I heard Thane Rosenbaum on NPR yesterday, and was instantly struck by how juvenile this law professor’s understanding of justice and human nature is. (Greenfield wrote last week about Rosenbaum’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece.)
Rosenbaum’s stated premise is that justice equals revenge: “A call for justice is always a cry for revenge.” This is transparently false. There are many different notions of justice, and often when an injured person calls for justice he seeks restoration rather than retribution.
Rosenbaum asks, “Now, in cases where we have the worst of the worst, where there’s no question of someone’s guilt—heinous murders—why is it that we’re so ambivalent about actually providing just desert?” One answer, obvious to anyone who has ever shook hands with the criminal justice system, with ethics, or with Philosophy 101, is that the result of our actions is not necessarily an accurate measure of what we deserve.
In the CHE piece Rosenbaum writes, “America is no less civilized or law-abiding because bin Laden was assassinated.” This is at best arguable. I get the impression from listening to and reading Rosenbaum that he is trying to make his personal impulses the norm. But society serves to moderate, rather than amplify, personal impulses.
On further reflection, I can’t believe that a law professor is really so much of a simpleton. It’s not that Rosenbaum has a juvenile understanding of justice and human nature. I think it’s that he’s trolling us.
There is an interesting discussion to be had of the proper role of retribution in the American criminal justice system: retribution is a natural impulse; why should it yield to our moral intuition that punishment should be proportional to responsibility? Why should society strive to be “better” than its members, where being “better” means not satisfying members’ undeniable retributive impulse?
Unfortunately for that discussion, Rosenbaum overstates his case to the point of triviality to get attention (you’re welcome) and to sell books.