The Rectitude of the Death Penalty

BY DR. AGONSON

There are aspects in the modern mode of thinking which do not follow for me. In this case, one of my life’s recurring themes is the antagonism of all my peers toward the death penalty, an antagonism absent in me. Not only does it seem incumbent by nature, history, and philosophy that justice demands certain crimes be punished by death, but the counterarguments have never made a lick of sense.

The case does not feel overly complex to me: By nature, at our youngest age, we understand Lex Talionis, though we know not the name, understand that an eye for an eye is just; by history we read and learn of the great lawmakers of the past, in my case I turn to Moses, and see that he who takes life must lose his life; and by philosophy we put these together and weigh the evidence. The scales tip in favor of the death penalty, as far as I can see, but because it is itself somewhat a part of nature, it is hard to express: There are certain things one cannot explain by reason which are in themselves reason. I know of no argument to prove that one and one is two, and the justification of the death penalty seems very much in this regard: A man kills with evil intent an innocent man, and therefore he should die. Reasons, small reasons, can be given which are not the reason: A dead man cannot murder again, the grieving may find comfort in vengeance, and other evil minded men may remember their brother hanging from a tree and find it a deterrent from similar crimes. But these are not the reason. The reason is simpler: He took an innocent life and he took it with intent. I think, should all the smaller reasons I listed above be somehow reversed, even then it would be just to end the life of a murderer.

However, I have heard counterarguments. The worst, I find, are the religious, at least as they come from my own religion, Christianity. I might understand it if a Buddhist, or even more, if a Jain were to stand against the death penalty based off of their teachings, but as one who has read the Bible, I find myself either infuriated or bemused when I hear other Christians explain that it is Christianity which is against capital punishment. However, I rarely hear them discuss what must be their best argument. They talk of Jesus, and how loving he was, and how he would never, ever, ever kill anyone. I have yet to hear them bring up what might be their best ensample, that Christ was unjustly put to death. I think, however, that these Christians are the type of Christians that do not actually believe in Jesus, nor care to learn what he really preached. They much prefer their imagined Jesus which stands for just about anything they want at whatever moment they need.

Very well, what do Christians against the death penalty say? Most often, they turn to the Sermon on the Mount and rend from it a strict pacifism. I do not think this interpretation is correct, but books could be written on the subject. One point, then another, I’ll make. There is a time for everything: Jesus’ first coming was one of humility; The awaited second coming is said to be far more warlike. Indeed, one parable concludes, “slay them before me.” Furthermore, it is interpretation which moves from “turn the other cheek” to the principle that one should never defend oneself. It is, perhaps, ingrained in our culture to make that connection, it may be the right conclusion, but it is not what is literally written. In either case, it is a completely new step to move from a personal willingness to trust the defense of one’s life to God and to then move onto the idea that a state has no right to oppose a killer. And one more thing: Most of these Christians against the death penalty are completely fine with imprisoning the murderer for some term. How is that then turning the other cheek? If turning the other cheek means that we cannot kill a murderer, how can it then not also mean that we cannot stand against a murderer in any way? How could imprisoning someone be turning the other cheek to him? That last point, for all I know, someone truly holds. I think certain sects of Christianity might preach it. To such a case, I will content myself with what I have written above.

But, beyond these religious arguments, I have heard more philosophical positions. Usually accompanying one another, two premises appear: A person’s actions are predetermined; and it is better to be merciful than vindictive. They work together well, but can be used disparately to support an argument against capitol punishment. When together, they may appear something like the following: the murderer, because of a bad upbringing or some other extenuating circumstance, exercised no agency when he murdered, and because we not only could have, but would have, done the same given the same genetics and history, we cannot put him to death. When separated, the predetermined argument simply stops at the point where a man is not responsible for his actions, and concludes that he should therefore not be held responsible. When the argument is primarily based off of the belief that mercy is better than acting upon what is seen as a more primeval retributive system then the argument might read: Yes, the man is guilty, but let us be lenient.

The argument based off predetermination has always seemed to undermine itself; I know of no reason why it should not be used just as forcefully in favor of the death penalty. If person A has murdered, it is shown that he is a determined murderer, not by his will, for we have done away with that, but by factors outside of his control. It should then be perfectly rational to say that once a murderer, always a murderer, and to put person A to death would simply ensure that that set of circumstances which led person A to murder could never happen again.

Now, the mercy argument does not make much sense to me. I agree that mercy is good, but it is not good in and of itself. There are times when it is good to be merciful; there are times when mercy would be evil. It might be good, let us consider, for a cop to let a speeding driver off with a warning. Would anyone think it good if he let off a drunk driver with only a warning? In the case of the death penalty, there are times when someone deserving of death should be shown leniency, or at least, that it would be reasonable for a jury or a court to be merciful. However, allowing for mercy in a human system is not the same as choosing as a principle mercy toward all cases. I would be sympathetic for, let us imagine, an abused woman who shot her sleeping husband. What she did was murder, in one sense, but in another it was self-defense. The fact that it is sometimes better to show mercy, for a court to grant leniency, is not then a reason to overthrow the general principle.

