I’ve always regarded liberal arguments as intellectually, and therefore morally, unsound. However, one exception exists: capital punishment.
Though liberals oppose it and I don’t, I recognise the validity of their arguments even as I refute their truth. For one can’t deny that a society weaned on the notion that human life is sacred is bound to regard as emotionally repugnant the spectacle of a state executing people in cold blood.
However, the function of emotions in cognition is to activate reason, not to supersede it. And reason finds that the state does many repugnant things that nonetheless serve an essential purpose. Thus, most people accept that killing five million Germans in 1939-1945 was necessary. That great sin was expiated by the greater good.
Since liberalism appeals mostly to emotions and conservatism mostly to reason, a clash is inevitable on many issues, especially one of judicial killing. However, even many conservatives argue against the death penalty, citing, for example, the corrupting effect it has on the executioner – or else doubting the right of mortal and therefore fallible men to pass irreversible judgement.
The issue is serious and it deserves a serious debate. This, however, is something it no longer gets in Britain, where the death penalty for murder was abolished in 1965, and for any crime in 1998.
That absence of debate is a pity because this issue touches tangentially on many others that, put together, go to the ontological essence of man. As such, the death penalty deserves to be discussed by philosophers, not just politicians and public advocates.
Alas, when it does come up, the debate inevitably inhabits a lower storey in the edifice of reason. Mostly it revolves around the issue of deterrence, which a priori makes said edifice creak on its foundations.
In the years preceding 1965, the Crown executed about four convicted murderers a year. Comparing that number to the number of murders – and even to the number of convictions – one realises that the rate of executions indeed had a derisory deterrent value. A man had a greater chance of being killed by driving his wife than by killing her, and yet such statistics didn’t adversely affect car sales in a pre-1965 Britain.
The fundamental problem about deterrence is that it can’t be proved one way or the other. Looking at the number of pre-1965 murders, we know exactly how many were not deterred by the death penalty. But how do we know that, in its absence, the number wouldn’t have been, say, twice as high? We don’t.
Common sense suggests that a chap contemplating a murder would be more scared of hanging than of imprisonment, but common sense is an unreliable guide in this case. In British jurisprudence, it may work in civil cases, requiring as they do only proof on the balance of probability. Yet criminal cases demand proof beyond reasonable doubt, which requirement goes way beyond common sense.
In general, arguing this issue on purely material considerations always leaves gaping holes in one’s intellectual trousers.
For example, murder calls for a mandatory life sentence in Britain – that is the maximum possible penalty. What’s then to prevent the convict from murdering someone, a warder for example, in prison? He only has one life, and it’s already spoken for.
Then life doesn’t necessarily mean life. Most cases have a tariff applied, meaning that some murderers may be released after a number of years, leaving them free to kill again. One indisputable argument for the death penalty is that it undoubtedly deters the executed criminal.
Yet those arguments are frivolous, for they invoke technicalities, not the principle. An opponent of capital punishment may just say that solitary confinement will put paid to the first argument, and abolishing tariffs to the second – and then flash a smug QED smile that’s never far from a liberal’s face.
My argument is that, rather than denying the value of human life, the death penalty affirms it. By executing a murderer, society proclaims that this value is so high that it can’t be offset by any number of years in prison.
That’s why the death penalty was never regarded as objectionable in the founding moral code of the West, the Scripture. Most saints, and all important ones, from Augustine to Aquinas and everyone in between, saw no conflict between Christian morality and the death penalty.
When society was still guided by Christian ethics, the moral validity of the death penalty was never in doubt. It was understood that murder sent a shock throughout the community, and the amplitude of those destructive waves could be attenuated only by a punishment commensurate with the crime. Without it, the agitated community would run the risk of never recovering its eirenic order.
Today’s society has become anaesthetised to violent death, having lived through history’s first atheist century, the twentieth. Having replaced Christian morality with its secular perversion, mankind then proceeded to kill more people than in the previous thirty centuries of recorded history combined.
Eirenic social order is now a distant memory, and murder no longer shocks the way it did even a few decades ago. Most people still find that crime heinous, but their inner reservoir of outrage has been squandered – there are so many murders reported that each can receive only a soupçon of wrath.
Thus each individual human life has been so devalued that any attempt to reassert its significance by imposing the death penalty on a murderer is resisted out of insouciance and torpor. This can then be post-rationalised into a seemingly valid, but in fact defunct, moral argument.
Having discussed crime and punishment on the BBC a couple of times, I realised the utter futility of arguing the issue seriously. For the liberals’ railing against the death penalty simply camouflages their opposition to punishment as such.
This too springs from post-Christian secularism. Each person used to be regarded as a sovereign moral agent endowed with free will and therefore bearing individual responsibility for his actions.
Since man was fallen and therefore fallible, it was recognised that making moral choices was taxing. An individual moral choice deserved praise; an immoral one, punishment. Like any other freedom, that of the will presupposes bearing the consequences of one’s actions.
The liberal view going back to Rousseau is different. Man is perceived as inherently good and, if one turns out bad, he has been failed by society. Society didn’t open enough paths for his good nature to reach its pre-determined destination of virtue. Hence, by passing a sentence on a criminal, society in effect condemns itself, which is illogical.
A liberal will at a pinch agree that imprisonment may be a necessity, but only if prison is used as a combination of social services and a school. Prison is supposed to improve and educate, rather than punish in the service of justice.
Since the death penalty neither improves nor educates a criminal, it’s so far beyond the pale that it doesn’t even merit discussion. Who are we to inflict the worst possible punishment on Rousseau’s noble savage – even if this particular savage has acted in a rather ignoble way?
This again is a relatively new, and absolutely unsound, way of thinking. It goes to show yet again how thoroughly, and one fears irreversibly, the so-called Age of Reason has destroyed reason.
To a Christian thinker, it was eternal perdition, not physical death, that was the worst punishment. It was therefore possible to love one’s enemy and still kill him, provided one prayed for the salvation of his soul. That’s partly what St Augustine meant when first formulating the concept of just war. War was no longer evil if it prevented greater evil, and killing, as opposed to murder, didn’t contradict Christ’s commandment to love our enemies.
The modern liberal is deaf to such subtleties. He happily campaigns against the death penalty, while giving the benefit of the doubt to mass-murdering left-wing regimes. And of course his secular interpretation of the sanctity of life can never stretch to abortion or, increasingly, euthanasia.
His moral sensibilities can accommodate those with ease. It’s only the death penalty accepted by Christians as just for 2,000 years that awakens his moral sensibility – specifically because it was accepted by Christians as just for 2,000 years.