Reason gets the death penalty

The death penalty is such a divisive issue than even I’m divided on it. On balance, I’m in favour – but with so many reservations that even simply listing them would bore you to tears.

Dominic Lawson, theologian

On the other hand, I know some good and intelligent people whose balance swings the other way.

Believers among them cite the relevant commandment or question the right of fallible people to pass irreversible judgement. Materialists are troubled by the likelihood of mistakes.

The materialist objection could be answered by tightening the required standard of proof. I’d be comfortable if proof beyond any reasonable doubt were in death penalty cases replaced with proof beyond any doubt.

For example, having plunged the knife into the body of Sir David Amess 17 times, his murderer calmly waited for the police to arrive. No doubt, reasonable or otherwise, of his guilt can exist; no mistake is possible. Give him the chop.

Still, I’m prepared to consider any informed argument on the issue. Alas, the one casually mentioned by Dominic Lawson, doesn’t qualify as such.

In his otherwise good article on Sir David, Mr Lawson described him as “a devout Catholic (despite his support for the death penalty)”. The assumption is that support for the death penalty is incompatible with Christian, or specifically Catholic, doctrine.

That, I’m afraid, is ignorance speaking. For Mr Lawson’s statement is tantamount to saying that being a Thomist is incompatible with being a Catholic.

For St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher among theologians and the greatest theologian among philosophers, was an unequivocal supporter of the death penalty.

According to St Thomas: “…men who are in authority over others do no wrong when they reward the good and punish the evil… Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men.”

And further: “… the physician quite properly and beneficially cuts off a diseased organ if the corruption of the body is threatened because of it. Therefore, the ruler of a state executes pestiferous men justly and sinlessly in order that the peace of the state may not be disrupted.”

Thus St Thomas doesn’t pass the Lawson test of Catholic probity. However, Pope Francis does. He opposes not only the death penalty but even life imprisonment, which he thinks amounts to the same thing.

I wouldn’t be surprised if This Holiness felt that a strong rebuke and perhaps a warning would be sufficient punishment for murder, but, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), even more conservative Popes have had problems with the death penalty.

However, saying that there’s something inherently contradictory about a devout Catholic supporting it betokens sheer ignorance. That is lamentable in a man who, like Mr Lawson, is married to a Catholic, Diana’s Best Friend by profession. One gets the impression that the Lawsons don’t ponder Christian doctrine at their dinner table.

One argument against the death penalty is that it corrupts the executioner. I find this argument worth considering. But David Amess always dismissed it out of hand. “If that’s your problem,” he’d say, “I volunteer.”

Generally speaking, I doubt I could honestly give the same answer. However, in this particular case, if the only obstacle to putting Sir David’s murderer to death were the dearth of executioners, I too would offer my services.

P.S. Our press blithely crosses the line separating righteous from self-righteous.

Thus there was an outburst of indignation when the Saudi government bought Newcastle United. Apparently the Saudis’ record on human rights doesn’t meet the exacting standards our hacks demand from any buyer of British football clubs.

These standards, however, are applied selectively. Thus journos fall over themselves trying to wangle an invitation to the box at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s stadium.

Now, Chelsea FC is owned by Roman Abramovich, one of those shady characters who were appointed ‘oligarchs’ by Russia’s KGB government. According to Catherine Belton’s book Putin’s People, it was Putin who ordered Abramovich to buy the club as a way of establishing a foothold in London and especially the City.

I won’t go into any details of Russia’s record on human rights, other than saying that it’s not conspicuously better than the Saudis’. So where’s that sauce for the gander?

6 thoughts on “Reason gets the death penalty”

  1. Although the reported words of (St) Thomas Aquinas are striking, it is surely anachronistic to cite them in support of present-day actions. Such words are relevant today only if they make rational sense; that they were said by a (possibly mythical) figure of a long-past age is neither here nor there.

    Like Mr Boot I am in two minds about capital punishment. Certainly in a case like this it appears unarguably justified. But very few cases will be as clear-cut and that puts the legal system on a slippery slope, from which it surely must be rescued. Sadly, that means eschewing capital punishment. But I see nothing similar against a truly whole-life term except its cost to the wider community, which I would be prepared to support in such (limited) cases.

  2. The death penalty does not seem to make any difference in violent crime rate if one looks at statistics from the USA (comparing states with versus without death penalty). A substantial increase in the probability of getting caught and prosecuted would in my view go a much longer way. In other words, more law enforcement resources. And comparing a life sentence (on bread and water) with the death would be a harsher punishment as well.

    1. We don’t know what the crime rates would be in the bad states if they didn’t have the death penalty. Other, good, states may have other reasons for having better crime rates. In general, I tend to treat statistics with caution.

  3. That the Somali bad guy just sat there after the stabbing and calmly waited for the police to arrive will be used as a defense. No person in their right mind would behave that way just after killing someone. Sure.

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