Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Influence of Philosophers

Bernard Chazelle, from the same post linked to below, makes note of the relative influence of philosophers on society.
...I like Rawls, too. The man was a giant of 20th c political philosophy, but his impact in the real world has been negligible. Even in the judicial realm, the guy who wrote the book on Justice has had virtually no influence on American jurisprudence. (Does this contradict my previous paragraph? No.) But it didn't need to be so. Rawls was more interested in solving puzzles against Nozick than to be influential in the world at large. That's a pity but that was his choice. On the other hand, Foucault (a deeply original thinker, despite the caricature and some of the idiotic pronouncements he made about Iran) can be credited as much as anyone for the end of capital punishment in France. Not bad for a philosopher who died of AIDS when he was only 57. In this country, if the death penalty is ever abolished, the credit will go to Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun.
This is an endlessly interesting question... for philosophers, at least (to the extent that remains so, the answer may be implicit in the question). Rawls defined Anglo-American political philosophy from 1971 on (the year of publication of A Theory of Justice) - everything was a defense of or critical response to Rawls. The discussion with Nozick (particularly the libertarian work of Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia) was but one piece of the broader evolving framework of political philosophy. Communitarianism as a political philosophy and ethics, for example, largely arose as a critical response to Rawls.

It's true that it's difficult to gauge the influence of Rawls in the larger society, but I don't think this influence can be discounted so easily. I've seen Rawlsian arguments appear in the statements of political figures in the US. I've talked with people at the World Bank who learned from Rawls and had integrated some ideas into their work. I've talked with lawyers who have an easy facility with Rawlsian thought. And I've seen Rawlsian ideas worm their way through public policy discussions.

These are all elites in American society, however. Rawls does not appear to have much purchase at all in the broader society, nor among political activists. Most of my grad students have never heard of Rawls before my class where I teach him.

Part of the issue here is that the US is not France. Integral to French culture is its intellectual life. Even if one hasn't actually read Foucault, one knows his name as a giant of French intellectual life. This is obviously also the case with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but even with those with whom many philosophers in the US are not familiar (e.g., Michel Serres, Alain Finkielkraut, and philosophers of lesser fame).

US culture is famous for its anti-intellectual streak. This streak maintains that there is the world of ideas and there is "reality." It suspects that too much delving into ideas merely takes one away from reality. "Reality" is thereby often divested of interesting ideas and new frameworks of thought. Or, rather, certain fields that more directly yield a "product" gain pride of place and influence in American intellectual life. Economics, for example, has its philosophical depths but also provides tools for generating tangible income.

Political philosophical ideas have huge influence over the long term. Democracy as a reflective form of political organization was an ancient Greek invention. Our basic ideas of rights were received from the Enlightenment. Maybe it's best that political philosophers content themselves with the long view.

But, honestly, I think this means ceding intellectual territory and practical influence that political philosophy does not need to cede. Rather, it needs to reinvent itself, or parts of itself. On this point, I'd have to agree with Peter Levine (writing in a somewhat different context):

...It's not enough to know whether a given program causes a particular outcome (such as higher incomes, or more civic duty). We must also decide whether those outcomes are good, whether they are distributed fairly, whether any harms to others are worthwhile, and what means for deriving these consequences are acceptable. Further, it's not enough to understand how to run or structure a good program. We must also decide what forms of governance or administration are ethical. (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but that was not an adequate defense of fascism). Finally, it's not enough to know that a given argument or "message" would produce political support for a program. We must also decide which forms of argument are ethically acceptable.

Thus it's a shame that philosophers tend to cede the "middleground" to social scientists, administrators, and tacticians. As a result, no one raises the serious, complex moral issues that arise when one thinks about political tactics, the design of programs, and their administration. This is not only bad for policy and public discourse; it is also bad for philosophy. Theories are impoverished when they miss the middleground...

Some areas of philosophy have developed a middleground and thereby not only served public purposes but also enriched the discipline. Medical ethics is the best example. It's no longer restricted to matters of individual ethics (e.g., should a physician conduct an abortion?) or matters of basic structure (e.g., is there a right to life?), but also to matters of administration, politics, and program design. Medical ethicists work in hospitals, advise commissions, and review policies... I would generalize and say that across the whole range of policy and social questions, it is worth asking moral questions not only about basic rights and individual behavior, but also about institutional arrangements and political tactics.

