The Death Penalty: Is There a Dispensable Mob Boss?

A small group, only three of us. We had no planned agenda. There was a question about Aristotle’s four causes, but I wanted to put off trying to talk about them until I had done some more research. So instead, we decided to discuss some ethical issue. On a whim, I suggested the death penalty. More specifically, I asked the question: is it ethical for a society to put to death one of its members, and if so, when?

To figure this out, we began by examining some of the common justifications for the death penalty. Turns out, the death penalty is cheaper than keeping someone alive for life in prison. However, the cheapest option is not always the “right” option. Lower cost does not justify something ethically.

We moved on to the use of the death penalty as a punishment. Is the death penalty a proper punishment for murder, and is it justified to carry out such punishment? (I separate these two questions because even if the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for murder, that does not necessarily justify a society to enact it.) “Punishment” seemed to suggest some different interpretations. One potential definition is that “punishment” is something that makes someone feel bad for their actions. Obviously, since the death penalty takes away one’s ability to feel entirely, it doesn’t really function to inspire guilt or create bad feelings for someone who has committed the action (other than, perhaps, their anguish in prison as they await the carrying out of their sentence–more like a torture technique).

Alternatively, it might be justified by its function as a deterrent: the threat of the impending punishment might be such that it causes an agent to alter his or her course of action. This had some issues. The strength of this particular threat, and thus its effectiveness as a deterrent, appears to come down to one’s personal beliefs about death. The more afraid one is of death, the more effective the threat of death should be as a deterrent. If you are afraid of going to hell, then you will not want to be sent there. However, if you believe that you will go to heaven, you might be less likely to fear death. Similarly, if you are an atheist and you view death as merely the cessation of biological activity, then you would have a lesser fear of death than if you were afraid you might go to hell. If you are a radical Islamist and you view the death penalty as a death in battle, or for a cause, you might even welcome it. Thus, its effectiveness as a deterrent is probably limited by a population’s beliefs about what happens after death.

The jury is still out on whether or not societies with the death penalty are statistically less likely to have murders. But even if the death penalty were shown to be an effective deterrent, would that necessarily justify it? More on that later…

Another potential function is as a settling of a score, a payment of a debt, a restoration of the balance of justice. But this also seemed inadequate. If I am a thief, and I steal money from someone, I can repay the debt. But if I am a murderer and I take someone’s life, I cannot give that life back. Furthermore, the taking of my life by capital punishment does not bring the scales back into balance, it simply adds to the body count. Capital punishment doesn’t seem to settle a score in the same way as other punishments or acts of retribution. (But even these have their problems. If I steal Steven’s car, I can return his car or pay him a sum of money equivalent to it–but if I steal Steven’s car on a day when Steven has a very important job interview, making him unable to go, I have not only robbed him of his car, but I have also robbed him of the opportunity to get a very important job. And there is no way to repay the debt that I owe him on that score, even if I return the car, or two cars, or three.)

Some would argue instead that it provides consolation for the victims, even if it is not a proper restoration of the balance of justice. Well, it might, but that isn’t necessarily an ethical justification. Just because something provides comfort or consolation, even if it did function as an effective restoration of the scales of justice, or as a deterrent, doesn’t mean it’s right. A common justification is “an eye for an eye”–you take a life, you lose your own. But we don’t do that for other crimes. We kill killers, but… we don’t rob robbers. We don’t rape rapists. How is it that we can say: killing is wrong for a citizen but okay for the government, while rape, for instance, is wrong for both the citizen and the government? Where does the double standard start and where does it end?

Human beings have a strong sense of justice, and the desire to see it done. Punishment can satisfy that desire. We watch TV programs like Game of Thrones and get wrapped up hating certain despicable characters, and then we feel catharsis when they are punished for their misdeeds. We all have a desire to see justice, almost to the point of bloodlust. But there is a problem. Steven used the example of a villain in Bad Boys II–an otherwise “disposable mob boss” who elicits no sympathy, but who has a daughter. When the villain is defeated, or killed (I don’t know, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched Bad Boys II), there is some lingering unease–what happens to the daughter? This raises the question if in real life there are any purely disposable people, like the deplorable characters in Game of Thrones, or if people always have mitigating factors that, if known, would make their death rest less easily with us, like the not-quite-disposable mob boss from Bad Boys II. Does everyone points of sympathy? As such, is it for us to say that they deserve death? We know that most murderers and likewise messed-up people usually have tortured pasts and histories, things that can make us sympathetic to their plight. At what point do we draw the line, and for what crimes, saying: we feel sorry for you, but not sorry enough that we won’t kill you–?

