Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in Punishment and The Panopticon

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This chapter explores how philosophy assesses and conflicts with conceptions of truth in disciplines relating to crime and punishment. Postmodernist thought, specifically critical philosophy, conflicts with criminology by critiquing its methodology and conception of truth. Postmodernism also takes a critical approach towards utilitarianism, as seen through its views on the Panopticon prison scheme, thus creating a disciplinary divide with economics.

Criminology and Critical Philosophy on Punishment[edit | edit source]

Criminology applies the scientific method to explain “interactions of processes in law-making, lawbreaking, and the reactions of society to these processes”.[1][2] It takes a positivist approach to knowledge when analysing issues of crime and punishment. There is, however, some dissonance within criminology, as its early development by sociologists means it is greatly influenced by sociological thought.[2] While criminologists commit to the use of the scientific method and believe there is consensus on epistemology, views of truth in the discipline have historical associations to sociological writings and methodology.[2]

Major criticism has been fielded against criminology’s approach to punishment by critical philosophers.[3] In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault takes a constructivist approach to criminal law and justice. He argues that criminology is not grounded in scientific truths but is a result of social forces.[4] He illustrates this by underlining how law's incorporation of criminal psychiatry in the nineteenth century was informed by a shift in focus from ‘crime to criminal’, and new rationality about how crime may be inherent.[4] Such rationality demanded unique forms of scientific knowledge to justify the characterisation of criminals,[4] and led to truth formation in the subject. This truism about ‘individual offenders’ still informs criminology today.[5]

Foucault instead supported the analysis of power dynamics behind institutional conceptions of truth.[3] Discipline and Punish thus provided an analysis of the rationale behind methods of ‘discipline’.[6] One critique was of the underlying assumption of homo criminalis, or criminal-man.[6] Prisoners, who would otherwise be considered rational actors (homo economicus) in social sciences such as economics, are assumed in criminology to be homo criminalis - someone who is to be treated scientifically and distinct from non-offenders.[6] Foucault suggests this assumption stems from historical methods of information gathering by prisons in the nineteenth century to theorise reasons for offences.[3] As such, criminology and one of its key assumptions was informed by available academic resources and historical findings,[3] rather than a universal or positivist truth.

Whilst criminologists have adopted ideas about truth from critical philosophy, it has generally been limited to superficial changes to existing academic concepts and structures.[3] Habits of sociological thinking have made it difficult for criminologists to fully appreciate and reflect on Foucault’s criticisms, and the pursuit for ideas with fixed meanings[3] has given rise to positivist criticism of Foucault’s work as ‘lacking in rigour and being too ambiguous’,[3] largely due to his intentional use of constructivist ideas.

Economics versus Postmodern Philosophy on The Panopticon[edit | edit source]

Due to its position as a discipline where qualities of epistemological methods are discussed, philosophy lacks a unifying theory of truth; though individual philosophical theories do maintain distinct conceptions of truth. Schools of philosophy hold central dogmas which form the foundation for their ideas. Utilitarianism as such holds its central dogma - that the most moral action is one that maximises utility - as an absolute truth.[7]

Much like utilitarianism, a base assumption of absolutes is required when assessing positive classical economics. Frank H. Knight's 1940 publication, "What is Truth" in Economics?, categorises knowledge in economics as that of human tendencies, rather than that which can be understood through direct observation and "tests".[8] Knight reflects the view of classical economists as he maintains the assumptions of people as rational actors, or those who will always act in order to maximise their own happiness with all available information, and that there exists an "ideal" apportionment of resources in any given circumstance.

Visualisation of Bentham's prison design.

This attempted "ideal" allocation is illustrated in Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. Originally, the Panopticon is an architectural plan for a prison: a circular building positioning the inmates’ cells around a central surveillance tower. Inmates do not know when they are being surveilled, so therefore must act as if under observation at all times.[9] The Panopticon can be seen as a real-world application of Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy, where he defines utility as the property of producing “benefit”, or preventing “pain… or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered”.[10] In the relevant economic context, Bentham posited that utility was defined as a "rational management that ‘lightens’ public expenditure".[11]

In order to understand the Panopticon as a utilitarian prison scheme, it is important to view it from the lens of growing dissatisfaction with the prevalence of capital punishment under the criminal justice system of Bentham’s time.[12] Bentham viewed his system as an improvement over the former in all aspects, stating that his simple architectural idea improved morals, health, industry and the economy.[13]

