Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

More on Capital Punishment

I was thinking more about capital punishment after it came up in a conversation last night, and decided to give another look at a post I wrote a few months ago on the subject. There I came across a quote from a friend in favour of capital punishment for certain offences, and I have decided to write a little bit more about why I think that my friend’s attitude is wrong-headed. The first time around I addressed the concept of moral dessert (rather shallowly) but did not focus on some of the other potentially problematic aspects of what my friend was saying. I hope to do that this time around.

To review, what my friend said was:

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).

I have heard variations on this position from a few other people, including people who like this friend generally show a consistent and strong commitment to humanist values. And on the surface, it seems to be in keeping with a focus on advancing an ethic that calls for human life to be treated as an object of great value.

Until you stop to think about it.

In a sense, this position requires us to use the killer’s values rather than our own. We infer from the killer’s actions that she doesn’t value life (which may or may not be true). We derive from this that we should act in accordance with the killer’s lack of concern for her own life, according it the same [lack of ] value. Does this mean that it is morally acceptable to kill someone if (we believe that) she does not value her own life?

This reminds me of the classic question of whether a person can sell herself into slavery. If we believe that every person should be entitled to a set of properly basic and universal rights, then those rights obtain whether or not the rights-holder wants them. But let’s be charitable and remove from my friend’s position the part about the killer not valuing her own life. Does keeping the rest make it better?

One immediate thought on a relevant analogy: does an unrepentant thief lose all right to own property of her own? That seems like an odd position to advance. Maybe murder is a special kind of wrong act? Let’s say that it is. We’re still left with problems.

Consider the subject of this position: a person who ‘brutally murders people without any expression of remorse or will to repentance’. Presumably this subject occupies a special category apart from other killers, in order to lose the right to life, which is only something that happens to some killers. The term ‘murder’ here smuggles in certain assumptions, such as that the homicide in question was not an act of justified self-defence, or otherwise morally permissible, but it isn’t a terrible word choice. In the end, of course, we have to have a standard for what constitutes murder. But nevertheless, when confronted with an unrepentant killer, I think we have only two possibilities that explain their lack of remorse:

  1. She believes that the killing was morally justified because it was either self-defence or another kind of righteous act, such as an honour-killing to avenge an insult or discipline a wayward family member, or taking the life of a cheating spouse in a crime of passion that the killer feels was morally permissible, or perhaps even an execution of someone who has implicitly forfeited their right to life by unsympathetically taking the life of another;
  2. She believes that the killing was morally justified because when she desires to kill someone, it is not ever wrong – in short, some kind of psychopathy.

Should a killer of the first type occupy a special category? I say no. The fact that the killer believers her actions to be morally justified out of self-defence or righteousness suggests that she has a real sense of morality, possesses the capacity for ethical calculations or feelings of empathy or sympathy, and is simply operating off of a different set of value judgements than the ones we are using when we call her act ‘murder’. As humanists, I think we have an obligation to recognise the vast plurality of moral systems currently held by the vast plurality of people who together comprise humanity. While we are certainly entitled to advance our own moral arguments, there doesn’t seem to me to be any way to non-arbitrarily select a subset of people who disagree with them in favour of a different set of moral views and call them so vile as to deserve death.

Consider the example of the terrorist bomber, who sees the victims of her attack as legitimate targets in a war, either because those victims are in her perspective actual combatants or because she views her ends and the probability of attaining them as justifying the means. Would you expect remorse from this person? Probably not, unless you also succeed in convincing her to change her mind about many other aspects of her value system and political views. Does our failure to persuade her to change her mind render her right to life forfeit, when if we could make a better argument such that she did change her mind, she could keep her right to life? That seems an absurd thing for a humanist to believe.

What about killers of the second type, who are not so much specifically unrepentant as generally unrepentant, and who think that morality just doesn’t apply to them? It does seem to me as though these people could more easily be said to occupy a discrete category independent of our success or failure to convince them to change their minds about their actions. No matter how well we argue, such people will never feel remorse.

Except this is a mental illness. It’s a terrible mental illness that poses a great danger to both those who suffer from it and to anyone around them. But what kind of humanist advocates for the killing of the mentally ill?

Even if I accept the notion of moral dessert for the sake of argument, I just can’t find any merit to this position on capital punishment.


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