However, when these points are taken together, they can put forth an appearance of strength. Since we allow mercy given extenuating circumstances, cannot we then realize that all people have, to some degree, extenuating circumstances? This is often paired with a concept I hinted at above, that capitol punishment is barbarism and long prison terms are progressive. The death penalty is here thrust on stage as a sort of villain, a hold out of unevolved monsters leftover from a darker time, and the ostensibly more merciful system of imprisoning a man for most of his life (or as I see it becoming, of simply doing nothing) is heralded as the new man come to rid the world of such creatures.

I must have missed the programing. I hope I’ve outlined the position as it is really held and not produced a strawman, but the whole thing seems a farce. We do away with the principle of Lex Talionis. Why? I don’t understand. It seems to me a true statement: Is it not the brother to the golden rule? We ought to do to others as we would be done to, and we ought, in the face of an injustice, render as exactly as we can the evil doings back onto an evil doer. I hear a complaint: Is this not rendering evil for evil? No. It is in a sense the opposite.

An action is often evil as it stands in relation to circumstance. Indeed, the same thing can be good, bad, and evil given differing situations. On the whole, sex is good, but promiscuity, in general, is bad. Sex can even become evil as we consider that some people are bullied into having sex or forced into it against their will. So, we agree that two wrongs don’t make a right; It is now for us to determine what would be the second wrong. If it is wrong to murder, Lex Talionis would suggest it is also wrong if that murderer is not given a proportional punishment.

But, perhaps that is not the correct meaning of rendering evil for evil. I think, though, that the other obvious interpretation is the religious, that is, it is synonymous with or a part of turning the other cheek. It may now be time to add onto what I’ve already said.

Is a true statement true in all conditions? I have at another time said the sky is blue. Looking out my window, I see a very overcast heaven without a spot of blue amid the clouds. I believe very strongly in turning the other cheek, in loving one’s enemies. I have, personally, in trying to follow this principle, seen antagonism diffused. However, the sky is not always blue, and this principle does not apply to all situations. I do not think either Jesus or Paul is commenting on judicial matters. Indeed, I do not think that a slap on the cheek is comparable to murder.

I wonder at this ostensibly progressive position. It is called merciful, but is it? It is called progress, but toward what is it progressing? In the case of mercy, I wonder if it is anymore merciful to imprison a man for twenty or thirty years than to simply kill him. I fear it is beyond any man’s knowledge, but it is certainly not obvious to me that one punishment is kinder than the other. As regards progress, I do not like the direction that anti capitol punishment leads. It belittles men in stealing their right to make egregious moral mistakes, and it also robs men of dignity in lifting the state’s authority over God’s. It makes of the state an idol, and lowers men under it. In working through The Gulag Archipelago, I was struck by Solzhenitsyn’s account of an elderly woman who refused to bend against the power of the state. What did she say in the face of torture? “There is nothing you can do with me even if you cut me into pieces. After all, you are afraid of your bosses, and you are afraid of each other, and you are even afraid of killing me.”

Here I laugh when I remember this objection made by a libertarian: Capitol punishment gives the government too much power. Who was impowered by the death of Socrates, of Jesus, of this very woman who refused to obey a tyrant? A state loses all power over a dead individual. Moreover, I think the libertarian and I would both agree that the government has too much power as it is able to imprison men for such lengthy terms, and has too much power as it thinks itself above a citizen’s conscience, as it uses that time of imprisonment to correct and fix a deviant individual.

I am nearly done now. Just one more point, I think, and an auxiliary critique. Though I have yet to hear anyone use Jesus’ crucifixion as an argument against the death penalty, I remember a friend suggesting that because cases threatening the death penalty can be, and often are, faulty, it would be prudent to avoid sentencing people to death. In other words, we can never know if a man is truly guilty, and therefore should not take irreversible steps against him.

I agree with him that it is a great evil for an innocent man to go to the gallows, though, I think, not so great an evil that the gallows should be torn down. I have no doubt that justice is often perverted, and that as a society we should do all we can to eliminate the possibility of error. I think this is what is meant by a shadow of a doubt. It is reasonable, given the severity of capitol punishment, that until a case is absolutely proven, the sentence of death cannot be merited. There are such cases. Yes, shades of grey exist, but there is still black and white.

All that aside, I see myself mired in a society which unthinkingly, which ever enamored of feeling good, cannot understand a word I have written. It does not feel good to say, even theoretically, that a man should be put to death. It feels little better when you see a guilty man, see the marred image of God, and have to stand against the fetid form of mercy and kindness our culture praises and say no. There is no modern reason to believe the truth: It is not comforting, it is less than helpful, it will not win you friends, and it is not popular. It simply claims to be the truth.

And in a final aside, though I intended to avoid this rabbit trail, the topic of abortion has been erected. I suppose it is a popular point and ought to be addressed. Although there is no strong connection between these two issues, there has been an affront to morals and reason posited as a dilemma: You cannot hold to both the integrity of the death penalty and the sanctity of life. However, the only reason I believe in the death penalty is that I believe life to be sacred, that I believe it to be an immeasurable evil for an innocent life to be taken, an injustice which is best rectified by the present delivery of the guilty party to a much higher court than any on earth.

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