Thursday, September 25, 2008

Confutation of some objections to the death penalty

From the combox of my post entitled “Discussion on the Inquisition”:

… it corrodes and endangers the soul of the executioner. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
This is an entirely subjective and emotional argument. If we substitute ‘soldier’ for ‘executioner’ then we have one of the arguments of the pacifistic humanists. As for ‘casting the first stone’, it is the State that ‘casts the stone’, justly and with God’s authority, though carried out through the medium of persons.

To kill someone in combat is one thing. To judicially murder a helpless prisoner another, regardless of their sin. To do so when the person is innocent may be pardonable on an individual level, but a state that does so commits a mortal sin for which there is no forgiveness, since the state as a person is incapable of contrition.
The notion that “a state that [executes an innocent] commits a mortal sin for which there is no forgiveness, since the state as a person is incapable of contrition” is one that is new to me. We might speak of the State as sinning if it kills an innocent knowingly (and only by analogy to human mortal sin, of course), but to say that it sins by following it properly-formed conscience (again, by analogy) seems quite illogical. Furthermore, if we extend the analogy to the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent man, which would presumably, according to this line of reasoning, be at least a venial sin, then we should abandon the pursuit of justice altogether, since one must never sin even if as a means to a worthy end.

Assuming someone is so mired in sin they will get instant damnation at death, one should in fact keep them alive as long as possible, hoping for their repentance.
This seems to relate to the notion that, once a sin is committed, the sinner is somehow entitled to a reasonable period of time in which to have the opportunity of repentance. But one’s moral state exists and is payable at any given point in time. To put it bluntly, the sinner was never entitled to sin in the first place. Furthermore, Scripture furnishes us with examples of the Lord willing (not merely permitting) the death of some individuals who were still in the state of sin.

Reginaldvs Cantvar

6 comments:

Felix said...

"… it corrodes and endangers the soul of the executioner. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

as you note, the emptiness of this argument can be seen by substituting ‘soldier’ for ‘executioner’

additionally, if the argument were valid, it would mean no-one could administer any punsishment, whether capital or other

Cardinal Pole said...

"additionally, if the argument were valid, it would mean no-one could administer any punsishment, whether capital or other"

Exactly. The State's administration of justice is somewhat analogous to the Church's administration of the Sacraments: just as personal holiness is not a requirement for Sacramental validity, since the minister acts in persona Christi, so it is that personal probity is not required of the ministers of justice, since they act in the person of the State.

Zoe Brain said...

Warfare against the helpless is not justified either. There is a difference between combat and slaughter, so your analogy is flawed.

An enemy soldier, who has been involved in combat, and who surrenders so is no longer combatant, is protected, no matter what their combatant actions in the past.

Similarly, it is entirely justifiable to kill an offender if that is the only way you can stop further serious offences (such as murder). You may not in good conscience kill him for past offences which he is no longer committing. Nor may you kill him even if it is the only way you can stop him from littering.

As regards corrosion of the souls of punishers, that is the prime reason for humane and reasonable punishment. See my essay-like comment on sentencing.

Often a more humane punishment than merciless justice would recommend has to be administered, simply because it puts too much sin burdening the punisher.

Providing the punishment is to prevent further offence, then we have to weigh the guilt from cruel action vs the guilt from inaction. For the same reason, pure pacifism incurs guilt because it does not oppose evil, it allows it, and therefore passively partakes of it.

Those who take up arms and kill to prevent Auschwitz incur some guilt for that. But those who remain in their sin-free smug pacifism and refuse to prevent Auschwitz incur a far greater guilt.

A call it "guilt", others may call it "karmic burden". But it's the same concept.

And no, you can't win, no matter what you do. All you can do is lessen the burden, not avoid it entirely. Now why is this so? Call it a consequence of Original Sin, the Fall, or whatever.

Live by 1 Corinthians 13, and you won't go far wrong. As you show mercy, so shall you be shown mercy.

Cardinal Pole said...

"Similarly, it is entirely justifiable to kill an offender if that is the only way you can stop further serious offences (such as murder). You may not in good conscience kill him for past offences which he is no longer committing."

But this is just utilitarianism, and I am not a utilitarian. The key issue is whether punishment is an end in itself or only a means to an end. You seem unable to conceive of it except as a means to an end. On this we can only agree to disagree. As far as I (and Kant) am concerned, it can indeed be an end in itself, thereby balancing the scales of justice. We have a police force for deterrence and crime prevention and a welfare system for rehabilitation; let the justice system dispense justice.

"Nor may you kill him even if it is the only way you can stop him from littering."

Red herring. I have never called for litterbugs to be put to death! (Unless, perhaps, the litter was nuclear waste and the dumping ground was a pre-school.)

"Often a more humane punishment than merciless justice ..."
(my emphasis)

As to the supposed mercilessness of the death penalty, see my response to your comment on sentencing back on your blog.

"For the same reason, pure pacifism incurs guilt because it does not oppose evil, it allows it, and therefore passively partakes of it."

Slightly tangential, but there is an error here: to permit an evil is not necessarily to partake of it. See Pius XII's allocution Ci riesce.

"Those who take up arms and kill to prevent Auschwitz incur some guilt for that."

Given that the competent authority declared the war, I don't see how the lawful combatants would incur any guilt at all.

dudleysharp said...

Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey. A Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College, wrote a landmark essay on the death penalty entitled "A Bible Study".  Here is a synopsis of his analysis: " . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect." (p. 111-113) Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: ". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy." (p. 116). Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. 

dudleysharp said...

John Stuart Mill, speach on the death penalty

http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/Mill_supports_death_penalty.htm

Immanuel Kant, "The Right of Punishing", inclusive of the death penalty

http://web.telia.com/~u15509119/ny_sida_9.htm


Just Violence: An Aristotelian Justification of Capital Punishment

http://www.csuchico.edu/pst/JustViolence.htm