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.