Workshop Content


Location: Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts

Director: Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science

Meetings: 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday, July 2 - July 27, 2018 (4weeks)         

*time subject to change                                                                                


The Seminar

This seminar will address three questions about punishment that go to the heart of humanistic inquiry.

1. What is punishment and why do we punish as we do? Punishment involves the imposition of pain in a calculating and deliberate manner. To acknowledge this fact locates the subject of punishment in relation to significant political and ethical issues, e.g. how do we deploy political and legal power in definingthe limits of freedom? What justifies legal restrictions on our conduct? What are the responsibilities of those who punish in relation to those subject to punishment?


2. What can we learn about politics, law, and culture in the United States from an examination of our practices of punishment? How have issues of punishment figured in our “national story”? What are the arguments that today shape our thinking about punishment?


3. What are the appropriate limits of punishment? Do we punish too much and or too little? Are we too strict or too forgiving? What is the appropriate relationship of punishment and mercy? Are there some acts which strain our capacity to make judgments or for which punishment, no matter how severe, seems an inadequate response?


We shall read closely, and discuss at length, material ranging from “classics” such as the Book of Job and Thoreau on civil disobedience, to legal cases, literary treatments of punishment, and film. The range is broad, asking each of us to move out from our areas of specialization to see the subject of punishment through an interdisciplinary lens. Participation in the seminar demands no specialized training in law or jurisprudence.

Let me say a brief word about the agenda for the seminar. In the first two weeks we will take up the first of the three orienting questions noted above. In the first week, entitled What Is Punishment About? On the Just Imposition of Pain, we will examine instances of punishment, or of a failure to punish, in order to explore how punishment is understood by those to whom it is applied as well as by citizens of the community in which it is applied. We read about and discuss zero tolerance policies in schools and the controversies about mandatory sentencing in the criminal justice system. To put our discussion in a broad context we examine relationships among punishment, moral guilt, and the law in two texts that have nothing to do with the United States, namely Stephen Mitchell and The Book of Job.

In the Job story the association of punishment, even undeserved punishment, and assumptions about guilt are so strong that when someone known for his righteousness is suffering his neighbors assume that he must be guilty of something. This reading invites an exploration of the pains of punishment and the social judgments that generally accompany it.

We will conclude the week by discussing when and why punishment is thought by some to be “essential.” We will consider the film Noon Wine and Thoreau’s essay. The former provides an instance in which someone who is in fact guilty of a crime is not punished and suggests that in the absence of punishment there can be no expiation of sin. The later illustrates the importance of punishment in theories of civil disobedience.

The Second Week–What Does Punishment Say about Those Who Punish?–turns from those who are punished to those who punish. We will examine some of the functions that punishment serves and ask about the demands that a just system of punishment makes on those who punish. This week takes up some classic arguments about punishment and includes a reading by George Herbert Mead suggesting that decisions about when, how, and who to punish work to draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in any community. We will discuss the film Judgment at Nuremberg to see one example of how judgment is represented in popular culture. Next we will discuss Herbert Morris’s “Persons and Punishment” and his argument that offenders have a right to be punished and that, as a result, society has a duty to punish. This argument will be contrasted with a Supreme Court decision, Robinson v. California, holding that certain people have a right not to be punished even when they are engaged in socially undesirable behavior. We will discuss the sometimes excruciating “costs” of discharging the duty to punish on those who do so. Here our text will be Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd.”

Week Three is devoted to asking what we learn about America by thinking about our practices of punishment. Here we focus on two modalities of punishment, imprisonment and the death penalty. We will read some court cases to inquire about punishment in contemporary America. These cases describe conditions in our prisons and discuss what rights prisoners have in those institutions. They also open up a conversation about the intersection of race and punishment, and they will allow us to revisit the question of why we punish as we do.

Because the United States is one of the few remaining constitutional democracies that continues to employ capital punishment, we also take up the death penalty, asking about its justness and its place in the American legal system. Our attention will also be directed to court cases on the constitutional jurisprudence of capital punishment.

Week Four --On the Importance and Limits of Punishment--concludes the seminar by revisiting some of the issues with which we began. We will look at Albert Camus’s “Reflections of the Guillotine” and Walter Berns’s For Capital Punishment, both of which are classics in the study of punishment. They focus on the question of whether it is just to take the lives of those who murder, emphasizing in particular the place of revenge in a system of punishment. We consider how these questions are portrayed in the film, Dead Man Walking.

We will also discuss whether there are ways of responding to crime that do not depend as much on the social deployment of pain as those forms of punishment most in vogue today? What is the place of reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, and reintegration in the future of punishment in America? Are there some acts which cannot and should not be forgiven? Are there some acts which are so heinous that no punishment could ever be adequate? Readings for the week include Toni Morrison, Beloved, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Having reviewed our agenda, let me note that because almost everyone has their favorite book or story in which punishment plays a key role, my choices of texts surely will not satisfy everyone. So rich are the possibilities that the problem is less one of choosing what to include, than of deciding what not to include. Practical considerations, e.g. the length of a book in relation to the time available, necessitate some exclusions, e.g. Crime and Punishment, The Executioner’s Song.

In reading and discussing the material we shall use the genuine seminar method, in which all contribute and all benefit from being both a speaker and a listener. What this means is that I do not see my role as a lecturer, but rather as more of a colleague and fellow participant. I will act as a resource for you as you engage with the material and the questions it raises, and as a facilitator to help insure that our discussions are as productive as possible.

Each participant will be asked to keep a journal in which he or she records impressions about the issues under discussion. In addition, participants will do group projects in weeks 2 and 3. Groups will meet during the week to prepare a presentation for the last sessions of those two weeks. That project might deal with one of the issues around which the seminar is organized, or respond to a question framed by our discussion. One person from each group will act as a convener/facilitator for their group.

In preparation for that session I will meet with the conveners/facilitators of the groups. In addition, I will schedule individual meetings with participants to discuss their journals and their ongoing participation in the seminar.