CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Miller on The Moral Burdens of Police Wrongdoing

Eric J. Miller (Loyola Law School Los Angeles) has posted The Moral Burdens of Police Wrongdoing (Res Philosophica, Volume 97, Issue 2, April 2020) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When addressing the burdens borne by victims of police wrongdoing, we often overlook moral harms in focusing on the physical and psychological harms that they suffer. These moral harms undermine the moral status of the victim, her ability to consistently pursue the values she endorses, and her character.

Victimhood is a morally significant social role. Victimhood imposes normative standards that measure the moral or political status of victim. Conforming to these standards affects our assessment of the conduct of the victim and her moral standing. Considering the victims’ role provides important insights into contemporary practices of policing in the United States.

The physical and verbal acts of the police often force race-based degradation upon racially subordinated groups. There is often no morally good way out of racially discriminatory encounters when the choice is to degrade oneself or suffer violence or even death. In these encounters, whatever happens, the police intentionally wrong their target. The police require African Americans to perform deference-rituals that often mimic the ways in which African Americans were required to supplicate themselves during the eras of slavery and segregation. Whilst surviving these degradading encounters may itself be an act of resistance, nonetheless point of degradation is to compromise the victim’s self-worth. The wrong inflicted is to compromise the value of self-respect, leading to a morally blemished life. Accordingly, one of the consequences of police oppression is to inflict race-targeted moral, not merely psychological or physical, harm on the people they police.

Worse, how we respond to the threat of police violence morally undermines our roles and relationships with those we would keep safe from police violence. To avoid the physcial harms of policing, we often given “the talk” to advise the people we love and seek to protect—our children, our siblings, our friends—to behave deferentially towards the police in degrading ways that undermine the value of self-respect. This advice, though it is also an act of resistance, undermines other duties we owe to the people we love: duties to promote their flourishing, for example. The reach of police oppression thus extends to taint even the most private and cherished moments that we share with those we love precisely at the point we express that love. This is the insidious feature of moral oppressoin.

Finally, we should recognize that this form of oppression could be avoided if bystanders would recognize and respond to the moral burdens of policing. Unfortunately, however, the majority of bystanders in the United States fail to care sufficiently to act on their moral duty to prevent oppression. This thoughtlessness is itself a form of disrespect, which is a moral wrong that passively or actively supports racial oppression.

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