The diverse frailties of humankind

Via Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice, an excerpt from Woodson v. North Carolina (1976):

A third constitutional shortcoming of the North Carolina statute is its failure to allow the particularized consideration of relevant aspects of the character and record of each convicted defendant before the imposition upon him of a sentence of death. In Furman, members of the Court acknowledged what cannot fairly be denied — that death is a punishment different from all other sanctions in kind, rather than degree.  A process that accords no significance to relevant facets of the character and record of the individual offender or the circumstances of the particular offense excludes from consideration in fixing the ultimate punishment of death the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind. It treats all persons convicted of a designated offense not as uniquely individual human beings, but as members of a faceless, undifferentiated mass to be subjected to the blind infliction of the penalty of death.

Also from Poetic Justice, a quote from the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo:

I was much troubled in spirit, in my first years upon the bench, to find how trackless was the ocean on which I had embarked. I sought for certainty. I was oppressed and disheartened when I found that the quest for it was futile. I was trying to reach land, the solid land of fixed and settled rules, the paradise of a justice that would declare itself by tokens plainer and more commanding than its pale and glimmering reflections in my own vacillating mind and conscience.”

Money, and the violence of lost context

It is in the very nature of a question like “What do I owe my parents?” that there is not and can never be a final, numerically answer. It is a question that we re-visit and re-negotiate every minute we are with them; obligation and love form an endless Möbius strip, through which our complex interdependence on each other makes the idea of paying off that debt – and of thereby severing the relationship – a sort of bitter joke. Precisely because it is a non-monetary “debt,” its function is to be an unpayable and unbreakable bond, one whose dividends never end and one that could and will never default.

By contrast, Graeber argues that purely monetary debts – such as the $14k I owe in student debts to a variety of banks – legitimize violence and exploitation precisely because they take an otherwise irreducibly complex human relation and reductively simplify it into a number. When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality. If my relationship to my parents was a financial one, then I could pay it off and be done with them (or they could forgive the debt and be done with me). Or (and here is where it gets interesting), they could present me with a bill, demand that I pay it, and throw me in jail if I failed to do so.

This is just a thought experiment, of course, but the point of it is to bring out and make explicit that contrast. While the perversity of paying off your debts to your parents hardly needs comment – or of them garnishing your wages to pay for the hospital costs of birthing you – it is just as unspeakably normal for our debts to banks to seem, always and forever, the first thing we need to honor and respect. Graeber argues that this contrast, and our failure to register it as such, demonstrate the conceptual constriction of possibility that has come to be built into the moral landscape of our present: it is because a quantifiable debt could be paid off, with numerical precision, that it can therefore be seen as an imperative to do so, and becomes a moral failing when it is not. More than that, it becomes not only a moral failing that is enforceable and punishable, but a moral reasoning which makes the violence of that constraint your own fault, your own choice: no one forced me to take on student debt, goes the reasoning; it was my own choice. And so, the violence of debt collection is just chickens coming to roost.

Let us, then, look with new eyes at the fact that when a dictator takes out a loan from a Western bank – pledging as his surety the future revenues produced by the people who he uses men with guns to rule — we can be utterly sure that long after he is dead and gone, that debt will live on. Banks will not only claim the right to be paid back, but the moral force of the world’s political and ruling classes will assent to the proposition that children unborn when their nation went into debt will somehow still be on hold as the debt’s guarantors. This will appear normal. This will not seem a monstrous perversity.

from Aaron Bady’s review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 500 Years