Friday, January 04, 2008

Death Penalty

Empirical arguments aside, I don't understand the argument that I should theoretically be against the death penalty because the possibility of an innocent man being executed by the state exists. If there is no death penalty, the same innocent man might be imprisoned which is a terrible thing. You can never give him the lost years of his life back, even if you do later discover his innocence. Why is this not an argument that I should be opposed to imprisonment for criminals?

I think the innocent man argument against the death penalty arises from the entirely secular notion that the worst thing is death. It is not. Christ showed us just how an innocent man can die, conquering death in the process--making it sweet and benign. Who doesn't believe that our Lord heaps abundant blessings on the executed innocent, as on the imprisoned innocent?

Far worse, on a cosmic scale, than an innocent man being executed by the state is an unrepentant guilty man being executed by the state. In fact, that might actually be a valid argument against the death penalty.


Anonymous said...

Another way to look at it is through the social contract: are you willing in the interests of public order to bear the chance that you or your child may be wrongfully convicted of a capital crime and executed? To the extent one isn't, one has no business binding others to that contract.

Anonymous said...

The flip side of this is, of course, taking the chance of being the victim of a recidivist criminal who might otherwise have been executed (or being the survivor of such without the satisfaction of closure from execution, et cet.)

Given how little we trust government to get so much really right, I think many of us would take the latter social contract over the first one I posited above.

The fact is that there is plenty of evidence that the capital justice system is quite fallible.

Unknown said...

Modern abolitionist arguments do assume that death is the worst thing, which I don't understand. There was a recent news item about a man being exonerated for a sex crime after 27 years in prison. Who will give him his 27 years back? What has that 27 years in prison done to his soul? Is this better than death? I'm not so sure.

The other thing I keep remembering is Jesus' treatment of the repentant thief. Did he release him from death? Yes, in the best way possible.

cricket said...

Liam and Catherine: Thank you for your replies.

Liam: With the "your child" argument, you're simply upping the emotional ante without really changing the bet itself. I would rather that my child be wrongfully convicted of murder and executed than that he be guilty of murder. That said I don't know that I'm in favor of the death penalty, but as Catherine eloquently points out, the same innocent man argument exists with respect to the penalty of imprisonment. Catherine, your point about St. Dismas is especially poignant.

Anonymous said...

The emotional ante is relevant here as a matter of reason (not mere emotion) because people are often willing to take risks in the abstract for themselves that they would reconsider for loved ones.

cricket said...

I see your point, liam. The consideration may indeed affect how many people support the use of the death penalty. However, I'm trying to think it out under the premise that the institution of capital punishment is either right or wrong in any given milieu (and, needless to say, in any given case) regardless of how many support its use.

Anonymous said...

Having just encountered this blog I feel free to post untimely comments in your combox.

Boy, this post started out so promising, illustrating how the secular understanding of the physical life causes it to make value judgements on capital punishment...and then it took an unfortunate tailspin.

The secular notion that death is the worst outcome to befall a man is naturally part of the underlying hostility towards capital punishment. Such finality is an anethema to the secular mind.

But it remains necessary to address the latter half of the post about the execution of an unrepentant guilty man being an argument against the death penalty.

First, consider this, God as the Creator of time knows how much time each man has on this earth. Does He not promise each and every one of us the graces we need in this life to attain heaven? Of what arrogance is it then to presume that through capital punishment God is bound and shackled, powerless to provide exactly what any given man needs in such a situation?

Second, you and I don't know when we will die. However, those receiving capital punishment know the very day and the hour. This alone is an advantage most in this life will never have. If that is not sobering enough for repentance then that is left to the great mercy of God's Providence and not ours.

cricket said...

You are correct, of course, paul d., and very wise.

I can only claim, in defense of my post that my use of such a hyperbole manifested my attempt to demonstrate that the thinking on the death penalty from a secular point of view (and even in some religious quarters) is very confused.

It does remain the one great tragedy that any given man might refuse grace, but that, as you say, is not in our hands.

Anonymous said...


By the by, I came across your blog from Disputaions.

I agree with you that such unrepentance is nonetheless a great tragedy.

Capital Punishment is a very interesting debate. Official Church teaching is that the state, ie, government, has the authority to wield capital punishment but that the Church does not see the need to exercise such authority, in most first world countries.

That's an interesting declaration of prudential judgement. And truth be known, I don't believe Catholics really know or have much guidance on where the line is drawn as to when it should be exercised, except in the most of extreme cases.

I highly recommend perusing the ongoing debate in First Things on this issue if you haven't already done so.

Here's one such article but there are many more if you run a search for "capital punishment" at their website.

cricket said...

Ta, paul d.

A factious SOB myself, I've always found Cardinal Dulles to be annoyingly evenhanded.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. And well stated. Unfortunately, when you're dealing with US Catholic Bishops that's about as partisan in that direction as you're going to get.

cricket said...

So, you think I'm an SOB, eh? That's it, paul d. You're barred from my comment box, effective as soon as I figure out how to effect it, and providing it doesn't slip my mind in the mean while.

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