But this raises the broader question of to what extent anyone is responsible for their actions in general. We said that murderers and otherwise messed-up people almost always have some history of trauma, and this could potentially mitigate their responsibility for their actions in some way. But if that’s true, couldn’t it be argued for all of us? Aren’t we all, in not insignificant ways, the products of our upbringings and our backgrounds? And at what point do we stop saying “well, that’s just the way I was brought up” and start saying “yes, that was my fault”? Here it appears that we must either feel sorry for everyone or feel sorry for no one–unless we can identify a point at which someone is or is not responsible for certain actions.

This poses another problem though, because if someone’s action is often out of a person’s control, even more so is the result. For example, we discussed how murder and attempted murder are judged differently–but the problem is, the action was just the same, and the only reason that it turned out differently was likely due to some factor outside of the agent’s control: his lack of experience as a murderer, his clumsiness, accidents that conspired to keep his victim alive. We see fit to judge people on the results of their actions, which are just as much the results of accident as much as (or even more than) their intentions. (For more on this issue, see Thomas Nagel’s “Moral Luck”) Why do we judge someone differently for something that wasn’t their fault?

But the prospect of no longer saying that people are responsible for their actions does not seem like a viable option. (We all know people who shirk responsibility.) So perhaps we should judge someone by his intent, not by his actions. However, this is incredibly problematic for any serious system of justice in society. How do we know someone’s interior thoughts and intentions? “I didn’t mean to speed…”

We discussed negligence: when is not doing something doing something wrong? Here again, there seems to be a double standard. The law seems to indicate that some acts of neglect are reprehensible, while others are not. Neglecting to feed your child is illegal. Neglecting to intervene in a fight (which may lead to a murder) is not.

Somewhere in here, we also discussed the off-chance that a verdict is wrong. Is it excusable for a government to take the life of a citizen if there is a chance, no matter how slight, that its verdict was in error?

This was as far as we got. There is more to say on this issue, but so far we could not find an acceptable justification for the killing of another human being by a government unless it was preceded by a divine command–God ordering that the person should be killed. So many ethical issues seem to run afoul of the “moral luck” problem. And this I believe is where Aristotle’s ethics project led him, although instead of “moral luck” he might call it fate, or tragedy: no matter how virtuous a person’s character, intent, and actions, goodness may still be thwarted by factors outside of the control of human beings.

Next week: the four causes, and is institutional education social engineering?

Flash Apologetics in Mary’s Room

People trickled in slowly today. As such, conversation began with fluidity and not much intentionality. We briefly touched upon the ills of modern technology, the legalization of all drugs, the influence of Puritanism on American society and government, and the contradictions of organized anarchy. All these are fruitful topics, and perhaps they may resurface later.

The real discussion began with Steven introducing the Mary’s Room thought experiment: Mary is a girl who has studied the subject of color, and knows all there is to know about color. However, she has lived her whole life in a black and white room, can’t see herself, reads black and white books, and has a black and white computer screen, and therefore has never personally witnessed any color. Suddenly, one day, her computer screen malfunctions and displays a red apple. The question is: has she learned anything new?

The question seems to turn on epistemology. Is the experience of something different from the thing in itself, and is it distinct from other forms of knowledge, and does it count as “knowledge” to begin with?

Some of us said yes, and some of us said no. It seemed to me that to have something described to you, and then to actually experience that thing, are different. It also seems to me that experience could be classified as a form of knowledge, however subjective it may be. Mary now knows what it is like (for her) to see red.

This led back into our discussion about the forms. The form “red” exists separate from the objects that display it, but it is via those objects that we come to know the form through our senses. As in, when we look at a chair, we understand more about the chair than merely what we see–we have a sense of its structure, etc., we understand parts of the chair, we fill in the blanks of what we cannot see, which is ultimately the totality of our perception of it. Our perception is not limited only to the sensory data that we receive. The same is true of the forms. We cannot witness the forms in and of themselves, but we can come to know them through our perception of them as they are expressed by material objects.

As mentioned before, this flies in the face of the post-Hume empiricism which we’ve all more or less been indoctrinated with culturally. To my knowledge, Hume didn’t have solid “reasons” as such for why he denied transcendence (such as the forms, mind-body dualism), cause and effect, etc.– he just didn’t accept them.

In the midst of this discussion, I “came out” as a Christian, and Aramis pressed me on what the Christian perspective on the death penalty might be. I argued that an “eye for an eye” killing of a killer might be null under the covenant of grace. Additionally, ending a person’s life cuts short the potential, however slight, that they might repent and be redeemed.

This led naturally, if uncomfortably, into a discussion of the truth of Christianity in general, focusing mostly on the existence of God. This makes sense because, of course, if God can be disproved, Christianity crumbles. But the problem is, determining what constitutes “proof” or “evidence” for God is already to begin making statements about who or what God is in the first place. (At this point, I went about explaining what I understand to be the “presuppositional” apologetic. As before, I’m going to try to distill the argument, rather than trace its many twists and turns as they occurred in conversation.)

