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Monday, October 16, 2006

The Future of Shaming, Part 3 of ___

(Readers interested in some background to this discussion of shaming should check out posts one and two of this series. The second post in particular has some helpful exchanges in the updates and comments.)

Recently Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan admitted that, at least with respect to his prior endorsement of shaming punishments, “the time has come for me to recant.” Known inside and outside the legal academy for his decade-long defense of shaming as an alternative to incarceration, Kahan took pains to publicly repudiate his earlier embrace of shaming punishments at a symposium convened by the Texas Law Review.

Characteristically, Kahan recanted in style. Rather than simply capitulate to his critics’ arguments about the purported inefficiency or injustice of shaming punishments, Kahan asserted that he had sufficiently anticipated and addressed those challenges in his earlier work. Instead, Kahan explained that what was “really wrong with shaming sanctions” is that they suffer from a problem of partisanship. In other words, when shaming punishments are deployed, they signal that society has chosen sides with those whose cultural and policy worldviews elevate community or hierarchy over individuality and equality.

This is bad because in the politics of punishment, such partisanship works to preclude the acceptability of adopting shaming as a widespread alternative to incarceration. Why?

Because shaming punishments flout what Kahan calls the principle of “expressive overdetermination.” Pursuant to that idea, a “law or policy can be said to be expressively overdetermined when it bears meanings sufficiently rich in nature and large in number to enable diverse cultural groups to find simultaneously affirmation of their values within it.” Because of the “social meaning handicap” under which shaming labored, Kahan predicted that shaming punishments could not work as a viable alternative to imprisonment because they are too socially divisive.

Changing course, Kahan instead argued that we should expand efforts to implement “restorative justice” programs as a pragmatic alternative to incarceration because such programs do in fact satisfy the criterion of “expressive overdetermination” and at the same time would help expand our punitive arsenal beyond our orthodox reliance on mass incarceration. In other words, restorative justice has a real hope of achieving political acceptability as an alternative to incarceration.

Kahan’s renunciation of shaming punishments and subsequent endorsement of restorative justice are significant developments, at least among those of us who study and teach about the institutions and practices of punishment. Although I applaud Kahan’s volte-face on shaming punishments – I was one of the critics who argued shaming was both illiberal and incompatible with principles of retributive justice – I think his new arguments are also unsuccessful, though for different reasons.

Over the next few days, I will explain what these reasons are. The next post in this series provides an overview of the alternative sanctions movement; this can be skimmed or ignored by those already familiar with the state of play in this area. The balance of the posts will outline Kahan’s views in his recent piece and will identify three problems. First, Kahan’s work in the area of the “expressive political economy” of punishment ambiguously skates between the interpretive and the prescriptive, and in order to generate his prescriptive conclusions he needs to be clearer about certain aspects of his argument. Second, Kahan’s claims against his critics are inaccurate along several dimensions. Finally, and most importantly, Kahan’s enthusiasm for restorative justice is likely to wane as he realizes that restorative justice, once scrutinized carefully, is prone to manifest similar “social meaning” handicaps as shaming. Consequently, Kahan may have to “recant”—again.

Update: If your appetite for shaming-related commentary is not sated here, then you should check out the contemporary shaming stories told in Frank Pasquale's delightful first permaprawf post over at Co-Op. Shaming's for the birds apparently.

Posted by Administrators on October 16, 2006 at 09:00 AM in Article Spotlight, Criminal Law, Dan Markel | Permalink


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Patrick...you are far too generous with your praise! I, too, am loving this. Kahan's paper is fascinating and I simply need some time to go away and digest it. That said, I am not worried if shaming is illiberal or not retributivist given I'm a socialist (as are most living in the UK where I am) and so not liberal, nor am I retributivist. However, I've been surprised to see the recent moves by Braithwaite and Kahan on this. Nussbaum is with Braithwaite's latest view and shares Patrick's worry that shaming harms dignity. I simply disagree, as I've stated earlier. Nevertheless, I need to see this paper from Kahan....

Posted by: Thom Brooks | Oct 19, 2006 7:58:23 AM

I don't know about your critique of restorative justice as equally partisan. In Texas it's a conservative think tank and religious prison ministries primarily pushing it, for example.

Incidentally, I covered Kahan's talk at the Texas Law Review you mentioned in this blog post back in February, see:



Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 16, 2006 10:21:49 AM

Patrick, discuss away! There will inevitably be some overlap over the next few days.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Oct 16, 2006 10:06:02 AM


I'm enjoying this debate. Thom Brooks, a brilliant young philosopher, is also in support of shaming punishments. I've been arguing with him at your previous post on this topic, and I trust you don't mind, seeing as how you're posting anew and moving in a different direction. I look forward to the next few days....

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 16, 2006 9:47:39 AM

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