Justice in the Risk Society: Challenging and Re-affirming Justice in Late Modernity


Barbara Hudson

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  • Part I: Challenging Liberal Justice

    Part II: Reaffirming Justice

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    In memory of my father, Frederick Groves Leigh, a good man who cared about justice


    This book has taken an inordinately long time to write, and I wish to thank Gillian Stern and her colleagues at Sage for their patience. There are always tales that could be told about why books take so long, but with this book there are two principal causes of delay. The first is that I didn't want not to be writing it: so much of my work is about things I dislike — race discrimination in punishment, for example — and it was good to be writing something positive and idealistic, what justice should and could be like. The second reason is that each chapter engaged with vast bodies of literature, and at times I felt both intimidated and overwhelmed. I am therefore extremely grateful to David Garland, for his wise words at an ‘author meets readers panel’ at the British Criminology Conference in July 2002: ‘A book should know its questions and try to answer them, not try to answer all possible questions.’ Thanks David, that got me out of the trees and into the wood!

    Lots of people have helped me develop the ideas in the book. Andrew Ashworth, Andrew von Hirsch and Antony Duff have been important throughout, and the arguments and debates we have had have helped sharpen my thinking at various points. My own ‘risk society’ was a group of criminologists who write influentially and insightfully about risk: Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Pat O'Malley, Jonathan Simon, Kevin Stenson and Richard Sparks have provided good ideas and good company. Stan Cohen's work is inspirational as always; Kathy Daly, Joe Sim and Phil Scraton have provided debate, encouragement and friendship whenever I've needed it. Colleagues and students at the University of Central Lancashire have questioned, argued and encouraged: Gaynor Bramhall, Helen Codd, Michael Salter and David Scott have been the most supportive and understanding colleagues one could wish for. Heather Scott has been a far better friend than I deserve.

    Finally, my love and thanks to Harry, for your patience, sharing laughter, pouring gin and tonic when required, and all kinds of good things.


    This book was prompted by concern that ‘justice’ is very much under threat in the ‘risk society’. In contemporary western societies adherence to long-held principles of justice is endangered by excessive concern with safety: fear of crime and fear of terrorism are rational fears, but are heightened to the point where they overwhelm our care for liberty and justice. Contemporary Britain furnishes plenty of examples of fears overwhelming concern for justice: policy proposals about sex offenders and persons diagnosed with serious personality disorders; restrictions on asylum seekers’ rights to move freely about the country and to receive welfare benefits; detention without trial of suspected terrorists, are just a few that spring to mind. Less serious threats are also being responded to with scant regard for justice: proposals to admit hearsay evidence in trials; unregulated extension of CCTV systems; proliferation of ‘gated’ communities, are examples. The idea that ‘it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than for one innocent person to be convicted’ is seen as naive and ‘soft’ on criminals; the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard of proof is regarded as inconvenient and outmoded. Readers can no doubt think of many examples of developments in the name of safety which have raised questions for them about the balance to be struck between freedom and safety, justice and risk.

    Western societies seem to be becoming much more concerned with rights and justice abroad than at home. While we sacrifice liberty to safety, and compromise justice through our strategies to control risk in our own countries, we refuse trade and aid, and threaten or (maybe, by the time this book is published) actually wage war in the name of justice and human rights. While we disregard the rights of offenders and other risky people here, dividing people into those (potential victims) who deserve rights and those (potential offenders) who don't, we condemn rights abuses in other countries, and the arguments of their governments that incarcerating dissidents and other ‘enemies’ is necessary for public safety are dismissed. Some of the practices western democracies are currently pursuing in the name of public safety would be condemned by us if they were happening in another country.

    Around the time I was beginning to plan this book, I gave a lecture in Budapest. One of the other speakers, a forensic psychiatrist, was explaining the idea of the Serious Personality Disorder incarceration. The translator repeatedly asked the speaker to repeat her words: she could not believe she was interpreting correctly, that it was proposed in democratic, rights-regarding England and Wales to imprison people indefinitely who had not committed any offence, on the grounds that they could be dangerous. We should, perhaps, all be Hungarians in our own country!

    Liberal legal theorists such as Andrew Ashworth and Andrew von Hirsch, and liberal criminologists like Rod Morgan, have challenged many of these recent developments that are so worrying from the point of view of justice; their counterparts in other countries have similarly challenged innovations there which disregard justice. These powerfully argued, impeccably reasoned challenges, however, have not been successful in stemming the tide of risk-oriented, justice-careless policy shifts. The most prominent example is the demise of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act. This was based very firmly on liberal justice principles of proportionality, consistency and fairness; its introduction was accompanied by an unprecedented amount of training of criminal justice professionals and explanations of its principles to the public through the media, and it was heralded as the legislation to set the principles of criminal justice for decades to come. Within six months, however, it was being undermined in the courts and by politicians, and from 1993 onwards a series of Acts and amendments — and sentencing practice itself — reflected less concern with justice and more concern with public protection.