1 comment:

dudleysharp said...

Dead Man Walking and Sr. Prejean's Death Penalty Disinformation
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

I. Dead Family Walking: The Bourque Family Story of Dead Man Walking , by D. D. deVinci, Goldlamp Publishing, 2006

" . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category."

"Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean."

The book alleges whole cloth fabrications by Sister Prejean within her book "Dead Man Walking".

"On November 5, 1977, the Bourque's teenage daughter, Loretta, was found murdered in a trash pile near the city of New Iberia, Louisiana lying side by side near her boyfriend–with three well-placed bullet holes behind each head. "


contact T.J. Edler, 337-967-0840, infogoldlamp(at)

II. The Victims of Dead Man Walking
by Michael L. Varnado, Daniel P. Smith

comment -- A very different story than that written by Sister Helen Prejean. Detective Varnado was the investigating officer in the murder of Faith Hathaway. 2003

III. Death Of Truth: Sister Prejean's new book Death Of Innocents

For some years, there has existed a consistent pattern, from death penalty opponents, to declare certain death row inmates to be actually innocent. Those claims have, consistently, been 70-83% in error. ("ALL INNOCENCE ISSUES -- THE DEATH PENALTY")

Keep that in mind with "Death of Innocents".

Readers should be very careful, as they have no way of knowing if any of the fact issues in either of the two cases, as presented by Sister Prejean, are true. Readers would have to conduct their own thorough, independent examination to make that determination. You can start here.

Four articles


quote: "The DNA report commissioned by O'Dell and his lawyers actually corroborates O'Dell's guilt. There is a three-probe DNA match indicating that the bloodstains on O'Dell's clothing is indeed consistent with the victim Helen Schartner's DNA as well as her blood type and enzyme factors." "There is certainly no truth to O'Dell's accusation that evidence was suppressed or witnesses intimidated by the prosecution."

(b) "Sabine district attorney disputes author's claims in book"

quote: "I don't know whether she is deliberately trying to mislead the public or if she's being mislead by others. But she's wrong,"
District Atty. Burkett, dburkett(AT)

(c) Book Review: "Sister Prejean's Lack of Credibility: Review of "The Death of Innocents", by Thomas M. McKenna (New Oxford Review, 12/05).

"The book is moreover riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations."

"Williams had confessed to repeatedly stabbing his victim, Sonya Knippers."

"This DNA test was performed by an independent lab in Dallas, which concluded that there was a one in nearly four billion chance that the blood could have been someone's other than Williams's."

" . . . despite repeated claims that (Prejean) cares about crime victims, implies that the victim's husband was a more likely suspect but was overlooked because the authorities wanted to convict a black man."

" . . . a Federal District Court . . . stated that 'the evidence against Williams was overwhelming.' " "The same court also did "not find any evidence of racial bias specific to this case."

"(Prejean's) broad brush strokes paint individual jurors, prosecutors, and judges with the term "racist" with no facts, no evidence, and, in most cases, without so much as having spoken with the people she accuses."

"Sr. Prejean also claims that Dobie Williams was mentally retarded. But the same federal judge who thought he deserved a new sentencing hearing also upheld the finding of the state Sanity Commission report on Williams, which concluded that he had a "low-average I.Q.," and did not suffer from schizophrenia or other major affective disorders. Indeed, Williams's own expert at trial concluded that Williams's intelligence fell within the "normal" range. Prejean mentions none of these facts."

"In addition to lying to the police about how he came to have blood on his clothes, the best evidence of O'Dell's guilt was that Schartner's (the rape/murder vicitim's) blood was on his jacket. Testing showed that only three of every thousand people share the same blood characteristics as Schartner. Also, a cellmate of O'Dell's testified that O'Dell told him he killed Schartner because she would not have sex with him."

"After the trial, LifeCodes, a DNA lab that O'Dell himself praised as having "an impeccable reputation," tested the blood on O'Dell's jacket -- and found that it was a genetic match to Schartner. When the results were not to his liking, O'Dell, and of course Sr. Prejean, attacked the reliability of the lab O'Dell had earlier praised. Again, as with Williams's conviction, the federal court reviewing the case characterized the evidence against O'Dell as 'vast' and
'overwhelming.' "

Sr. Prejean again sees nefarious forces at work. Not racism this time, for O'Dell was white. Rather, she charges that the prosecutors were motivated to convict by desire for advancement and judgeships. Yet she never contacted the prosecutors to interview them or anyone who might substantiate such a charge.

