Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Why Criminal Justice Reform?

Toward an Overlapping Consensus

Views about the criminal justice system are inevitably filtered through big-picture moral judgments about right and wrong, virtue and vice, punishment and forgiveness. As a result, discussions about criminal justice and prison policy often turn into moral and philosophical debates. These discussions tend to end in impasse, since it’s generally not that easy to convince someone else that all their basic views about human life are wrong (nor is it necessarily a good idea to try).

The good news is that discussions about criminal justice and prison policy don’t have to come to an impasse. In any human society — especially in a pluralistic democracy — people will always disagree about the bedrock moral, philosophical, and existential questions. In the United States, people also fervently disagree about the role of government, tax policy, the proper balance of federal vs. state power, the correct interpretation of the Constitution, etc., etc…. And of course, it’s important to keep discussing and debating all those big questions.

But in the meantime, we can find consensus about concrete policy reforms that make sense any way you look at them, whatever your moral, philosophical, or political perspective.

The philosopher John Rawls called this “overlapping consensus“: the idea that people of “divergent moral and religious conceptions of the good could (despite their diversity) converge on some common ground.” A similar idea is captured by Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein‘s concept of “incompletely theorized agreements“: “when people diverge on some (relatively) high-level proposition, they might be able to agree when they lower the level of abstraction” (p. 36).

From time to time on this blog, I will post links to writers who make the case for reform from their perspective, in the hopes of fostering an “overlapping consensus” that America’s criminal justice system needs reforming. Then, I’ll collect the links to these posts on this page so there’s a running archive.

Written by sara

February 19, 2010 at 9:59 am

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  1. [...] upbeat.  Sara Mayeaux suggests that there’s potential for Americans to come to an overwhelming consensus, and Pete Brook occasionally posts something this rad.   By and large there’s just not a [...]


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