show that neither theory captures the whole truth, although they each capture some of the truth. Then everyone could pack up and go have a drink (or a slice of pie).