Bentham proposed a two-tiered system of efficient management fuelled by monopolistic competition. The construction of the Panopticon would be the product of entrepreneurial contractors jockeying for the building contract, required to offer reasonable terms of construction, so as to remain competitive in the market. Similarly, market forces of supply and demand allowed for a more efficient implementation of discipline in that "...[the] punishment [of the convict], preventing his carrying the work to another market, subjects him to a monopoly; which the much of as he can (Bentham 1838)".[11]

Despite a system poised for efficiency, numerous criticisms have been levied against the Panopticon. Most famously, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault uses the Panopticon as a metaphor to critique discipline under the modern state system.[13] Although not a direct critique of Bentham’s prison design, the metaphor's influence led to widespread criticism of the concept,[14] which developed a general misunderstanding of the Panopticon and Bentham's work as a whole. Primarily, the Panopticon has existed in modern consciousness solely in terms of Foucault’s description of panopticism as a form of power based on omnipresent surveillance.[15] Due to Foucault's projection of governmental systems on the Panopticon, Bentham’s ideas have increasingly been perceived as authoritarian and pro-punishment. This interpretation conflicts with Bentham’s views in actuality: utilitarianism’s aim to maximise happiness suggests he viewed punishment as immoral except when preventing further unhappiness.[15]

This misunderstanding hinges on conflicting attitudes to truth in morality and societal benefit. As mentioned, Bentham holds as an absolute truth that the most moral action is that which maximises happiness and minimises unhappiness, supporting his Panopticon through its economic benefit, efficiency and internalisation of discipline.[15] Oppositely, the conception of truth by many postmodernist philosophers, including Foucault, is relativist and constructivist. Foucault posits that truth is socially constructed, specifically by power dynamics.[16] By extension, according to social constructivism an action's moral worth is not set - it is dependent on the society in which it is contextualised.[17] This difference in conceptions of truth means the morality of the Panopticon is debatable: utilitarians like Bentham see the plan as entirely morally justifiable, but later postmodern thinkers like Foucault question this idea.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Kobetz, Richard W. (1978). Criminal Justice Education Directory, 1978-80. Gaithersburg, Md: International Association of Chiefs of Police. pp. 1. 
  2. a b c Conrad, John P.; Myren, Richard A. (1979). Two Views of Criminology and Criminal Justice: Definitions, Trends and the Future. Chicago, Il.: Joint Commission on Criminology and Criminal Justice Education and Standards. pp. 7-23. 
  3. a b c d e f g O’Malley, Pat; Valverde, Mariana (2014). Dubber, Markus. ed. "Foucault, Criminal Law, and the Governmentalization of the State". Foundational Texts in Modern Criminal Law (Oxford): 317–334. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199673612.003.0017. 
  4. a b c Gutting, Gary; Oksala, Johanna (2019). "Michel Foucault". Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 
  5. Agozino, Biko (2000). "Theorizing Otherness, the War on Drugs and Incarceration:" (in en). Theoretical Criminology 4 (3): p.359-376. doi:10.1177/1362480600004003006. 
  6. a b c Foucault, Michel (1977) (in english). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1st American ed.). New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-49942-5. 
  7. Talbot, Marianne (2014). "Utilitarianism – the Final Word on Morality?". 
  8. Knight, Frank H. (1940). ""What is Truth" in Economics?". Journal of Political Economy 48 (1): 1–32. ISSN 0022-3808. 
  9. The Bentham Project. "The Panopticon". 
  10. Bentham, Jeremy, 1748-1832. (2007). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation (Dover ed ed.). Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-45452-5. OCLC 78892876. 
  11. a b Guidi, Marco EL (2004-09-01). "‘My Own Utopia’. The economics of Bentham's Panopticon". The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 11 (3): 405–431. doi:10.1080/0967256042000246485. ISSN 0967-2567. 
  12. National Justice Museum. "What was the ‘Bloody Code’?". 
  13. a b Schofield, Philip, 1958- (2009). Bentham : a guide for the perplexed. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-1-4411-0605-6. OCLC 676697592. 
  14. Brunon-Ernst, Anne (2012). Beyond Foucault : New Perspectives on Bentham's Panopticon. Farnham: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-9489-2. OCLC 773565449. 
  15. a b c Galič, Maša; Timan, Tjerk; Koops, Bert-Jaap (2017-03-01). "Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation" (in en). Philosophy & Technology 30 (1): 9–37. doi:10.1007/s13347-016-0219-1. ISSN 2210-5441. 
  16. Anttonen S. (2000). The trouble of social constructivism. British Education Index. Retrieved 7 December 2020.
  17. Jackson, Paul D. (2010). Web 2.0 knowledge technologies and the enterprise : smarter, lighter and cheaper. Oxford: Chandos. ISBN 978-1-84334-538-1. OCLC 467771634.