Disgrace and Debt

A quick follow-up to this past weekend’s ACLA conference. My seminar was on literature and law; it was interesting and useful indeed, despite being a bit to the side of what I usually do. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a copy of my paper (PDF); a more formal treatment is in the works.

The talk argues that while a legal framework in which ethical wrongs are treated as analogous to economic debts is probably inevitable, Coetzee’s novel shows how this economic treatment is inadequate as a basis of moral action. Specifically, the economic analogy enables—maybe even requires—bad readings of Disgrace, ones in which Lurie becomes the true victim insofar as he pays out of all proportion for his offense against Melanie. If we drop the debt model, we can also avoid this problem.

Joey Slaughter, one of the co-conveners of the seminar, objected that contemporary understandings of the law are not in fact based on such an economic model, which struck him as “premodern” (of the eye-for-an-eye type). I see the point, which is similar to Foucault’s analysis in Discipline and Punish; we no longer think that the task of punishment is to provide a compensatory enjoyment for the victim, whether the victim in question is understood to be the directly harmed individual or the state/corporate body as a whole. All true, and I may have drifted perilously close to suggesting something along those lines. But my point had less to do with victims or with punishment as payment than it did with an “account balance” of sorts for the perpetrator. The idea—which I was suggesting underlies the principle of proportionality in sentencing and that Coetzee rejects as an adequate account of morality (but not necessarily of law)—is that punishments should deprive the perpetrator of any surplus or advantage accumulated through his offense (plus an additional deterrent amount, though I didn’t raise that point in the talk for lack of time).

The easier version is when the offense is straightforwardly economic, though even then it’s not dead simple. If I steal $10 from you, I’ll need to repay that amount, plus a deterrent amount, plus whatever we collectively deem appropriate for the inherent damage caused by a violation of the law (related, for instance, to the fact that we all feel less secure once we’ve experienced the fact of theft). It’s harder—and this is one of the novel’s points—when the violation in question is non- or supra-economic (as with rape, exploitation, etc.). But in either case, the idea isn’t to repay the victim by allowing her to enjoy the perpetrator’s suffering (which plainly doesn’t work, as the novel demonstrates at length), it’s to deprive the perpetrator of his illegitimately accrued advantage. What the proper balance should be is a tricky question, but it’s also what the law must do. Ethics, on the other hand (and this is my reading of Coetzee), doesn’t let you off even after you’ve paid a compensatory amount; there is nothing you can do to fix or to balance your sins, and no amount of your suffering offsets them. If you’ve been wronged in turn, you don’t break even at some point, ethically speaking—you just go on being wrong. True, you’ve now been wronged, too, but that’s of a different order; there’s no universal ethical as opposed to legal account to settle.

Depressing stuff, perhaps, but then Coetzee isn’t the author for joy. More on this to come at some point.

[Update: See also this follow-up post and the series on baseline questions about Disgrace.]

2 thoughts on “Disgrace and Debt

  1. I’m not entirely sure that the “premodern” has been purged from our legal system; I think it lurks around the edges, particularly when it comes to victim involvement in trials — they get to give statements at sentencing, and sometimes they can actually influence the decisions of prosecutors on what sort of charges to pursue. If anything, there seems to be a movement to give victims more institutionalized roles within the court system. This can be kind of troubling, as calls on the part of victims and their families for “justice” in all but the rarest cases are really calls for conviction.

    Did you read the article in the New Yorker last week on that Russian trial of the Chechens (almost certainly falsely) accused of killing a journalist? It was pretty interesting along those lines; among other things, in Russian courts the victim’s side is actually a third actor in the trial, along with prosecutors and defense.

    On the larger-than-institutions issues of justice … my undergraduate advisor, who specialized in medieval justice, had a theory that the overaching purpose of any legal system was to somehow, in the context of whatever people tend to value or believe, emotionally satisfy everybody involved, especially the wronged parties and their families, so as to prevent or minimize cycles of violence. It seems touchy-feely, but it seems to me the only way that you can say that 21st-century evidence-based adverserial trials, medieval trials run by the church in which people had to carry hot metal ingots for perscribed lengths, and early Germanic assemblies where wronged families were paid certain amounts based on the status differentials betwee the victim and perpetrators, all fall into the same category of thing.

    By the way, I love the autogenerated “Is It Really Prostitution If There’s No Sex?” link on this post, which seems strangely appropriate for reasons I can’t describe.

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