    While this story has been told by many writers, I wanted to explore the question of whether liberal theories of justice were not so much inadequately defended, but were in themselves inadequate to meet the challenges of risk politics. This meant looking at the two primary branches of liberalism: deontological liberalism and Utilitarianism. Deontological theories are theories which inquire not into the nature and essence of goodness, but into the nature of ethical duty. They put forward no ideas about the ‘good life’, but look at what it is to behave according to principles of justice. Deontological liberals do not seek to promote substantive goods, such as happiness or welfare, but to delineate regulatory principles, such as equal respect, fairness and consistency so as to create a social framework in which individuals can pursue their own ideas about the good life without interference from others. These values are clearly behind the main principles of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act.

    Utilitarianism seeks to promote the good of all members of society, and defines this good as happiness, or absence of pain. The problem with Utilitarianism is that it does not offer adequate protection of each individual citizen against encroachments in the name of the good of society as a whole, or of the majority. In criminal justice terms, the rights of offenders to proportionate punishment cannot be guaranteed against the good of crime prevention in the wider society. Criminal justice systems in actual societies necessarily balance these two liberal models, and most analysts of the demise of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act feel that it was too preoccupied with its internal goals (fairness and consistency), and not enough concerned with the utilitarian goal of public safety (Bottoms, 1995). Rebalancing, towards greater public protection during the early 1990s was, therefore, scarcely surprising.

    Beyond pendulum swings within the criminal justice response to routine crimes, however, could be detected moves which raised questions about the adequacy of liberal theory in any version to deal with the challenges of risk. People's estrangement from each other; their unwillingness to pay taxes for public services; the demands being made by feminists and by minority ethnic and religious groups; hostility towards foreigners; terrorism and threats of terrorism: these new orders of risk and claims to justice seem to be beyond the scope of liberalism's repertoire of theory and politics. I wanted to explore challenges to established ideas and institutions of justice that were coming from beyond liberalism. The most powerful challenges are those of communitarian-ism, feminism, and postmodernism.

    Part I of the book — ‘Challenging Liberal Justice’ — opens with an outline and analysis of liberal moral philosophy and political theory, explaining the tensions between the two branches of liberalism, and then discusses liberal approaches to punishment and to security. This is followed by chapters on the politics of risk and safety; the communitarian challenge; and the critiques of liberalism advanced by liberal and post-structuralist feminists.

    The critiques of liberal theories and practices of justice explored in Part I are powerful and persuasive. The chapter on risk shows how vulnerable the ideal of justice can be in face of heightened populist and political demand for safety from dangers (real or imagined) posed by other people. We see in our everyday lives how difficult it can be to achieve a balance between promoting security and respecting justice. Issues such as the penetration of CCTV systems — their location; whether private individuals as well as public bodies should be able to install cameras; who should have access to the films; camera footage's status as evidence; who, if anyone, has a right to object if cameras are sited in residential areas and other privatised space — make us think about the requirements of safety but also raise questions about the right to privacy. Measures put in place to strengthen prevention of terrorism post-11 September 2001; tighter border controls, detention and other measures to restrict illegal immigration, and the pros and cons of compulsory identity cards make us think about the balance between freedom and safety, for ourselves as well as for those we think may threaten us. These questions not only provoke different responses in different people, but they provoke different responses in the same people at different times: we are all supportive of greater restriction in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack or a particularly outrageous crime.

    The difficulty of thinking through these issues reveals at least two deficiencies in liberalism as a guide to practical actions. First of all, liberalism provides the principle that restriction on freedom is to be allowed only in the cause of prevention of harm, but this principle gives us no firm guidance about how to balance harm and freedom. Secondly, it can provide little help in drawing the boundaries of justice: who is included in, and who is excluded by the social contract. Liberalism has not solved the problems of relationships between different cultures and nations, and it has not solved the problems posed by radical pluralism within liberal societies.

    Utilitarian liberalism cannot guarantee the rights of individuals or minorities against majority opinions. This is particularly significant in present times when the clamorous politics of risk and safety drowns out the voices of those who seek to defend the rights of unpopular or unorthodox persons or groups, whether or not these persons or groups pose any real danger. Deontological versions of liberalism attempt to solve this problem by doing away with the promotion of good: in order to prevent any one person being sacrificed to the general or majoritarian good, pursuit of the good must be given up. What this leaves is an approach to justice which is devoid of substantive ethical content, so that doing justice entails — only — following justly decided procedures. The price of seeing all persons as being owed equal justice is to substitute a fictitious, abstract, identical ‘person of reason’ for the real, individual, flesh-and-blood moral citizen.

