Oklahoma and it’s predisposition for capital punishment have recently come under scrutiny after a series of events spanning the State Supreme Court, a stay of execution, a Governor’s veto, and eventually the injection of an untested drug cocktail lead to the prolonged and seemingly excruciating death of a convicted murderer. While the specifics of this case will undoubtedly have Constitutional ramifications on how a state can administer the death penalty while staying in compliance with the 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, in the paragraphs below I will be dealing solely with the moral question at hand. If a society places human life at the top of its moral hierarchy, can a state purposefully end a life as a means of social control and still be considered just?
The oldest and most common argument for capital punishment is it’s use as a deterrent. The line of thinking goes that any given human will value his or her own life to the degree that the fear of losing that life in retribution of a crime committed will prevent them from committing said crime. Although there are centuries of statistical data that refute this assumption, for the purpose of this argument I am going to focus solely on the flawed reasoning at the heart of this theory.
If the primary rationale for capital punishment is as a deterrent, it’s reasonable to assume that displaying death as a public spectacle is the most effective way to maximize its potential. The more people exposed to the horrors of the hangmans noose, the more people dissuaded from committing crime. This was the norm for most of human existence and early on it may have been effective to some degree, but as humanity progressed so did our collective moral compass. Public executions slowly came to be considered inhuman for a civilized society and are now unheard of in the West. Today executions (in what few Industrialized Nations still allow them) are carried out in closed rooms, viewed only by small groups consisting of family members, legal representatives, government officials etc. This is because modern executions are no longer a viable deterrent, but instead act as a simple act of revenge carried out by the state in an attempt to right a wrong in the hearts and minds of a select few. Revenge is merely an emotion, a violent natural instinct, and the antithesis of modern laws which lay their foundations in reason above all else. By in large the propensity of vengeance is not considered a positive attribute, but even if we were to relegate some moral capital to vengeance, it would never outweigh the virtue placed on human life itself. This means that a widows quest to avenge the murder of her husband cannot justly end with another act of killing. It may have taken us thousands of years to get to this point, but eventually the Bronze Aged idea of an “eye for an eye” gave way to a more compassionate, more egalitarian “turn the other cheek” mantra. Ironically, those who believe most deeply in one of the original sources of that mantra also tend to support the death penalty.
The next issue focuses on the premium that we as a society place on human life. If we collectively hold human life sacrosanct, reserving our most strict punishments for those who deprive a fellow man of that right, how then can we justify allowing the state to freely commit this most heinous of crimes against humanity and do so in our name? States have throughout history been governed by flawed men with a predisposition to corruption, greed and injustice. Are we somehow expected to blindly trust these men to be flawless in their rationale, in their prejudice, in their constitution when considering this most important of issues…who lives and who dies? What reasonable person would willingly put this decision in the hands of the state? Under what moral authority is the state suddenly immune to guilt if it were to take the life of a citizen?
If we are to accept human life as the most supreme of the rights of man, then no man can justly deprive another of this right. If we accept this notion, the only person that can justly end a human life, is a person that ends his or her own. No state, no vengeful party, no wronged neighbor and no aggressor can justly end a mans life. This leaves us with only one acceptable option as punishment for heinous crimes. Confinement of guilty parties is both humane and effective. Indefinite imprisonment for the most serious offenders acts as a deterrent to crime, provides the endless possibility of justice for those who may have been wrongly accused and most importantly, preserves the most basic of rights, the right to life, to even our most wicked of citizens if they are indeed guilty. This right is not dependent on class or color or past aggression. It is inalienable.
Simply put, the state has no more right to end a life than an individual actor has. Either may choose to do so, but it is impossible to do so justly. This philosophical outlook has nothing to do with constitutional law or real world statistics that may or may not refute the use of capital punishment as an applicable response to crime. It only assumes that the preservation of all human life is paramount. Any argument for capital punishment must make the same assumption but it will fail miserably in it’s application. While it’s possible that public executions were an effective form of social control in early human history, this possibility was quickly vanquished by our post-Enlightenment sensibilities. If no longer a viable form of social control, capital punishment is reduced to pure vengeance, which by definition is unjust if it leads to the taking of another mans life.
This line of thinking is largely a simplified synopsis of 20th century French Philosopher Albert Camus’ treatise titled Reflections on the Guillotine in which he lays out his case against capital punishment in post World-War I France. Despite his best efforts, the last French execution by guillotine was in 1977. Capital punishment was abolished under French Law in 1981. Although the political and social climate of postwar France in Camus’ time is by no means identical to that of modern day America, his philosophy on the death penalty and justice still stands.
In a time of partisan divides, rogue Governors and undermined Supreme Courts; all residing in a State where the “value of human life” is an impassioned Right-Wing battle-cry in one instance, then ignored in a complete lapse of reason in the next, we as a society must fight against this moral hypocrisy with our dying breath. If for nothing else, to ensure that that final breath can be drawn freely by all men equally. Free of gurneys. Free of experimental drug cocktails. Free of governments that will take a life before considering the possibility of saving one.