In debates about capital punishment, most humanists seem to agree: it’s a bad idea. The stats seem to suggest that it doesn’t deter crime any more than non-capital sentences, and the flaws likely to occur in any justice system make it overwhelming likely that a government regularly giving capital sentences is going to execute an innocent person. That doesn’t sit well with many people.
But one area where these does not seem to be consensus is on the question of whether or not anyone, theoretically at least, deserves to die. In considering the harm wrought by some of the most atrocious criminals imaginable – war criminals ordering mass rapes or savage serial killers – many humanists are willing to say: this person is so bad that they deserve to be killed. They lose their right to live (if you believe in rights) and the brutality of their actions surpasses a level past which they, by their responsibility as a moral agent, should lose their most precious possession: life itself.
To quote one friend:
Anyone who brutally murders people without any expression of remorse or will to repentance is telling us that they do not value life, including their own. Notice I speak of someone who sees no wrong in their murdering another. Such a person implicitly forfeits their right to life by so unsympathetically taking the life (lives) of another (other).
This is unsustainable on at a rigorous level of analysis.
What does it mean to say someone deserves? A good basic definition from the dictionary is that it means ‘to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward or requital’. Essential to this notion is that a person is an autonomous agent. Their decisions are made through rational analysis of some range of choices, and they as an individual should be held morally responsible for their decisions. A good choice thus deserves praise while a bad choice thus deserves rebuke.
The claim ‘people should be considered morally autonomous agents’ can be defended on two grounds: prudence and truth. To say that it is prudent to treat others as though they are morally autonomous doesn’t require that they actually are such, according to the rules of logic. If that is your only argument, then questions of whether or not someone should be said to deserve will be grounded in practicality. But to say that it is true that a person is morally autonomous requires that one believe that we have real control over our moral choices.
It goes without saying that as a matter of practical need, we must treat people as having some measure of agency. Otherwise we’re left with nothing but total determinism, in which we see a person’s actions as being entirely dictated by their genetics and their upbringing or environment. Were we to believe this, we would be unable to sustain any anger towards people who treat us badly, or have any honest appreciation of others for their virtues. But as I said earlier, this doesn’t mean that it is true that people have autonomous control over their choices.
Rationality is an information-sensitive exercise. It is about assessing cost and benefit, given a certain set of values and a certain set of means available for realising the interests obtained from those values. Those values are determined by something: either by one’s genetic or evolved predispositions, or by one’s upbringing and environment. And while one’s environment is arguably shaped by the choices that they make, those choices are themselves determined by genetics or environment. Thus while we can hold that rationality is possible, we cannot hold that a rational agent is a morally responsible one.
As far as rationality and criminality is concerned, this leaves us with something along the lines of, ‘there are no bad people, only bad ideas’. And bad actions, of course, since ideas + rationality = motivation for action.
What about actions resulting from something nonrational, like powerful feelings of love or empathy or jealously? I don’t think we can hold a person responsible, at an essential level, for those either. If a person does something without having really thought about it, that person hasn’t made a choice. They’ve reacted to an impulse. And while we can celebrate good impulses and revile bad ones, we shouldn’t treat reactions to them as morally autonomous behaviour.
I think this argument should lead us to believe that it isn’t reasonable to say that a person deserves to die, because to do subverts the goal to presuming moral autonomy in the first place, namely to make social life navigable and to some degree analysable. We gain neither navigability nor knowledge by ending the lives of others.
Of course, one could still argue that the presumption of moral autonomy is prudent enough to be taken to its ‘natural conclusion’, which encompasses the very question of whether or not someone deserves to live. One may find it so important to justify rewards and punishments at a deontic level as to support killing some people because doing so seems consistent. But this is also problematic: life is not a thing of value of which one may be deprived. Life cannot be taken away from a person, because life precedes personhood. Life is the boundary condition within which the notions of merit or rights have any meaning at all. In other words, life has no value according to the presumption of moral autonomy alone. Even the most prolific murderer has thus not taken from his victims something which can be seen as equivalent to his own life. In other words, even believing that a person can deserve reward and punishment does not support the belief that depriving someone of their life could be a punishment equivalent to the wrongness of some moral transgression.
No matter how you look at it, nobody deserves to die.