Punishment, Desert, and Equality: A Levinasian Analysis

In Lisa Guenther, Geoffrey Adelsberg & Scott Zeman (eds.), Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration. Fordham UP (2015)
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The first part of this chapter defends the claim that the over-incarceration of disadvantaged social groups is unjust. Many arguments for penal reform are based on the unequal distribution of punishment, most notably disproportionate punishment of the poor and people of color. However, some philosophers use a noncomparative conception of desert to argue that the justice of punishment is independent of its distribution. On this view, which has significant influence in 14th Amendment jurisprudence, unequal punishment is not unjust. After detailing the “noncomparativist challenge,” this chapter argues that Levinasian conceptions of desert enable a theory of penal justice according to which comparative considerations are essential. In so doing, it shows that the noncomparativist challenge can be met. The chapter concludes by considering whether Levinasian conceptions of desert and responsibility show members of socially advantaged groups to be more blameworthy for their wrongdoing than members of disadvantaged groups.

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Benjamin S. Yost
Cornell University


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