Preposterous Universe

Monday, March 21, 2005
Contrary intuitions

The Volokh Conspiracy, one of the places you hope to be able to go for intelligent conservative commentary in the blogosphere, is on a roll. And not a good one.

First, Eugene Volokh comes out in favor of torturing especially heinous criminals before they are executed, like they do in Iran. As a law professor, he understands that this would run counter to the prohibition we have against cruel and unusual punishment, so he suggests amending the Constitution.
I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.
Many responses back and forth. Eventually, after considering arguments made by Mark Kleiman, Volokh slightly retreats, but only because he doesn't think his proposal would be workable; not because he thinks it's horrifying.

As Volokh himself says, this actually isn't an issue that is likely to be resolved by rational argumentation; it's a matter of "moral intuitions and visceral reactions." He's right. My own moral intuition wishes that people in general, and law professors in particular, understood retributory bloodlust as a natural human reaction, but one that we should learn to suppress, not to indulge in. That's supposed to be one of the features that makes this a better country to live in than most.

Yesterday, David Bernstein expressed outrage that the public schools are wasting money on actually paying salaries to teachers -- as much as $45,000 per year for starting teachers. Kleiman again took him to task. (This could become a full-time job.) Not as morally repugnant as Volokh's intuitions, but another remarkably depressing position.

It's the usual set of arguments: teachers get summers off, work short hours, get raises that are not based on merit, generally aren't as smart and talented as, say, lawyers. I think there's a case to be made that a combination of the teachers unions and the bureaucratic tendencies of local governments introduce a degree of sclerosis into the system. But really, do the people who make these arguments sit down and think about the directions in which the causal arrows are pointing? Yes, teachers can get summers off. Are they supposed to pick up a part-time lawyering job over the summer to supplement their income? The fact is, there's very little reason under the present system for a talented and ambitious college student to aim at a career as a public school teacher. Isn't it an important job, for which we should try to attract the brightest practitioners possible?

Elementary and secondary school teaching is one of the worst-paying jobs that a college student can shoot for. Are we surprised that such a system produces some teachers who are under-qualified or under-motivated? And do we really think that cutting their salaries is the way to make it better?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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