How the death penalty asserts the value of human life

I’ve always regarded liberal arguments as intellectually, and therefore morally, unsound. However, one exception exists: capital punishment.

“I hereby sentence you to counselling”

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.

14 thoughts on “How the death penalty asserts the value of human life”

  1. As you are well aware the subject is open to much argument. Two arguments against the death penalty are that (1) at trial, guilt may occasionally be decided in error, and (2) the infliction of state-mandated death necessarily damages the functionaries involved. I find these compelling; others may not, but a state must find an acceptable balance between such opposing sentiments and our state’s preferred balance now falls against the extreme sanction. That is surely a rational, therefore good, decision. Similarly, there are good rational arguments for and against permitting abortion (at a sufficiently early stage or for defined medical reasons). And personally I will not support euthanasia or murderous distant regimes under any circumstances.

  2. 1. Deterrence one aspect. Retribution also cannot be denied as having validity. How do you further punish an inmate already serving life when that convict murders a member of the prison staff or another inmate?

    2. Life in the USA usually means twenty years. Doesn’t mean you will get out after that period but means you are eligible for parole. LIFE surely does not mean until the end of natural existence.

  3. To me the death penalty is more a sign of revenge than punishment. I for one would chose death rather than life in prison if it really meant life. But I don’t think like a criminal of corse because I’m not one of them. Further I do not think the death penalty is a deterrent but what is, is the chance of being caught in the crime. If there is a close to 100% probability to be caught and convicted I think it would have a positive effect on the crime rate.

  4. What’s your take on the James Bulger case? Should murderers who are children be executed?

    For the life of me I cannot understand why the likes of Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe were kept alive for decades. These men were not common murderers, and there was not even unreasonable doubt as to their guilt. Yet the British state did everything in its power to keep them alive. Seems an insult to the relatives of the victims.

    1. There has to be an age limit on executions. For example, you wouldn’t hang a five-year-old, would you? An argument can be made that children aren’t wholly responsible for their actions, and therefore shouldn’t bear their full consequence. What the age limit should be is a difficult question, and one I’m not qualified to answer – even in a case as monstrous as the one you mention.

  5. The merest possibility of a wrongful conviction is the beginning and the end of the argument for me. A monstrous act committed by the state is worse, if possible than one committed by an individual. It does seem to happen in the states, despite being a technologically advanced country.

        1. You’re talking about technicalities, not the principle. Your objection could be removed by, for example, tightening the required standard of proof from ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to ‘beyond all doubt’ whenever the death penalty is a possibility. Say, a chap is caught firing indiscriminately on a school yard and screaming ‘Allahu akbar!’ in full view of a crowd. Then it also happens that innocent people spend decades in prison as a result of a court error. Should we get rid of prisons and, while we’re at it, the police too?

          1. The devil is in the technicalities, I’m afraid. Setting aside the fact that the chap you describe usually pronounces his own death sentence, indeed welcomes it, you philosophers would have to be able to justify why murder in plain sight was a more heinous crime, demanding a more terrible punishment, than murder without witnesses, perhaps with rape and torture thrown in for good measure. It couldn’t be done.

            When innocent people are incarcerated, they can be freed, apologised to and reparations made, which is exactly my point. (We need to talk privately about reductio ad absurdum arguments……)

  6. I didn’t say that murder in plain sight is worse, only that it eliminates the possibility of doubt. Making the required standards of proof more rigorous than beyond a reasonable doubt whenever the death penalty is a possibility should solve the problem you have. My point is that the death penalty in no way contradicts Judaeo-Christian ethics, whereas abandoning such ethics exacts an appalling cost to, and in, human lives. How to use it without hanging too many innocent bystanders is a different matter, but not an unsolvable one.

  7. I’m still on the fence.

    I would say that the state is not competent enough to decide whether an individual should live or die at the conclusion of a criminal case. But…I am swayed by the christian value placed on human life – the deliberate taking of it requiring the ultimate sanction.

    I am also swayed by a more empirical, rather than moral or faith based reason.

    In the 55 years since the abolition of capital punishment for murder, more people have been killed by recidivists than were executed by the state in the 55 years leading up to abolition.

    Logically, capital punishment saves (innocent) lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.