"(Prejean) omits the most damning portion of (O'Dell's criminal) record: an abduction charge in Florida where O'Dell struck the victim on the head with a gun and told her that he was going to rape her. This very similar crime helped the jury conclude that O'Dell would be a future threat to society. It supports the other evidence of his guilt and thus undermines Prejean's claim of innocence."

"There is thus a moral equivalence for Prejean between the family of an innocent victim and the newfound girlfriend of a convicted rapist and murderer."

"This curious definition of "the victims" suggests that her concern for "victims" seems to be more window-dressing for her cause than true concern."

(d) Hardly The Death Of Innocents: Sister Prejean tells it like it wasn't -- Joseph O'Dell
by Anonymous, at author's request

In lionizing convicted murderer Joseph O'Dell as being an innocent man railroaded to his 1997 execution by Virginia prosecutors, Sister Helen Prejean presents a skewed summary of the case to bolster her anti-death penalty agenda. While she is a gifted speaker, she is out of her element when it comes to "telling it as it was" in these cases.

Prejean got to walk with O'Dell into the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center on July 22, 1997. However, she wasn't in Virginia Beach some 12 years earlier when he committed the crime for which he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. That is where the real demon was evident, not the sweet talking condemned con-man that she met behind bars. O'Dell was, in the words of then Virginia Beach Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Albert Alberi (case prosecutor), one of the most savage, dangerous criminals he had encountered in a two decade career.

Indeed,O'Dell had spent most of his adult life incarcerated for various crimes since the age of 13 in the mid-1950's. At the time of the Schartner murder in Virginia, O'Dell had been recently paroled from Florida where he had been serving a 99 year sentence for a 1976 Jacksonville abduction that almost ended in a murder of the female victim (had not police arrived) in the back of his car.

The circumstances of that crime were almost identical to those surrounding Schartner's murder. The victim of the Florida case even showed up in Virginia to testify at the trial. Scarcely a mention of this case is made in the Prejean book.

Briefly, let me outline some of the facts about the case: Victim Helen Schartner's blood was found on the passenger seat of Joseph O'Dell's vehicle. Tire tracks matching those on O'Dell's vehicle were found at the scene where Miss Schartner's body was found. The tire tread design on O'Dell's vehicle wheels were so unique, an expert in tire design couldn't match them in a manual of thousands of other tire treads. The seminal fluids found on the victim's body matched those of Mr. O'Dell and pubic hairs of the victim were found on the floor of his car.

The claims that O'Dell was "denied" his opportunity to present new DNA evidence on appeals were frivolous. In fact, he had every opportunity to come forward with this evidence, but his lawyers refused to reveal to the court the full findings of the tests which they had arranged to be done on a shirt with blood stains, which O'Dell's counsel claimed might show did not have the blood marks from the defendant or the victim.

Manipulative defense lawyer tactics were overlooked by Prejean in her narrative. O'Dell was far from a victim of poor counsel. As matter of fact, the city of Virginia Beach and state government gave O'Dell an estimated $100,000 for his defense team at trial. This unprecedented amount nearly bankrupted the entire indigent defense fund for the state. He had great lawyers, expert forensic investigators and every point at the trial was contested two to five times.

There was no "rush to justice" in this case.

O'Dell's alibi for the night of Schartner's murder was that he had gotten thrown out of the bar where he encountered Schartner following a brawl. However, none of the several dozen individuals supported his contention - there weren't any fights that night. Rather, several saw Miss Schartner getting into O'Dell's car on what would be her last ride.

But Prejean would want us to believe the claims of felon Joseph O'Dell.He had three trips to the United States Supreme Court and the "procedural error" which Prejean claims ultimately doomed him was the result of simple ignorance of basic appeals rules by his lawyers.

Nothing in the record ever suggested that Joseph O'Dell, two time killer and rapist, was anything but guilty of the murder of Helen Schartner.

Justice was properly served.

