“A Procedural Plea for Leniency” at the APA Central

I’m giving a paper at the APA central on Wednesdays at 3:00.


The racial disparities that plague the American criminal justice system seem to call for the suspension of criminal penalties, at least for black offenders. But refusing to punish violent offenses leaves unprotected those most vulnerable to crime, and outright abolition thus appears to undermine the rights and liberties of black Americans. I call this the decarceration dilemma. After analyzing and evaluating Christopher Lewis’s admirable attempt to resolve the dilemma, I offer my own, which employs a procedural rather than a substantive solution. I lean on the principle of expanded asymmetry (EA), which holds that it is better to underpunish than overpunish. After defending the principle, I note that EA obtains only under conditions of uncertainty. I then show that because virtually all trials of black offenders meet the uncertainty condition, sentencing authorities are obliged to treat black offenders leniently. I conclude by noting the advantages of my proceduralist approach.

The Catholic Church is now an abolitionist organization.

The Pope’s opposition to the death penalty has now been enshrined in the Catechism. The Catholic Church officially holds that the death penalty attacks the dignity of all human beings.

Catechism No. 2267 now reads: “The church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Details here.

CFA: Philosophers on the Movement for Black Lives

Call for abstracts: Philosophers on the Movement for Black Lives

Black Lives Matter and other grassroots organizations constituting the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) have quickly gained worldwide visibility as a broad social justice movement. MBL rose to prominence in no small part thanks to its protests against police brutality and misconduct directed at Black Americans. However, its concerns are far broader, calling for a wide range of economic, political, legal, and cultural measure to address not only what it terms a “war against Black people” but also as part of a “shared struggle with all oppressed people.” MBL is also distinguished by its decentralized, non-hierarchal modes of organization.


We welcome abstracts that engage philosophically with MBL’s aims, concerns, or strategies. Abstracts may address questions such as the following:

– What are the philosophical underpinnings of MBL, and how do these compare or contrast with the underpinnings of other social justice, anti-racist, or Black liberation movements?

– How is MBL situated in relation to thinkers or traditions (philosophical, religious, etc.) important in the history of such movements?

– What distinguishes the MBL positions and arguments

regarding criminal justice, including policing, mass incarceration, privatization, surveillance, bail, capital punishment, decriminalization, etc.;

regarding reparative economic justice, including education, community investment, reparations, and guaranteed income;

regarding economic policy, including health care, climate change, taxation, employment, unionization, trade, and the environment;

and regarding political and civic participation, including voting rights, election financing, free speech, etc.?

– How has MBL influenced or shaped wider sociopolitical culture, including other social justice movements, both in the US and elsewhere?

– Can the meaning and importance of MBL’s political speech acts (e.g., the slogan “Black Lives Matter”) or the discursive responses to those speech acts be illuminated by philosophical investigation into semantics, pragmatics, and interpretation?

be illuminated by philosophical investigation into semantics, pragmatics, and interpretation?

– What is distinctive about MBL’s approaches to political mobilization, activism, and organization?


The volume’s editors are Michael Cholbi, Brandon Hogan, Alex Madva, and Benjamin Yost. We currently have commitments from philosophers including Myisha Cherry, Tommy Curry, Mark Lance, Colleen Murphy, Olufemi Taiwo, and Vanessa Wills.


Abstracts should be no more than 750 words in length and should indicate perspicuously the scope, methodology, and primary conclusions of the research. Abstracts should be submitted by July 1.


Please submit two versions of the abstract, one anonymized (and with “anonymous” in the filename), and one with author information. Email submissions to byost1 [at] providence.edu.

Against Capital Punishment – contract signed

I’m really happy to report that my book, Against Capital Punishment, is under contract with Oxford University Press. It should be out late 2018.

Super short description:

Against Capital Punishment offers a comprehensive, innovative proceduralist argument against the death penalty. Worries about procedural injustice have recently taken center stage in the abolitionist movement, and are frequently invoked in Supreme Court cases, newspaper editorials, opinion pieces, and philosophy and law review articles. Philosophers and legal theorists are attracted to procedural abolitionism because it sidesteps the controversial question of whether murderers morally deserve death. Following in this path, my contention is not that the act of execution is immoral; in fact, I grant the appropriateness of execution for some first-degree murderers. Rather, I argue that, due to the possibility of irrevocable mistakes, the death penalty cannot be administered in a morally permissible fashion.

