Faith in the power and righteousness of retribution has taken over the American criminal justice system. Approaching punishment and responsibility from a philosophical perspective, Erin Kelly challenges the moralism behind harsh treatment of criminal offenders and calls into question our society’s commitment to mass incarceration.
The Limits of Blame takes issue with a criminal justice system that aligns legal criteria of guilt with moral criteria of blameworthiness. Many incarcerated people do not meet the criteria of blameworthiness, even when they are guilty of crimes. Kelly underscores the problems of exaggerating what criminal guilt indicates, particularly when it is tied to the illusion that we know how long and in what ways criminals should suffer. Our practice of assigning blame has gone beyond a pragmatic need for protection and a moral need to repudiate harmful acts publicly. It represents a desire for retribution that normalizes excessive punishment.
Appreciating the limits of moral blame critically undermines a commonplace rationale for long and brutal punishment practices. Kelly proposes that we abandon our culture of blame and aim at reducing serious crime rather than imposing retribution. Were we to refocus our perspective to fit the relevant moral circumstances and legal criteria, we could endorse a humane, appropriately limited, and more productive approach to criminal justice.
Gives us a philosopher’s take on the concept of criminal ‘guilt,’ on how easily we miss the larger social context in which crime takes place, and how we need to broaden our blame in order to adjust our justice.
This book has an elegant humanity that is missing in many discussions of punishment. Erin Kelly makes a powerful case that blame should not have the central role in the justification of punishment that it traditionally has had, and proposes an alternative centered on harm reduction—grounded not in consequentialism but in principles of justice. The Limits of Blame is a model for philosophers who aim to engage with the criminal justice system.
A wonderfully insightful book. Retributivists will have to think more carefully about the connection between responsibility and blame, and everyone in the field will need to reconsider their views on deterrence and proportionality.
In a fair-minded and incisive way, The Limits of Blame moves the debate forward, and will be of great interest to moral and legal philosophers as well as political theorists. This book is animated by an unmistakable social and political ethos.
- 240 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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