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This piece brought to mind for me a few different passages from Adam Smith, where he tries to sort out how people in the past had decided on the punishments that they did. He suggests that, at a high level, we shouldn’t operate from the belief that punishments are set based on public utility. Instead, they are generally dictated by the degree of public sympathy with the resentment of the victim.

Why is that? Well, it’s because of the destabilization that would result, if public resentment were not gratified. Early social institutions were not very powerful, and even today we see well organized states fall or fail to function due to public discontent. Indifference to injustice outrages the public, just because of the strength of the faculty of human sympathy, and this can be a very powerful force. This discontent often leads the public to mete out some kind of punishment, whether the state manages to or not. We do not have a justice system or a state in order to have the capability to mete out punishments — the public is perfectly capable of doing that itself, and the state draws on only a small fraction of the resources of the public to be able to do it — but rather to see accountability, transparency, and some possibility for correction of gross errors in that process. What we gain by the state’s involvement is not the capacity to punish but a process that is less costly, less slipshod, and more credible to everyone outside of those most local to whatever injustice occurred. The framing of Smith asks us to see the justice system in a thoroughly realistic way — to acknowledge very real limits on its integrity and capability, as something sharing space with many old and influential aspects of human social behavior.

Our institutions are all in a similar circumstance to the justice system, and all are adapted similarly, when they must come in between a suspect and the public’s resentment. These institutions must, in some measure, conform to the public’s hostility, and for the same reasons — both to be able to channel it, and not to be bowled completely over by it. There is not always a just outcome when they do so. There are several ways to resolve any situation like this. There are also several ways to moderate the public’s resentment. One of the most important is a just and credible process of inquiry about the wrongdoing as well as an open and searching consideration of comparable cases when it comes to what to do about it. These together help the public to appreciate that a particular determination, even of innocence, was arrived at in a manner that they can respect. An orderly and truthful process is what allows institutions to stand up to the public — and thus to protect our rights in those situations where we most need that protection.

What is perhaps most important to acknowledge, however, is that there are also factors that stoke and increase the public resentment; and these factors lead to a force that our institutions must bow to as surely as if it were based on the sympathy that would exist without them. Social media allows people to present accounts of events that are impactful, easy to consume and utterly believable — not like a 2nd or 3rd party write-up. The subtle way in which framing of events impacts our judgement of them — and thus the degree of our resentment — is something that we are not well prepared for. The way in which dialogue occurs on social media allows for such a tremendous number of participants that discussions are reduced to the briefest and most impactful statements.

To the degree that progressives have relied on these factors for impact and reach — and we have to acknowledge that this has happened — it only contributes to the problem of how we have a credible approach to justice, because it means relying too heavily on sympathy with resentment to see the process through. We shouldn’t look for the problem in the punitiveness of our society. That punitiveness is ultimately a reflection of that sympathetic resentment and is a force to be brought into balance with others. The real problem is our embrace of a discombobulated and rushed, almost warlike, style of discussion. To call for proportionality and a clear link between consequences and a wrongful act is to connect with a long tradition of public dialogue on justice that serves to balance out that sympathy — a long tradition that’s shared with conservatives. It implies a longer form — a more doubting and deliberative — approach to accusations. We must be more willing to say that certain modes of dialogue are not acceptable, even if they dovetail with that resentment — and that result — with which we sympathize.

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