Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Books in Review

Joseph Amato's Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering has been a frustrating book to read.

It was frustrating primarily because I was desperately interested in an excellent treatment of his thesis: that the modern conception of and pursuit of justice is impoverished by its dependence on an inadequate understanding of the relationship between suffering and justice. Amato's treatment certainly raised issues, but without the sort of care and discretion that one must adopt when preparing to slaughter sacred cows.

Amato rightly (I believe) diagnoses certain problems with socio-political discourse in the US. The public discussion of justice, where it occurs, has become "a game of pick your victim," as Eugene Weber says in the intro to the book. Injustice and suffering--whether historical or actual, present or potential, rightly or wrongly perceived--are understood to create a debt which the public must honor. Indeed, virtually any kind of suffering is at least potentially the business of the state, whether as arbiter of competing claims to remediation (as in tort law), the administrator of whatever recompense is owed (as in welfare or medicaid), or the party ultimately responsible for inflicting suffering (as in our history of racial injustice).

Amato traces, with varying precision and insight, the historical development of this way of approaching the relationship between suffering and justice. At times, the story he is trying to tell gets lost in the details, but his point is primarily genealogical. It is not "natural" or inevitable to respond to reports of suffering the way we tend to do in the US today. We are the heirs of a philosophical sea-change that began, really, with Bacon, but since Amato is not particularly interested in medicine, he names other Enlightenment figures as the primary actors. Bentham is the obvious front-man: his articulation of utilitarian rationalism changed the way even non-utilitarians approach discussions of justice and suffering.

Unfortunately, when Amato moves from the historical to the contemporary, his argumentation fails. Or, rather, he fails to draw on the data in a way that would convince any that don't already agree with him. He relies on generalities and broadsides, abandoning his earlier practice of relying on texts.

(Reading society, as he purports to do in his final chapters, is both easier and more difficult than reading texts. One has fewer restraints on the interpretations one may advance; on the other hand, one's opponents are similarly unconstrained.)

Yet the questions he raises, particularly in chapter 8, are spot on. The relationship between suffering and recompense, dessert and justice, remuneration and retribution, is one that begs to be investigated. Public policy tends to act on too hazy an understanding of how suffering and justice are related generally and in a particular policy or law. How, for example, is Affirmative Action related to Jim Crow or slavery? More generally, what is the relationship between a people's historic suffering and an individual's demand for justice? What is justice, when the injustice has been so vast as to be irremediable and unforgivable?

These questions are urgent and immediate. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone given to rely on the modern understanding of suffering--that it gives me a claim to innocence, a moral vantage from which to demand something, a right to force others to attend to my perceived needs--is going to find Amato's book anything like persuasive.


Rachel said...

Fascinating evaluation, SCS. Perhaps we shall have to wait for YOU to articulate an excellent treatment of this thesis?

Sarah said...


Maybe for my sixth book. I've got my first five planned already.

Rachel said...

FIVE!?! I've only got my first three planned.

Rachel said...

Oops, four. I forgot that I came up with another one while driving across the continent last month.

Sarah said...

*snort* That's the first one I'm going to read. Make sure you put that somewhere in the preface: "I came up with this while driving across our fair continent. Somewhere in the state of Oklahoma, but they shouldn't take it personally."