Two powerful threads—public morality and personal responsibility—run through our summer issue. 

In our forum lead, Stanford law professor Barbara Fried takes on our national “blame fest.” For 40 years we have been captivated by the idea that bad choices lie at the root of bad outcomes, and our policies reflect this. Want to understand why something has gone wrong—job loss, mortgage under water, college loans in default? Look in the mirror. Fried finds powerful expression of this sensibility in political and moral philosophy and focuses her critical eye on the philosophical ideas that justify finger wagging. She observes that the more people know about wrongdoers’ lives the less punitive they feel. And she suggests alternatives that would reorient public discussion from backward-looking blame to forward-looking efforts to solve problems.

Many of the respondents share Fried’s concerns about a harsh culture of blame, but they resist her utilitarian conclusions. Some argue that public blaming has an important social function; others see deeper roots than Fried does for our judgments of personal responsibility; and some worry that the alternatives may well be worse. It is a foundational philosophical debate that goes to the heart of how we live together.

Continuing our themes in “Twelve Absent Men,” Albert Dzur focuses on the courtroom: the place where we arrive at consequential judgments of personal responsibility. He raises alarm about the decline of jury trials and the diminished role of juries even when empaneled. Juries are observing witnesses to and active accomplices in the state’s harmful, even if justified, punitive acts. Citizen participation is a powerful democratic check at that crucial site of injury.

And what happens when public morality breaks down completely? Niko Kohls and Karin Andert tell a compelling story about how private actions matter. Last year the two German academics bought an antique book as a gift. They soon realized it was Nazi loot. Many others had avoided that fact: the book had been in a university library for 60 years with evidence of its origins in plain sight. Andert and Kohls traced the book’s past and the fate of its owner. They wanted both to understand why restorative justice efforts had failed and to return the book to the owner’s heirs. Their act of public witness is also very personal: the book belonged to BR co-editor Deb Chasman’s great-grandfather. 

Finally, congratulations to Kerry-Lee Powell, winner of this year’s Aura Estrada Short Story Contest. Our judge, Nathan Englander, calls her entry “a quiet, powerful story full of dark nostalgia.”