Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Capital Punishment

I've been thinking about capital punishment lately, somewhat provoked by a very thoughtful and interesting discussion here.  It's a personal reflection by a philosophy professor named Lisa N. Guenther.  Professor Guenther has spent time teaching philosophy to death row inmates.  She is strongly against capital punishment (and life sentences, too, as she reveals in the comments.)  I just posted a reply which upon rereading could use slight editing.  I'm reposting a slightly edited version below.  My argument for capital punishment employs a consequentialist justification for retributive justice. (This connects with a somewhat recent post about Dennett's approach to dessert, since he seems to endorse a conseqentialist argument for limited deontology.)

Professor Guenther, 
I want to apologize at the outset in case my response to your thought-provoking post is off-key. While one point of your post is to criticize capital punishment, I am not sure if you are attempting to present an informal or semi-formal argument against it. While I find much to admire in your post, I find some questionable and even highly suspicious claims. And I don't quite see anything that adds up to a clear argument against capital punishment. I suspect your aim is not to argue so much as to reflect, provoke and perhaps enlighten. But I also suspect that you are more than happy to defend your claims and support your view with argument. So, if you don't mind the semi-formality of my tone, I have some criticisms to offer.
You've shown us that "Prisoners are encouraged by wardens and pastors, parole boards and philosophy professors to learn new things, to reflect on their experience, to make something of themselves in prison." I wonder, then, why you claim that the death row inmate's "job" is "not to transform himself, but to remain the same throughout an appeals process that can last years or even decades." By your own admission, the system promotes growth and development, and does not expect the sort of stagnation you say.
I assume you mean that the general public, those who you say want to be "soothed," do not want prisoners to change while they are awaiting execution. However, I am not sure why you would make that assumption. I do not think you have given your opposition the fairest representation.  Those who argue for capital punishment do not necessarily expect executions to soothe public anxieties. However, even if that is the goal, it is not obvious that this goal can only be fulfilled if the death row inmates refrain from artistic and philosophical growth. The anesthetic function can be fulfilled even if it means the execution of eloquent, sensitive and even remorseful people.
Your assumption, I think, is that a certain level of intellectual and artistic development is evidence of a certain value, and that a line must be drawn once that value has become manifest. That line is sacrosanct. Nothing can justify crossing it. The sanctity of that life is absolute. I hope you will correct me if I'm wrong, but that is what I read in your words.
My own view of capital punishment has evolved. I used to be adamantly against it, but now I think it is justifiable. I think that the self-defense justification for homicide can, in principle, extend to the state. More importantly--much more importantly--I would not personally be able to tell the parents of a group of young children who were brutally raped and murdered by a man who showed no remorse and who laughed in their faces -- I would not be able to tell them that that man deserved protection from the state. I would not be able to force them to wake up every morning knowing that he was still alive at the hands of the state.
There is an ideal, of course, in which we all can overcome our desire for retribution. Where we can rise above, forgive and even embrace the tragedies befallen us. But that is an ideal, and I am more concerned with the reality. I do not think families should spend a lifetime of suffering because they cannot live up to that ideal. I do not think every human life is so precious that it justifies that suffering.