ISSN 1062-7421
Vol. 11 No. 11 (November 2001) pp. 535-536.

PUNISHMENT, PROPERTY, AND JUSTICE: PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF THE DEATH PENALTY AND WELFARE CONTROVERSIES by Corey Lang Brettschneider. Burlington, VT, Ashgate Publishing Co., 2001. 156 pp. Cloth $69.95. ISBN: 0-7546-20-6.

Reviewed by Edward A. Kent, Department of Philosophy, Brooklyn College, CUNY.

Corey Lang Brettschneider of the Department of Politics at Princeton has done in this book what might be best characterized as a collection of brief abstracts--23 of them in 148 pages of text--of the positions of the major political theorists from the Seventeenth Century to the present on the concepts of Punishment, Welfare, Property, and Distributive Justice. Also, he demonstrates interconnections and differences among the theorists.

In a way this text offers a useful run through for comparative purposes, but it is also a bit tedious reading--abstract and repetitious. As one who teaches these figures in philosophy courses, I found a few new facts that I had missed--the horrendous Lockean assertion that any one over the age of 3 is obliged to work at least part time to provide his or her own support. However, I am not sure exactly what audience will find this book particularly useful. It is really too narrowly focused and abstract to use for undergraduates and too superficial for professionals. Also, for only 156 pages of text it is pricey, and it is only in hardcover, too.

Having voiced the negative aspects of the book, let me discuss the details and useful proposals in the book. Part I of the book, "The Death Penalty and Justice," "attempts to connect the death penalty debate with the philosophical controversy over justice and punishment." Part II, Welfare, Poverty, and Distributive Justice, "attempts to connect the debate over whether there is a right to welfare with the philosophical debate over distributive justice."

The "Punishment" section runs through the usual positions, retributivist (Kant) and utilitarian (Bentham), with the Nietzsche critique of the priests using punishment to manipulate revenge impulses in their own interest. However, it minimizes in a coda the Marxist claim that punishment is simply the imposition by the rich upon the poor of their privileged power positions. Marx is reserved for property analysis. John Rawls' "Two Concepts of Rules" is explicated and the conclusion reached that modern American justice, particularly as it relates to capital punishment, is less concerned with equal treatment with the overruling of FURMAN v. GEORGIA than
retribution against individual wrong doers. There is no mention of the key cases that got us there. The author rightly challenges revenge as a valid basis for punishment. He prefers the traditional utilitarian and retributivist standards, respectively, of deterrence and punishment of the guilty only, but so do most of us.

The part of the book on welfare,

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property, and distributive justice is a bit more suggestive, but nevertheless limited to the standard figures: Locke, Rousseau, John Rawls, Michael Waltzer, Robert Nozick, and Marx. It begins by breaking down contemporary welfare proponents into three types--"workfarists" who grant a right to welfare only to those who contribute to the economy "by working," "welfarists" who defend the right regardless of whether one works or not, and "libertarians" who limit welfare to voluntary contributions from private charities.

This division is simplistic and Americanized. European systems ordinarily don't draw such distinctions--provision is made for state assistance to those in need with the assumption that they should also be assisted by the state in preparing for jobs and that the state should be the provider of last resort of same. Able-bodied individuals are ordinarily required to take jobs offered to them on reasonable grounds. Welfare is conceived of as consisting of far more than just monetary handouts, e.g. universal medical care, guaranteed housing, early childhood education, child care as needed, paid maternal leaves, and such which are an essential part of the larger package of European "welfare" entitlements.

Following an initial run through of Locke and Rousseau on the virtues and evils of private property ownership, the bulk of the attention of this section is focused on John Rawls' theory of justice, equal maximum liberty combined with unequal distributions of resources that maximize the welfare of the worst off, followed up by the standard American critics and revisers of Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Waltzer--the whole Harvard crew. All this is all well and good, but it lacks the rich details about how the concepts affect real people. Indeed, each of the three Harvard scholars examined tended to neglect with his focus on individual desert and abstract principles of justice.

The conclusion of the book is a bit disappointing. It offers really no new departures or insights, but only summary of what has gone before. In the author's words, "I believe I have demonstrated that the history of political philosophy, with emphasis on justice and rights, is not mere ideology. I have shown that the history of ideas about justice provides a basis for those who disagree about the death penalty and welfare to examine their assumptions and engage in real argument."

Frankly, I am not persuaded. Each of the theorists cited by Brettschneider was defending a particular cultural blip on his contemporary political and economic scene. The fact that the particular interests were being defended or criticized by abstract conceptions of justice, punishment, economic support or denial of support for the lower echelons does not much help with our contemporary deliberations where such abstractions all too readily block humane thinking about such injustices as an American penal system, which imprisons some two million persons mainly from poverty and minority backgrounds, or a nation in which our extremes of poverty and wealth contrast embarrassingly with our European counterparts. He could have better explored such concrete concerns along the lines of our own classic American
pragmatists such as John Dewey or William James or our contemporary feminist legal and moral theorists, such as Nel Noddings and others, who CARE!


Copyright 2001 by the author, Edward C. Kent.