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A Life in Philosophy

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Jeffrey Reiman
Jeffrey Reiman (Photo: Jeff Watts)

Jeffrey Reiman never cared for the view from the ivory tower.

For a philosopher who did his PhD work on Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness and a self-described Kantian, that might seem puzzling.

But as amply demonstrated at the 20th annual McDowell Conference on Philosophy and Social Policy, this year a celebration and an examination of the ideas behind Reiman’s groundbreaking book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, Reiman has had no difficulty bringing a theoretical perspective to practical concerns.

“A book that is on the verge of its 10th edition in anybody’s discipline is virtually unheard of,” AU president Neil Kerwin said at the opening of the October 28 conference. “It speaks not only to the staying power of the scholarship but the ongoing importance of the issue he addresses.”

Several scholars at the conference, sponsored by AU’s Department of Philosophy and Religion, attested to the importance of the book, first published 30 years ago.

“I first read The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison right after I got out of graduate school, and it so impressed me,” said Howard McGary, distinguished professor of philosophy at Rutgers University.

When he was in graduate school, McGary said, “there was very little work that dealt with the whole idea of the importance of connecting social science research with philosophical thinking. So when I came across this book it had a great influence on me.”

“Probably the most striking thing I do [in the book] is compare the harms of the things that are treated like crimes with the harms of actions that are not treated like crimes, like being responsible for occupational disease, being responsible for unnecessary surgery,” Reiman explained in an interview. “It turns out these things are much more likely to kill you than an ordinary mugger yet nobody treats these people like criminals. So there seems to be a kind of bias there, where we basically use the criminal justice system not to deal with [all] threats to our life and limb but to threats to our life and limb from poor people.”

Paul Leighton, SPA/MS ’90, PhD ’95, with whom Reiman worked on the ninth edition, is also working with him on the 10th.

Philosophy and Criminal Justice

Reiman came to a concern with criminology naturally. In 1970, after receiving his PhD, he started teaching at AU in what was then called the Center for the Administration of Justice, now the Department of Justice, Law and Society in the School of Public Affairs. “I wanted to be relevant,” he says. “The times were such that I didn’t want to just be an ivory tower intellectual.”

The Vietnam War divided the country. In April 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., race riots roiled the streets of Washington, D.C.

Washington, a majority black city, had a largely white police force. To help quell the tension between demonstrators and the police department, a program was created to expand the police force and to attract black officers. A government program helped recruit Vietnam vets, many of them African Americans, and an education at American University was part of the draw.

“Here I was a kind of young progressive guy and I have classes of young cops who are mostly black men and older cops who are mostly older white men,” Reiman recalls. “It was a really interesting tension. [Some of the students] would be at Vietnam War demonstrations on the weekend, and then I’d have in my class Monday night the cops that were whacking them. And so it was just fabulous.

“It got me thinking about criminal justice, and the justice of criminal justice has really been a focus for me, and what kinds of things are called crimes.”

The Rich Get Richer, he says, “was basically addressed to my students, from whom I was learning a great deal.”

An Engaged Department

After teaching 10 years in the justice program, followed by a period when he taught courses in both that program and the College of Arts and Sciences, Reiman came to CAS full time in 1988; two years later he became the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy.

He’s now been at the university 41 years, teaching in a department of 12 full-time faculty members in which more than 1,800 students take courses annually. There are more than 100 philosophy majors and 25 MA students in three tracks.

And as Reiman proudly notes, AU has the nation’s only philosophy department with a graduate program in which the majority of faculty are women.

An active scholar, the titles of some of Reiman’s seven books, in addition to The Rich Get Richer, show his concern with practical philosophy: Criminal Justice Ethics (coedited with Paul Leighton), Abortion and the Ways We Value Human Life, and The Death Penalty: For and Against (with Louis Pojman). He’s also written more than 100 articles in journals and anthologies.

These days, at age 69, Reiman has cut back to teaching one course a semester, though he remains involved in departmental business.

“I have no desire to retire,” he says. “I’m having a good time.”

A Marxist Perspective

Marx’s insights into how the laws of society protect the interests of the ruling class inform Reiman’s critique of the criminal justice system. But despite once wearing a tee shirt with the personalized slogan “Eat the Rich,” Reiman is emphatically not a socialist.

“My wife once called me a left-wing Kantian or a right-wing Marxist,” he quipped at the McDowell conference, adding later, “My work on philosophy and criminal justice has largely been guided by the notion that a criminal justice system cannot be more just than the society it protects.”

“I’m a kind of Marxist, but not a socialist,” he explained. “I think socialism is scary; it puts too much power in the hands of the state. And I think there are good Marxian reasons for being suspicious of it. I mean, Marx thought ownership of the means of production is the most important form of social power. So, to give it to the state or any large collective, you really have to be very optimistic about human nature.

“There is actually a kind of conservative dimension to Marx because he didn’t really believe that history is made by individuals. He thought it was made by systems.”

Reiman recently finished writing a book called As Free and as Just as Possible: The Theory of Marxian Liberalism. The book will be published in April by Wiley-Blackwell.

The Good Life

If philosophy, as Socrates said, helps us define the good life, by any measure Jeffrey Reiman has done pretty well.

He spends four months a year in France. (“Somebody’s gotta do it,” he says.) He’s working on the 10th edition of The Rich Get Richer, and the copyedited manuscript of As Free and as Just as Possible.

“I tell this to students,” he says. “I’m as excited about philosophy today as I was when I started. I wake up every morning happy that I’m going to be doing philosophy, and that’s the God’s honest truth. And here’s the evidence I give for it: a little while ago my wife requested that I not say anything about Immanuel Kant until she’s had her coffee.

“And so I tell students make your choices and think about that, think about something you’ll be able to say that about after 50 years.”

The McDowell professorship was established in 1937 by a gift from the estate of Bishop William Fraser McDowell to the Department of Philosophy and Religion.