Punishment & Responsibility

Whitman College - Spring 2006
Mitch Clearfield

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Course Description & Goals

Our society places extraordinary emphasis on punishment: the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with well over two million people in our prisons and jails. Walla Walla itself is home to the Washington State Penitentiary, which currently houses over 2000 inmates, with a major expansion underway. At the same time, it’s clear that our society has no good sense of why we are – or why we should be – doing these things.

These practices stand in need of justification, since the very nature of punishment is to do that which would ordinarily be morally forbidden: intentionally to impose suffering and/or hardship on someone. In this course, we will take some first steps toward determining exactly how and when those practices can be justified (if, indeed, they can be). We will focus on two sets of questions:

  • Punishment: What is the ultimate justification for punishment? What kinds of punishment are justified?
  • Responsibility: Under what circumstances is or isn’t it appropriate to punish someone? What are the limits of responsibility?

Throughout the semester, we will be particularly concerned with the interrelations among all of the different issues and views that we examine. Ultimately, our goal is to work towards an integrated and comprehensive theory of punishment.

At the same time, this course is designed to be an introduction to philosophy. Thus in the process of addressing the relatively focused questions listed above, we will touch on (though not systematically explore) issues from a number of areas of philosophy:

- Ethics: What is the correct conception of morality?
- Political Philosophy: What is the relation between law and morality? What is the proper role of the state?
- Metaphysics: What is required to be a genuine moral agent?
- Philosophy of Mind: What is the nature of the self?
- Philosophy of Science: What are the status and relevance of the social sciences? Of the natural sciences?

Time and attention will also be devoted to developing the general interpretive, analytical, and argumentative skills that are necessary for doing philosophy well.

While questions of punishment and responsibility have occupied thinkers for millennia, in this class we will focus on current approaches and theories. This means that we will be examining some difficult and complicated texts in contemporary philosophy. Nonetheless, this course does not assume any prior background (though students with more experience with philosophy or other relevant fields should also find it rewarding). We will take the time to make sure that at least the main ideas are clear and accessible to everyone.


Course Materials

There are no books that you need to buy for the course. Instead:

  1. Readings marked 'e-reserve' on the schedule are available here. Access is limited to students in the class. If you have forgotten the password, just let me know.
  2. Readings marked 'website' on the schedule are available from other on-line sources, and can be accessed here.

In all cases, you will need to print out the readings so that you have them available in class and when writing papers. I strongly encourage you to print on both sides of the paper, if possible. (Most campus printers can print double-sided – if you’re unsure how, just ask.)


  • I will often distribute important announcements, reminders, and clarifications through e-mail. It is your responsibility to check your account every day.

  • There is also an e-mail list-server set up for the class, which you should feel free to use. Messages sent to phil177b_06sp@whitman.edu will be forwarded to everyone in the class.

  • This syllabus, links to some of the readings, and a variety of other useful and/or entertaining stuff can be found through the class website: http://people.whitman.edu/~clearfms/punishment.htm


Summary of Requirements and Grading

Preparation and Participation — 15% of your total grade
Our class meetings will primarily focus on conversation about the readings and the larger issues that they address. It is essential for you to be an active and productive participant in our conversations. To do this, you must carefully read (and often re-read) the assignment before class, and come to our meetings with questions and ideas to discuss. There will occasionally be more specific assignments for you to complete. More details about expectations and grading standards are available here.

Response Papers — 60% of your total grade (10% each, lowest grade dropped)
As we are examining the different views, it is important for you to reflect on the ideas presented and to develop your own thoughts in response. Throughout the semester (as indicated on the schedule), you will articulate and develop your views on the material in a brief essay. More details are available here.

Final Examination — 25% of your total grade
There will be a comprehensive take-home final examination, which you will be able to complete at your convenience during exam week. The exam questions will give you an opportunity to demonstrate that you have understood, synthesized, and reflected on the issues and views that we’ve examined throughout the semester. More details will be provided toward the end of the semester.


Academic Honesty

All of the work that you submit in this course must be entirely your own. Of course, you can seek help in a variety of ways to prepare yourself for the papers and the exam. So it is permitted (and even recommended!) for you to: consult additional readings, search for material on the internet, discuss your ideas with other students, exchange notes with other students, and read and discuss drafts of each other’s papers. If you do use someone else’s words or specific ideas in your written work, you must provide a proper citation to the source.

Plagiarism will not be tolerated in any form. You have signed a statement indicating that you understand and will abide by the College policy on plagiarism. Any student caught plagiarizing will automatically fail the course, and may face more severe penalties from the College. (For more details, see the Student Handbook.)

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