Normative Focus

What are the implications of taking the importance of character seriously
with respect to imprisonment and its aftermath?


Project on Agency, Character & Identity – A Normative Focus

In a liberal democracy the political order and the rule of law should preserve extensive scope for voluntariness and the responsible exercise of freedom. Yet, the experience of imprisonment often seems to render offenders less able to participate effectively in civil society and less able to lead lives of constructive self-determination. In that respect, imprisonment does more than impose suffering; it can have a powerful impact on prisoners’ dispositions, attitudes, and self-conceptions in ways that diminish or disorder their capacities as agents. While there are numerous, diverse programs and supports aimed at helping offenders rejoin civil society the extent to which they succeed is disappointing. The Agency, Character, and Identity project aims at ascertaining the implications of the conceptual, normative, and empirical aspects of character for reentry and reintegration and for strategies of preparing for them.

Even though a liberal-democratic state cannot require persons to have certain kinds of character the effects on persons’ characters of the state’s institutions and practices—as in punishing, for example—can be profound. The project explores how and why a focus on character can illuminate those effects and possible approaches to mitigating them. This is vitally important if those effects exceed what can be justified by a plausible theory of criminal sanction. The project employs philosophical and criminological methods and resources together, to understand some of the most important and discouraging features of contemporary criminal justice.

It is crucial to the project that character should be understood as aspirational and as involving a measure of plasticity rather than being fully fixed and unrevisable. At the same time, it is plain that states of character can shape choice, reaction, and sensibility in enduring and substantial ways. Attaining an illuminating conception of the complex texture of character and how it figures in action, purpose, and self-knowledge is crucial to the project. By looking at the role of character in voluntary human action, and at the ways in which numerous factors make a causal difference to a person’s character we hope to contribute to a fuller understanding of agency in some key contexts of criminal justice, particularly preparation for reentry. Moreover, by approaching ethical and empirical issues in an integrated manner we hope to formulate and address issues in a manner that provides a basis for further development and elaboration in several important directions.