Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Capital Punishment

I changed my position on this over 20 years ago, but now think I am changing back. I once heard a patient claim that her mother had “done a complete 240” on something, and bizarrely, this turned out to be true. I trust I am not that bizarre, but as my reasons are not what they were, perhaps I should cop to that. There are many angles to this argument, and I seldom feel confident I am taking the best one. However, I do have a surprising contradiction or inversion I had not thought of before. Which is why you all visit, right?

I have always accepted the idea that for the state to take life is an enormous thing. I have sometimes thought it so enormous as to be a net loss in treating life as sacred, whatever the deterrent and justice effects. At other times I have thought it a net gain; yet always, a high cost. Reading a comparison between the Mosaic Law and the systems of the other peoples of the time, historian Paul Johnson noted that the Jews had capital punishment because life was sacred, not in spite of it. It was not used for crimes against property, but for crimes against life*. You could not buy your way out of it, no matter how rich you were. If a rich man killed a slave his life was still forfeit, because the slave’s life was sacred and could not be bought for mere money. This has generally not been the view of most peoples in most places. The natural tendency of fallen humanity seems to be that some lives are more sacred than others, and being well-connected could, in many circumstances, get you off the hook.

I had not thought of capital punishment as an expression of life’s sacredness before, but as an exception. I don’t know that looking through the telescope the other way like this changes my whole opinion. But it gives me pause, and is worth thinking about.

*As with every other culture, crimes “against the natural order,” variously defined, could be reinterpreted as crimes against life, and warrant execution.


jlbussey said...

I have no objection to capital punishment in theory, there's no question in my mind that the Ted Bundys and Gary Ridgeways of the world need to die. I do however have grave doubts about our judicial system's ability to come to the right conclusion (given all of the convictions overturned of late by DNA evidence) and to apply it fairly, objectively, and in a timely manner. Where the compromise is between those two positions, I still can't decide.

jlbussey said...

(No pun was intended by the "grave doubts." Sorry about that.)

CBI said...

Interesting. For me, the high value -- the sacredness -- of human life was always the main reason for capital punishment as a punishment for, well, capital crimes.

It was only later, probably in my teens, when I began to hear of other reasons, such as deterrence. While these other reasons may be valid, they always to me seemed to be supportive, but not definitive.

Aside: A cyber-friend had been ordained a priest in the Church of Sweden (Lutheran). He once told me that the Swedish breviary (?? -- a book of prayers for priests) had a prayer for "a person unjustly condemned to death". The point was, although capital punishment was needed, a fallible human justice system (or, more likely, corrupt people using the system) would at times wrongly condemn someone to death. Christians, living in the real world, needed to minister to a person in that situation.

David said...

The "mistaken" or "unjust conviction" objection is an excuse. All human systems are fallible, but it does not mean we must not try. The no-capital punishment position is like a zero-tolerance policy that cannot distinguish between a students pocket knife and a switchblade. It allows you to avoid decisionmaking.

If you watch an old british cop film, the murderers were always sentenced to swing (and pretty promptly too!). This was at time of astoundingly low crime in Britain and the US. This was only in part due to the deterrent effect, but also that Society took capital offences seriously.

David said...
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DW said...

Johnson's argument also serves to rebut those who would dismiss people who support capital punishment but oppose abortion on demand.

terri said...

I think the idea about valuing life has some merit.

My only counterpoint would be that it is also a practical one. How would a desert, nomadic culture imprison a person? Keeping criminals alive could be seen as a waste of resources. I'm not saying that's the only motivation for ancient capital punishment laws....but at a time when resources were not abundant, it would definitely seem foolish.

"*As with every other culture, crimes “against the natural order,” variously defined, could be reinterpreted as crimes against life, and warrant execution.

I'm going to assume that this is referring to the fact that Mosaic Law allowed capital punishment for Sabbath Breakers and dishonorable children?

Ben-David said...

The Jewish tradition quickly made capital punishment very rare, with Rabbinical requirements of evidence that are impossibly hard to meet.

In some instances, the death penalty functions as a rhetorical indication of an issue's importance, rather than a prosecutable offense. For example, the Talmud tells us that "there never was, nor will be, a case of a Rebellious Son."

And in many instances the punishment is premature death, or being "cut off from the nation" which are in G-d's hands.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I rather agree, except for the word "quickly." From the time of Moses to the time of the rabbis/Talmud isn't quickly. We may unconsciously think so, as both are in a remote past we can imagine only by a long series of associations, but it's only half of 4000 years. Or so.