My paying job has kept me too busy to blog much, but I’ve been thinking about a particular application of something Fernando Tesón wrote on Tuesday about how to distinguish between moral posturing and genuine moral principles:
We propose The Display Test: a position is genuinely moral when the speaker can accept, without embarrassment, its bad consequences. For example, I am prepared to publicly accept, without embarrassment, that criminal defendants should have a number of rights, even if someone shows me that implementing those rights increases crime. If the speaker cannot concede without embarrassment the bad consequences of her proposal, then she is perpetrating discourse failure.
This made me thing of something that bothers me about the case of Richard Paey, who was sentenced to 25-years in prison for improper use of medically necessary painkillers.
First, consider this statement in another context by Virginia prosecutor Tom McKenna:
…we do have important cases to try, like the murder sentencing I finished today, an emotionally exhausting ordeal of shepherding the victim’s family through the process of seeing punishment meted out (42 years for 1st degree murder).
Now here’s a quote from a Reason article about Paey’s long sentence:
“It’s unfortunate that anyone has to go to prison, but he’s got no one to blame but Richard Paey,” Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis told the St. Petersburg Times. “All we wanted to do was get him help.”
Locking a man in a cage for many years is a terrible thing. That he’s a criminal who has done something terrible doesn’t change the terrible nature of his punishment. It just means his punishment is justified. He deserves terrible treatment for what he’s done.
Tom McKenna knows this and acts on it as a moral principle. He rightly takes pride in putting a murderer in a cage for a very long time.
Halkitis, on the other hand, is trying to dodge responsibility for the consequences of his actions. He doesn’t take pride in Paey’s sentence. He doesn’t believe Paey received justice. He isn’t standing on a moral principle. He’s just posturing.