    Just as Utilitarian liberalism resolves the problem of the relation of individual to society by dissolving the notion of the individual in the idea of the general good, deontological liberalism resolves the same problem by dissolving society, abstracting the individual from her social context. Communitarian critiques are directed at this aspect of liberalism. They are undoubtedly correct in objecting to this abstraction of individual from context, and any reconstruction of justice must take the relationship of individual to society much more seriously than traditional liberalism has done.

    This is especially the case with criminal justice. The essence of crime is that it is a wrong against society as well as a harm against another individual. As Duff (1996) has insisted in his communitarian approach to punishment, assessment of harm does not capture the whole meaning of a crime; we are offended by crime because it offends a community's shared sense of right and wrong, not just because it is a harm done by one person to another. In Durkheimian terms, while the sense of crime as an offence against God might have disappeared from most sections of modern secularised societies, there remains the sense that when society's moral boundaries have been transgressed, justice requires blaming commensurate with the wrongness of the crime as well as recompense for the harm suffered by individual victims.

    Communitarians, then, are on firm ground when arguing for the replacement of the Kantian ‘unencumbered self with a ‘situated self. However, they thereby return us to the utilitarian dilemma of how to protect the individual against community majoritarianism. In many ways, communitarianism appears as a new form of utilitarianism, with its emphasis on the general good rather than on individual freedoms. As well as the problem of toleration of a moderate range of diversity envisaged by liberal founding fathers such as Locke and Mill, however, contemporary consciousness recognises a much deeper and wider spectrum of difference. Feminist and post-structuralist writers challenge the potential repressiveness of communitarianism, and also its failure to move beyond Kantian liberalism's logic of identity which formulates principles of justice deriving from the qualities that all humans have in common (the ability to reason; the desire to pursue their own ends). In fact, it can be argued that communitarianism adds a political logic of identity to the philosophical logic of identity of deontological liberalism, because contemporary communities are groupings of ‘people like us’, to be defended against people who are not ‘like us’.

    Feminists and post-structuralists pose challenges that go beyond the tolerance of a diversity of views and beliefs about the good life and the rules necessary to organise society according to principles of justice. They locate diversity in the idea of the human subject herself. Gender, race, the contingencies of individual biographies mean that there cannot be a single subjectivity; the logic of identity is an illogic. Whether difference is taken to be so central to human being, and identity so contingent on the flux of relationships and experiences that no categories can be stabilised, or whether there are some categories of identity which do reflect commonalities of experience and are therefore useful as a basis for developing ideas and institutions of justice (categories such as gender, race, religion, class, nationality) is a matter of debate, but feminists and postmodernists are agreed that there can be no single voice of all humankind, no legislating reason which can lay down rules to which we can all, rationally, accede.

    Theories and practices of justice are found wanting because they do not meet the political challenges of our times and also because they are founded on unsatisfactory philosophical grounds (Matravers, 2000; Norrie, 2000). Nonetheless, all the critical perspectives discussed in Part I recognise the need for some sort of universalistic ideal of justice. No one denies that societies and communities should treat their citizens justly; that social institutions should dispense the goods within their domain justly, be these ‘goods’ education, health and welfare, or punishment and safety. No one disputes that recognising a practice or a distribution as unjust is reason for changing it; no one disputes that there should be mechanisms and institutions for remedying injustice between citizens and between government and citizen. The task is, then, to develop ideas about justice which can meet the challenges of the times — both political and theoretical.

    Part II — ‘Reaffirming justice’ — engages with some ideas and practices that have emerged which can be regarded either as resources for reconstructing theories and institutions of justice, or as glimpses of new forms of justice in theory and practice. Chapter 5 looks at the work of Jurgen Habermas, whose writing addresses questions of truth and justice, rights, and the constitutional challenges posed by the rise of the ‘security state’. Habermas has developed a model of discursive justice, which is drawn upon by feminist political philosophers including Seyla Benhabib and Iris Young, whose work is discussed in Chapter 4. Habermas's early work reflects the concerns of the Frankfurt School of German critical theorists, but in his later work he has set himself the task of reworking Kantian Enlightenment ideas to meet the conditions and challenges posed by contemporary society. He lays down rules of discourse which, he argues, can reconcile competing claims, and which are necessary if decisions are to reflect the concerns of justice as well as those of instrumental effectiveness. Habermas's latest work takes account of criticisms made by feminists of his earlier writings, and although he concedes a great deal to them, he does not answer all their objections. Habermas has disputed vigorously with postmodernists, especially Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida, whom he sees as representing a new ‘conservative irrationalism’ in their rejection of Enlightenment categories of reason and subjectivity.

