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Laura Gillespie- Toward a Relationship-Centered Theory of State Punishment

Laura Gillespie- Toward a Relationship-Centered Theory of State Punishment

February 23, 2018 - 1:15pm to 3:00pm
Encina Hall West, Room 400 (GSL)
Event Speaker: 
Laura Gillespie, Ethics in Society Fellow, Stanford University

The philosophical literature on punishment has traditionally focused on punishment by the state. The familiar theories of state punishment have traditionally been organized around a distinction between instrumental or “forward-looking” theories of punishment (most famously deterrence theories), and non-instrumental or “backward-looking” theories (typically retributive in character). This way of carving up the theoretical space has left philosophers of punishment in something of a predicament. Non-instrumental theories, on the one hand, seem to endorse pointless suffering: We punish wrongdoers because they deserve it, not for any further good (and perhaps even despite some further harm). Instrumental theories, on the other hand, seem to treat the rights and interests of wrongdoers as something we are entitled to trade away for the sake of whatever further good punishment is alleged to serve, objectionably instrumentalizing the offender.

In what follows I will offer an initial sketch of a third kind of view, neither forward-looking, nor backward-looking, but relationship-centered. Adopting this strategy will involve understanding the arc of wrongdoing and redress in something like the following terms: Wrongdoing disrupts the norm-governed equilibrium between two agents, i.e. their relationship (in this case, the relationship between the offender and the state). Punishment, where permissible, aims to restore that equilibrium-- that is, for the sake of the relationship. Such a view, I will argue, can capture what is right in both forward- and backward-looking accounts while avoiding their worst problems, and has at least one important advantage besides: It will help us to recognize state punishment as all of a piece with a much broader range of punishment practices common to human life, which will allow us, in turn, to recognize punishment's distinctive value across a range of human relationships.


Laura Gillespie is completing her PhD in philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her current research focuses on the philosophical treatment of our responses to perceived violations of moral, legal, and social norms--particularly blame, punishment, forgiveness, guilt, and shame. In her dissertation she considers the possible place and value of punishment in a range of interpersonal (as opposed to institutional) contexts, including childhood punishment, self-punishment, and punishment between friends. The aim of this project is two-fold: first, to better spell out some of the ways in which blaming behaviors are (and are not) appropriately manifested interpersonally; and, second, to shed new light on some old questions about the general nature of punishment and its justification. Her research more generally includes work on issues about agency, responsibility, moral psychology and development, practical reasoning, law, identity, possibility, and imagination.