Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Are All Killings Morally Equal?

A former student asks how those who are both pro-life on abortion and who also advocate capital punishment can reconcile these two views. It would seem, she suggests, that to revere life would lead one to oppose all killing of human beings and that it is inconsistent to oppose abortion but not state-sponsored execution.

I think the answer is that those who are pro-life, or more precisely, those who are strongly pro-life, believe that no one has the moral right to deliberately kill an innocent person. If an unborn child is, in fact, an innocent person, which they believe it is (although its personhood is debated by philosophers), then it is morally wrong to deliberately kill it.

Nevertheless, although life is precious, its preservation is not an absolute. Killing in self-defense or in defense of others is morally permissible because the individual who constitutes a threat against you or another is not himself innocent. Killing in war, assuming the conflict meets the criteria of a just war, is morally permissible under certain prescribed circumstances because the war is a form of self-defense or defense of others. Likewise, a convicted murderer is not an innocent person and is thus not protected by the moral presumption against killing innocents.

To oppose capital punishment on the grounds that it is inconsistent with placing a high value on life is, I think, a confusion. The more serious the crime the more serious the punishment must be. A society that truly values life would surely make murder one of the most serious offenses an individual could commit and therefore the crime would merit the most serious punishment.

To decline to execute a convicted murderer on the grounds that his life is too precious to forfeit is to implicitly deny that any crime is so wicked that it merits ultimate punishment. It is to implicitly affirm that the loss of the victim's life was not so serious an offense that it is worth taking that of his killer. In other words, we're claiming that we believe life is too precious to sacrifice, but our behavior is actually demonstrating the opposite. Our unwillingness to execute a convicted murderer is a tacit acknowledgement that we don't value the life of the victim enough to make ending it a crime punishable by the most severe penalty.

We would be outraged if courts began to punish rapists by merely fining them, as is done in some Muslim countries. We would insist that this is manifestly unjust. A fine is not commensurate with the crime of violence against the victim. The law, we would argue, is devaluing women by, in effect, establishing that they aren't worth incarcerating their attackers over. It would be ludicrous to say, on one hand, that we believe women are valuable as human beings and then, on the other, treat rape as a misdemeanor. Rape is a serious offense and anything less than a serious penalty for it sends the message that women aren't valued by the society in which they live.

It really is much the same with murder. The refusal to execute a murderer actually devalues the life of his victim. Just as the promiscuous use of the death penalty would cheapen human life, so, too, would its abolition.

There may be other reasons for not executing certain types of criminals, but the argument from a consistent reverence for life seems to me to be one which, paradoxical as it may sound at first, actually cuts in favor of capital punishment.

From the Mail

The following is from a friend in response to this post of August 15, the offending part of which is here:

The scariest words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." -- Ronald Reagan

"Help is on the way." -- John Kerry

When politicians talk about "helping" it's time to hide your wallets.

My friend writes:

I've been away a bit and haven't kept up with your daily postings. Good stuff! But I feel I must comment on your post of 8-15 suggesting that it is bad for the government to help. Of course your quote from former President Reagan speaks volumes, capturing as it does the whole neo-con view, which you obviously promote here, and it's claim that it is somehow bad for the government to help people. Or, that "helping" equals taking from your wallet (stealing, is it?) Well. I suppose you presume that the "you" is an upper middle class reader, who doesn't believe in allowing the government to do justice, help the poor, build roads, pay teachers, enforce EPA guidelines, prosecute criminals, fund research on public health, wage wars, and all the other good stuff government sometimes does (and sometimes does well). Are there really people out there that don't appreciate the proper use of legitimate taxes?

If one, however, believes that it is a good thing, in principle, that the government administers funds for the public good (a proposition I have previous maintained in this column to be a Biblical one) then this assumption of Reagan and Cleary that the government is stealing from your wallet, and you'd better look out, is cyncial and just dead wrong. I think you should renounce this odd claim. (And, while your at it, renounce the cheesy partisan dig, as if to imply that the Bush administration doesn't want to help anybody. Was it wrong for him to fly to Florida yesterday to offer help to the storm victims there? Doesn't he claim to want to help the people of Iraq?)

And, further, if the reader is actually one who has been seriously helped--beyond the common assistance of good school books, nice roads, safe traffic lights, well-trained police, pure water (more or less) and due process when necessary--of the reader really is economically poor, and has received food stamps, then the claim is worse than theoretically inadequate, it is offensive.

You are a man that desires to love neighbor and you want our public order to be normed by justice. Why this regular gripping about taxes and government? Are you really opposed to food stamps, a verifiably helpful and cost-effective government aid program? Do you think that the government ought not to be involved in any disaster relief? Can you imagine how those below the poverty line hoping for a small assistance grant for job training or allowance for heat take your attack?

I'd say, pick on somebody your own size, and let the children who are forced to live below poverty line alone. Let the handicapped elderly alone; stopping complaining about our modest help to the emaciated in the third world. Because, finally, that is who this "priceless" critique is aimed at. I sincerely ask you to reconsider.

I'll post an apologia tonight.