    Chapter 6 examines the work of ‘affirmative postmodernists’: Lyotard, Derrida and Bauman. They mount a powerful case that liberalism's exclusions and omissions from the circle of rights and justice are not accidental, but are entailed by the very categories of thought and language in which liberalism assembles its philosophy and politics. Unlike Habermas, they do not see the impetus of discourse as being towards intersubjective agreement, but towards domination. Who is excluded, who is marginalised, who is repressed, are the questions they say should be raised against systems of law and ideas of justice. These postmodernists do not put forward any new models of justice, but they adopt Levinas's ethics of alterity as the starting-point for justice. This is an ethics which, if it can be incorporated into a practice of justice, can go beyond liberalism's limit of doing justice to people like ourselves, because the ethics of alterity insists that our responsibility to others is prior to, and does not depend on, our being able to understand them.

    Postmodern approaches go beyond discursive justice towards a more radical reflective justice. Reflective justice involves making judgments based on the individual case, a judgment which looks at the individual case in the light of more universal aspirations to justice, rather than applying general rules to particular cases (Ferrara, 1999). Law's usual relationship between the general and the particular (that particular cases should be fitted into the categories of general rules) is reversed in reflective justice: individual judgments look to universal horizons rather than to general rules.

    The final chapter looks at restorative justice as the mode of contemporary justice which comes closest to the ideal of discursiveness. Its progressive potential is acknowledged, but it is criticised for its failure to develop a fully relational perspective. Legal philosophers who do develop relational theories of justice (Duff and Norrie) are discussed, and relationalism is commended as a possible way to avoid the extremes of either Kantian individualism or communitarian repressiveness.

    The chapter, and the book, closes with a reflection on human rights. Although communitarianism, feminism and postmodernism are critical of some aspects of liberalism's construction of rights, they nonetheless remain attached to the idea of rights. Questions about the conditionality or inalienability of rights are discussed, and it is the book's conclusion that some rights must be regarded as inalienable, while others may be suspended only in extreme circumstances and with properly argued justification. Discursive justice, it is argued, reaches its limits at the edge of communities who share the same basic moral principles or who can at least make themselves comprehensible to each other; beyond sympathy and beyond comprehension only rights can guard against injustice.

    Discursive justice, relational justice, reflective justice and rights-regarding justice are very much work-in-progress perspectives, and although much has been done within them, none has reached the level of sophistication and influence of, for example, liberal social contract theory which has been diversified into its Utilitarian and Kantian traditions and been so influential among western theorists and institution-builders. These new perspectives are, however, beginning to influence ideas about policy and practice in criminal justice and may point the way towards avoidance of throwing the baby of regard for individual liberty and universal respect out with the bathwater of insufficient regard to the self-society relationship and misguided conceptions of identical, essentialist human subjectivity. Doing justice in the risk society may mean rethinking liberalism (Bellamy, 2000); the rethinking, however, needs to be radical.

    As well as wishing to make a substantive, albeit modest, contribution to rethinking justice, the book was prompted by a wish to bring this range of political and legal philosophical writing on justice to the attention of criminologists and penologists. I am concerned that not only has society at large lost a sense of justice, but penology and criminology have lost interest in justice too. The criminology of control and sociology of punishment have been enriched by utilising a range of social theory — risk society, governmentality — and by drawing on the ideas of a range of writers such as Foucault, Bauman, Beck, Bataille and others who write on the boundaries of sociology and philosophy. These perspectives have been deployed to produce analytically rich descriptions of what is going on in late-modern societies in relation to crime, control and punishment. What criminology and penology have lost touch with, however, is work aimed at normative reconstruction of law and penality. Penology seems content to be descriptive or instrumental: it does not appear to see its endeavour as an aspiration to justice. It is not surprising that Stan Cohen described himself as having ‘stopped doing criminology’ in favour of ‘doing human rights’ (Cohen, 1993). Theoretical books on punishment seem to stop — chronologically and conceptually — with Foucault, who, as I argue, gives us complex descriptions of punishment, but little by way of inspiration or signposts towards justice.

    The book, therefore, is intended to introduce students, academics and professionals involved in criminology and penology to work being produced in parallel disciplines that aim to reconstruct theories and institutions of justice Each chapter deals with work that is in itself the subject of large bodies of literature, and I make no claims to comprehensive coverage of liberalism, risk, communitarianism, feminism, Habermas's work, postmodernism, restorative justice, relational justice or human rights. I only discuss aspects of these theories and bodies of work which are relevant to my topic of challenges to, and reaffirmations of, justice in the risk society. My hope is that I might kindle some spark of concern for the problems facing justice, and some inspiration to come to its defence.

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