Whenever someone asks me about the problems of the prison state and why I would like to abolish the entire prison system, I just say, “read Nathan Goodman’s blog ya muppets!” I’m delighted to be writing this guest blog post for my pal Nathan, who does a wonderful job highlighting the problems and moral atrocities that occur in the United States of Incarceration. In addition to the horrible consequences of prisons, I believe there are conceptual reasons we ought to be opposed to them. When determining the ethical response to violence, we must account for the principle of proportionality.
Think about it like this. Suppose you’re hungry for some delicious pizza, like I am right now. When I finish writing this, I’m going to pick up the phone and place an order for some pizza. But I have to decide what size I want. As is the case with pizza, my eyes (or ears since I’m ordering on the phone) are bigger than my stomach and I’m tempted to order a large. Problem is, I won’t actually be able to finish the whole thing. It’s just too much pizza (this concept is actually incoherent, but this is only an analogy). Of course, I don’t want to order a small either. It won’t fill me up and I will want more pizza. Considering all the variables – my body type, my appetite, the size of my wallet, etc – I have to get the pizza that is proportional.
Proportional pizza is not actually a philosophical concept, which is a travesty. But we do have something like it that was developed by some guys named Socrates, Plato, and Aristote, among others. In the ancient Greek tradition, this is called the Golden Mean. According to Socrates, “man must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.” In the Aristotelian tradition, a virtue such as courage is action that falls between acting too rash and too cowardly. Aristotle thought all the virtues depend upon a mean between two extremes. There is no doubt he would have ordered the medium pizza.
What can this tell us about non-aggression, proportionality, and justice? The Golden Mean shows us that acting just requires a sense of proportionality. It explains why when someone steals my television, killing them would be doing too much and doing nothing would be too little. Justice lies somewhere between the two. Responding to an act of aggression with a disproportionate amount of force misses the Golden Mean.
This idea means we are committed to a specific form of retaliation. We can act violent insofar as that violence is needed to defend ourselves or make ourselves whole. Taking my television back and breaking the thief’s arm is not needed to defend myself nor make myself whole – it’s not proportionate. Any action I take that goes beyond self-defense and restitution is, itself, aggression. In the case of the television, justice requires me taking back my television along with some compensation for what I had to go through (maybe I had to run after the thief and tore my shirt on a tree branch). Nothing more and nothing less.
Now, what kind of blog post would this be if I didn’t call for the abolition of prisons? One of the reasons I’m a prison abolitionist is because locking people in cages for months, years, or decades, is not needed for self-defense. Imprisoning the television thief goes beyond the proper form of retaliation because prison is all about punishment for punishment’s sake. Once I get my television back, the thief is no longer a threat and I have no claim to any of his property except the appropriate restitution.
Forcibly restraining someone for an extended period of time could only be justified if they are an on-going threat to society. Considering the few number of people who are actually a continual danger to others, this hardly justifies prisons. There are more effective and more moral alternatives for this small minority. Consider a system of house arrest. Or perhaps a rehabilitation clinic.
A proper concern for non-aggression and proportionality entails the absolute rejection of a system based on punishment for its own sake, which is what prisons are. It implies a system based on restitution, on making the victim whole. Let’s not forget Aristotle’s Golden Mean when we are ordering pizza or when we are discussing the proper treatment of criminals.