Thursday, December 13, 2012

Charles Peirce on Criminal Justice

I have posted briefly about Peirce's interest in criminal justice before.  I haven't time to comment on it extensively now, so for now I will post this link to his piece entitled "Dmesis"* and these brief comments:

More than once commentators on Peirce's Pragmatism have argued that he does not pay attention to politics or to political, social, and ethical theory.  This piece is not alone in refuting that thesis.  It would be more accurate to say that for Peirce, it is impossible to treat social and ethical issues apart from the rest of his philosophy.  Peirce was a synechist, which means he held that ideas are not independent atoms of thought but interdependent and interconnected with one another.  Ideas affect one another.

One great implication of this is that just as one idea affects another in our private thinking, so our personal beliefs affect other persons.  Our ideas are not atoms, and neither are we.  The foundation of ethics, and of all philosophy, is agape, or love.  As Peirce wrote elsewhere,  

“He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is illogical in all his inferences, collectively.”

Peirce makes the especially trenchant observation that if we really cared about criminals, then our criminal justice system would make positive habituation a guiding principle in the housing and treatment of prisoners.  I'm willing to concede that Peirce may not be right in all he says here, but this point seems spot on: it is inconsistent to habituate people to prison life if our aim is to return them to society.

Peirce's conclusion in the third paragraph also seems right: the fact is, we imprison people "because we detest them."

*  ("Dmesis" is a Greek word that means "taming," or "breaking.")

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