Kantian Gloom-Watch: The Blood Guilt Edition

Yet more gloom:

Even if a civil society were to be dissolved with the consent of all its members (e.g. if a people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse throughout the world) the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed, so that each has done to him what his deeds deserve and blood guilt does not cling to the people for not having insisted upon this punishment; for otherwise the people can be regarded as collaborators in his public violation of justice.

Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 6: 333

2 thoughts on “Kantian Gloom-Watch: The Blood Guilt Edition

  1. You know, this passage (and its surrounding text) is very famous outside of philosophy departments – a phenomenon that sheds light on the role Kant and figures from the history of thought in general play in other disciplines. The idea expressed here, abstracted from its context (which might, on a certain reading, call into question the schematic I’m about to unfold), sums up what legal theorists call retributivism, the position that punishment for criminal acts is necessary solely because the offender must, in the cosmic scheme of things, receive his “just deserts.” This might be raised in some introductory ethics courses too, insofar as Bentham/Mill take the opposing role (if punishment is necessary it is because it serves the utility principle, regardless of “just deserts”). In effect, Kant (and Bentham, Mill, and so many other innocent philosophers) becomes the proper name representing an indefensible theory of criminal punishment, and the student, in this case, is forced to “recognize” that the correct answer lies somewhere between retributivism and utilitarianism, thus reinforcing an antiquated framework, reproducing a certain style of thought, that takes no cognizance whatsoever of the political, institutional and intra-institutional (especially financial), and expressive motivations or reasons for a governmental infliction of punishment or subjection upon its representeds, if I may use a clumsy term that nevertheless serves a clear purpose here.

  2. I get disheartened by a similar phenomenon when Kant comes up in the first year undergraduate groups I tutor. It seems for most students that ‘Kant’ just signifies heavy handed moralising. When I’ve attempted to suggest that there are ways of understanding a genuinely Kantian approach to ethical issues that nuances or places less weight on a bald assertion of our absolute duty, the students don’t seem to buy it. It is as if — while having read little or nothing by Kant, of course — they can’t bring themselves to dissociate him from ‘The Deontologist’ or ‘The Retributivist’.

    It’s as if Kant or Mill were mere human pawns of the most hardline stance on themes in their work. And, since the extremes of each of the supposed poles of the debate are unsettling then some fuzzy Third Way between the two looks attractive. Where, of course, it is often the genius of a figure like Kant — the real Kant, that is — to attempt to synthesise several seemingly opposed positions into an overall framework that attempts not to compromise each element synthesised. So, instead of settling for a lukewarm cod-Aristotelian mean, drifting half-way between two poles, more often than not it is a dialectical reconciliation that is needed: a demonstration of how the many sides of a debate are already conditions for each other — that they depend upon what seems opposed to them, when conceived in the right way.

    If only people could find more time to resist making figures from the history of philosophy mere window-dressing for the positions associated with their names!

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