VOLUME 31, NUMBER 17 THURSDAY, January 27, 2000

DeGreiff, Thalos receive NEH awards
Philosophers' work reassesses common assumptions about human behavior

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The research of junior faculty members Pablo DeGreiff and Mariam Thalos demonstrates how philosophical inquiry, applied to contemporary problems, can enhance our understanding of a wide range of individual and collective human behavior.

Their work has earned them research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities that will allow them to complete projects that reassess common assumptions about how and why human beings behave the way they do under certain conditions.

DeGreiff and Thalos, both assistant professors of philosophy, are two of only four philosophers in the nation to receive NEH research fellowships during this funding cycle.

NEH Both will challenge standard assumptions in their fields of investigation and propose new and more useful ways to analyze moral and political issues.

Thalos' project, "Unites of Decision-making: The Role of the Collective," will examine the standard individualistic model of decision-making and introduce a new style of decision analysis that offers a different understanding of cooperation in general.

Its application to the resolution of "Prisoner's Dilemmas" will be of interest to legal theorists, she says, and be applicable to such issues as the provision of public goods in economics and to the social function of "free-riding."

"The purpose of the project is to challenge the usefulness of standard, two-part decision-making theory and render a deeper understanding of sociality," she says, "and of the ties that bind human beings to one another on grounds of rationality."

"It also will provide an understanding that goes beyond the role of the individual in the decision-making process," she says, "and include the role played by institutions in promoting and enabling social behaviors."

Thalos has set out to identify a new procedure by which decision-making can be broken down into its component parts. Her model will allow analysis of large expanses of decision-making behavior not currently considered by standard decision theory and will be applicable to individual and collective decision-making processes.

"It also will include some account of a 'switching' mechanism or procedure that prescribes, or at least licenses, movement between the individual mode and the collective mode of decision-making so we will be able to analyze how these modes operate together," she says.

DeGreiff is a social and moral philosopher who has lectured and published extensively on the subject of international justice and transition to democracy. He will use his grant to complete a book manuscript in which he examines the question of how successor regimes should deal with the human-rights abuses of the preceding regimes.

When published, it will be one of the few books on the subject of transitional justice written by a philosopher. While it is intended to be of interest to philosophers and political scientists, it also is addressed to human-rights activists, policymakers and those concerned with international affairs and transitions to democracy.

His study analyzes what he calls the "two inadequate policies" by which governments deal with the human-rights abuses-including state-sponsored terrorism-of a preceding regime.

One model is based on the "retributive model" of the Nuremberg tribunals set up after World War II to rectify the human rights abuses of Germany's Third Reich. DeGreiff explains this model as one that employs courts and penal institutions to achieve retribution for human rights crimes. It is an attempt to prevent the repetition of past atrocities, he says, and notes that it has been used to address genocidal activities in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

"The main virtue of the retributive model is that it seems to respond to the claims for justice that scream to be addressed after periods of brutality," DeGreiff says.

"Unfortunately, incipient liberal institutions find it difficult to implement the retributive model," DeGreiff says. "And if it is implemented, it can pose a serious threat to the new democracy because members of the preceding regime often continue to hold substantial military, political and economic power.

"So in the case of nations moving from an oppressive, abusive government to one based in democratic principles-in certain Latin American nations, for instance, or in post-Cold War eastern Europe-the 'amnesty and oblivion' model of transitional justice is often employed instead."

That model, says DeGreiff, offers amnesty to those who perpetrated human-rights abuses under the previous government. It follows this with "oblivion" or an official "forgetting" of their crimes, thus cutting off further investigation and granting them freedom from future prosecution.

Is one model more useful or more ethical than the other?

"In a broad range of matters, and, I believe, certainly in that of addressing human-rights abuses," DeGreiff says, "the success of a policy depends upon whether or not it can satisfy citizens' expectations for justice. It is essential, therefore, that in this regard we answer the question of what morality requires of us and select the model accordingly.

"It is possible to make a moral case for the adoption of the amnesty and oblivion model that opposes trial and punishment on the grounds that a democratic regime stands under a moral obligation to preserve itself," he says. "This obligation that becomes especially clear in the light of the alternatives against which democracy normally contends.

"Nevertheless," he adds, "it is likewise easy to see why victims of dictatorial abuse and their families can argue that the 'amnesty and oblivion' model fails to take their demand for justice seriously."

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