We all believe many sorts of different things, many of which are justified without the use of what we commonly refer to as “proof” or “evidence.” (And here I borrowed a little bit from Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.) A scientific belief, such as that a certain substance changes from liquid to gas at a certain temperature at a certain air pressure, is one based on evidence. This belief depends on its repeatability, the soundness of the principle of induction, and rests on the assumptions of constancy in the universe and the existence of material causes. Another sort of belief, such as what you had for breakfast this morning, is based not on evidence, but on memory and perception. You don’t open your stomach and examine its contents or return home and examine the remnants on your unwashed plate–you just know, and what’s more, the knowledge is valid. It is a “properly basic” belief. Another sort of belief, for instance, is that the ad hominem fallacy is an invalid form of argument. How might that be proved true? Well, that’s difficult to do, because the classification of the ad hominem as a fallacy is part of the system that we use to determine truth in the first place!

So, there are some types of beliefs that could be said not to require “proof” or “evidence” in the conventional sense, but that are still nonetheless justified. So, saying that the belief in God requires a certain proof is to classify the belief in God into a certain category of beliefs–more along the lines of scientific knowledge. But is this categorization justified? Well, the only way to say so is to say something about God–if belief requires such-and-such, it can only do so on account of something about the nature of God himself. Therefore, since this belief determines what constitutes evidence and how you interpret that evidence, to say that you can’t believe in God because there is no evidence is really to say that you’ve already chosen not to believe in God at the outset.

If the beliefs in God and Christianity are more along the lines of those “properly basic” (as Plantinga argues at great length), not only would it be difficult to frame any sort of argument for them, but such an argument might not be justified. It would not be the case that belief in God could be validated by logical or scientific means, but rather that belief in logic and science are validated by the existence of God.

(As an aside: there are, of course, arguments for Christianity, most famously Aquinas’ proofs. But even those arguments turn on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics, something that is mostly in concord with the teachings of Christianity. Since Descartes, I think, Western philosophy no longer subscribes to that sort of metaphysic, which might be why many people find Aquinas’ proofs insufficient.)

There were also some other objections worth noting, including: why would God create some people only to send them to hell, why does he make people sick/sinful, why would he make creation with a plan for salvation that included the killing of his own son, etc. But I would consider these to be “internal” issues–they have to assume the existence of God at the outset in order to be meaningful. Furthermore, if you can’t think of a good reason for God’s doing something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t one. Another question was, if humans are broken and sinful, doesn’t that mean they are worthless? The answer according to Christianity is no–the price paid by Jesus indicates the worth God finds in humanity. If something is broken, but can be restored, it doesn’t lose its worth. If I have a precious, rare vase that I break into a million pieces, it would be said to have lost its worth, but that’s because it can’t ever be restored to its original state. Christianity says that we can, through Jesus, be restored. The original worth can be recovered (and for the Christian, is in the process of being recovered by the sovereignty of God through sanctification).

The next question was, then, if belief is a choice, why should I choose to believe? My response here was sloppy. I tried to say something along these lines: Christianity would argue that its worldview encompasses and explains more than any other worldview. For example, a naturalistic worldview explains physical phenomenon very well, but it is at a loss to explain our sense of morality and justice. A humanistic worldview explains why morality is important, but it fails to provide an adequate response when humanity fails, or when suffering happens.

I used the example of Chesterton’s madman (from Orthodoxy). If Steven is a madman, and he believes that everyone is in a conspiracy against him, and I say to him, “We are not in a conspiracy against you,” Steven will interpret this as confirmation of his theory. “Of course you would deny it,” he will say. “You would never admit that you are in a conspiracy against me! That proves that you are, in fact, in a conspiracy against me!” But if Steven believed that everyone was not, in fact, in a conspiracy against him, this theory would explain the data as well: I am telling the truth. But unfortunately, there is no way to argue him out of it, and there is no way for him to reason himself out of the belief, since his reasoning is determined by the belief, and not the other way around.

All worldviews explain the world in closed, self-justifying systems, and therefore can’t be argued against per se, but some might be said to explain the world more completely than others. Why believe in Christianity? Well, why should the madman choose to stop believing that everyone is in a conspiracy against him?

There is, of course, more to say about why one might choose Christianity, but that was all we covered. The discussion ended there abruptly because we were over time. However, we pledged to continue it at the next meeting (as uncomfortable as I am playing amateur apologist). Perhaps we will look at some of the classical proofs for Christianity (i.e. Aquinas), or maybe we will pursue this presuppositional argument further and discuss the supposed benefits of Christianity as a worldview.