IV. Sister Helen Prejean on the death penalty

"It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) - the Mosaic Law prescribed death - should be read in its proper context. This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment .” Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking.

The sister’s analysis is consistent with much theological scholarship. Also, much scholarship questions the authenticity of John 8:7.

From here, the sister states that “ . . . more and more I find myself steering away from such futile discussions (of Biblical text). Instead, I try to articulate what I personally believe . . . ” The sister has never shied away from any argument, futile or otherwise, which opposed the death penalty. She has abandoned biblical text for only one reason: the text conflicts with her personal beliefs.

Sister Prejean rightly cautions: "Many people sift through the Scriptures and select truth according to their own templates." (Progressive, 1/96). Sadly, Sister Prejean appears to do much worse. The sister now uses that very same biblical text “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone” as proof of Jesus’ “unequivocal” rejection of capital punishment as “revenge and unholy retribution”! (see Sister Prejean’s 12/12/96 fundraising letter on behalf of the Saga Of Shame book project for Quixote Center/Equal Justice USA)

V. Redemption and the death penalty

The movie Dead Man Walking reveals a perfect example of how just punishment and redemption can work together. Had rapist/murderer Matthew Poncelet not been properly sentenced to death by the civil authority, he would not have met Sister Prejean, he would not have received spiritual instruction, he would not have taken responsibility for his crimes and he would not have reconciled with God. Had Poncelet never been caught or had he only been given a prison sentence, his character makes it VERY clear that those elements would not have come together. Indeed, for the entire film and up until those last moments, prior to his execution, Poncelet was not truthful with Sister Prejean. His lying and manipulative nature was fully exposed at that crucial time. It was not at all surprising, then, that it was just prior to his execution that all of the spiritual elements may have come together for his salvation. It was now, or never. Truly, just as St. Aquinas stated, it was Poncelet's pending execution which may have led to his repentance. For Christians, the most crucial concerns of Dead Man Walking must be and are redemption and eternal salvation. And, for that reason, it may well be, for Christians, the most important pro-death penalty movie ever made.

A real life example of this may be the case of Dennis Gentry, executed April 16, 1997, for the premeditated murder of his friend Jimmy Don Ham. During his final statement, Gentry said, "I’d like to thank the Lord for the past 14 years (on death row) to grow as a man and mature enough to accept what’s happening here tonight. To my family, I’m happy. I’m going home to Jesus." As the lethal drugs began to flow, Gentry cried out, "Sweet Jesus, here I come. Take me home. I’m going that way to see the Lord." (Michael Gracyk, Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, 4/17/97). We cannot know if Gentry or the fictitious Poncelet or the two real murderers from the DMW book really did repent and receive salvation.

But, we do know that St. Aquinas advises us that murderers should not be given the benefit of the doubt. We should err on the side of caution and not give murderers the opportunity to harm again.

"The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers." St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.

VI. On God and the death penalty

It is not uncommon for persons of faith to create a god in their own image, to give to that god their values, instead of accepting those values which are inherent to the deity. For example, death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking) states, in reference to the death penalty, that "I couldn’t worship a god who is less compassionate than I am."(Progressive, 1/96). She has, thereby, established her standard of compassion as the basis for God’s being deserving of her devotion. If God’s level of compassion does not rise to the level of her own, God couldn’t receive her worship. Director Tim Robbins (Death Man Walking) follows that same path: "(I) don’t believe in that kind of (g)od (that would support capital punishment and, therefore, would be the kind of god who tortures people into their redemption)." ("Opposing The Death Penalty", AMERICA, 11/9/96, p 12). Robbins, hereby, establishes his standard for his God’s deserving of his belief. God’s standards do not seem to be relevant. His sophomoric comparison of capital punishment and torture is typical of the ignorance in this debate and such comments reflect no biblical relevancy. Perhaps they should review Matthew 5:17-22 and 15:1-9. Be cautious, for as the ancient rabbis warned, "Do not seek to be more righteous than your creator." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33)


Detective Varnado writes: "For those who believe in the teachings of Sister Helen Prejean as her journey continues in her effort to abolish the death penalty. 'For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And, no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 2 Corinthians 11:13 & 14' " -- From Detective Varnado's new book Soft Targets; A Women's Guide To Survival

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail sharpjfa(AT), 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-Span, Court TV, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

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