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Jason Vick

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“Putting Cruelty First”: Liberal Penal Reform and the Rise of the Carceral State

Why are so many people in prison today? How do we make sense, more generally, of the fact that all the world’s liberal democracies rely on incarceration as an essential tool of punishment? Specifically, why is it that the discourses and practices surrounding punishment in today’s liberal democracies consider torture and other forms of physical abuse to be unacceptably cruel, while long-term incarceration is considered unproblematic? Vick approaches this problem through a consideration of the liberal reformism of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, which helped to pave the way for a transition from irregular, and usually corporal, punishment to the regular, systematic liberal justice system that eschews corporal punishment but relies heavily on incarceration. To develop this argument, the author engages with the literature that focuses on the role of cruelty within liberalism, in particular the work of Judith Shklar. By drawing on Shklar’s distinction between physical cruelty (which liberals abhor) and moral-psychological cruelty (about which liberals are ambivalent), the author is able to better illuminate how humane reformists such as Beccaria and Bentham could both oppose corporal punishment and favor incarceration as a satisfactory liberal solution to the issue of punishment that minimizes (physical) cruelty.

Beccaria, Bentham, penal reform, liberalism, cruelty, incarceration, Shklar, Nietzsche

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 42, No. 1 (2015): 35-52

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