Real life leveling down

It is fairly obvious that a punishment is unjust if it falls more heavily on one racial group than another. It is less clear what ought to be done in such situations. Many philosophers advocate for “leveling down,” i.e., imposing lesser penalties on the marginalized group for a given crime (especially in capital contexts) to level things out. But some argue that this response is unmotivated, and that “leveling up” is an equally legitimate strategy. I always thought this debate was more or less academic, but a judge recently overruled a jury, sentencing a white man to death just so that he could not be accused of sentencing only black men to death.

Read more here

“Kant’s Theory of Motivation,” forthcoming!

“Kant’s Theory of Motivation: A Hybrid Approach” is forthcoming in Review of Metaphysics.

To vindicate morality against skeptical doubts, Kant must show how that thought ‘I ought to act morally’ can move one to act morally. ‘Affectivist’ interpretations of Kant hold that agents are moved to act by feelings, while ‘intellectualists’ appeal to cognition alone. To overcome the significant objections besetting each view, I develop a hybrid theory of motivation. My central claim is that Kant is a special kind of motivational internalist: agents, he believes, are moved to act by a feeling of intellectual pleasure that originates in acts of free choice. This account improves the prospects of Kant’s justification of morality.

Capitalism vs. capital punishment

Arkansas is attempting to carry out seven executions this month, a pace that has no precedent in the post-Gregg era. That would be noteworthy enough, but the McKesson Corporation, 5th on the list of Fortune 500 companies, has convinced a judge to issue a restraining order barring the state from using the drugs it procured from McKesson in those executions. This effectively puts the death penalty on hiatus in Arkansas, because its drugs are expiring this month — hence the hurried pace — and because the vecuronium bromide it bought from McKesson is an essential part of Arkansas’ execution cocktail. McKesson explicitly asserts that Arkansas bought the drugs under false pretenses, and that it tried to buy them back. Arkansas refused. McKesson argued for the restraining order on the basis of concerns for its reputation and its fiscal well-being.

via the NYT

Racism in wrongful murder convictions

A new report by the National Registry of Exonerations confirms that wrongful conviction rates are higher for blacks than whites. 40 percent of those convicted of murder, but 50 percent of those wrongfully convicted are black. More tellingly, while only 15 percent of murders committed by blacks target whites, 31 percent of the wrongful convictions of blacks were for murders of whites. In addition, wrongfully convicted blacks spend an average of three more years in prison than wrongfully convicted whites.

via the NYT


Dylann Roof sentenced to death

Not a huge surprise. I suspect that Roof will join the pantheon of murderers (along with Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, etc.) who are trotted out in a particular kind of argument favoring the retention of the death penalty. According to this argument, we should retain execution as a tool for punishing the very worst of the worst, who Matthew Kramer calls “defilingly evil offenders.” Advocates of this view can remain quite skeptical about the imposition of capital punishment in the vast majority of cases. They can also insist that it is permissible to execute defilingly evil offenders only when there is overwhelming evidence of their guilt. As such, this vindication of capital punishment poses a strong challenge to the abolitionist. A challenge that I eagerly take up in my book 🙂

Update: it’s already happening.

The death penalty is not nearing its end, redux

The NYT has another editorial on the collapse of the death penalty. Although the editors note that California, Oklahoma, and Nebraska voted to retain the death penalty, they contend that the overall trend is “toward growing discomfort with state-sanctioned killing.” This is true to a certain extent, insofar as a majority of American disapprove of the punishment. However, as is the case in presidential elections (and just as lamentably), majorities do not decide much of anything. Since capital punishment is quite popular in the few jurisdictions in which it is practiced, abolition will be a nationwide phenomenon only when SCOTUS says so. And since Breyer is the only justice to call the constitutionality of execution into question, that day is likely a long way off.

The death penalty is not yet nearing its end

Back in the more optimistic days of October, likely anticipating a new Hillary Clinton appointed Supreme Court justice, the New York Times opined that the death penalty is nearing its end.

This isn’t our first abolitionist rodeo, and we had reason to be skeptical of the Times’ claims. The subsequent electoral catastrophe blew most conventional wisdom out of the water, the death penalty ballot initiatives being no exception. (Trump’s Supreme Court pick will likely defend the constitutionality of capital punishment. But this actually ranks fairly low on my worries regarding his selection.)

Nebraskans voted to override the legislative repeal — which survived the Governor’s veto! — of capital punishment. Californians rejected abolition by 54%. Oklahomans affirmed that the death penalty does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. (For more, see John Blume’s post here.)

But while retentionists went three for three, support for the death penalty continues to decline, as I noted in my previous post, and the number of executions continue to drop. 2016 is likely a detour on the abolitionist path. I wish I could be so sanguine about our democracy more generally.