Is capital punishment ‘pro-life?’
Vince Mallett | Monday, September 30, 2019
This week is “Respect Life Week” at Notre Dame, ostensibly focusing on abortion and women’s health issues in the framework of an ethic of life. This week we’ll hear a lot about supporting women while protecting the life of the unborn, an enterprise which I think is both increasingly fraught and increasingly vital in our society. What we won’t hear about, though, is the variety of other life issues America faces; we won’t talk about immigration, assisted suicide or capital punishment. That last issue is one which perplexes me — opposition to what I think of as other ‘pro-life’ positions is nearly always grounded in arguments of good faith. As I’m sure some of our peers will remind us this week, women’s medical autonomy is a relatively recent development and a crucial one in the fight for equality. The balancing of that fight with the protection of the unborn in our pluralistic country is anything but straightforward.
I don’t see similar arguments against the death penalty. Usually, one or more of three themes are brought up: deterrence, vengeance and justice. Each of the associated arguments have clear fatal flaws.
Studies have shown that the death penalty does not act as a strong deterrent against violent crime. The empirical evidence makes intuitive sense. Any American citizen realizes that they face the threat of physical retaliation — either by the police or by the victim — if they commit a violent crime. No person intends to cause harm to another without recognizing they are putting themselves in danger. The threat of physical retaliation after imprisonment doesn’t only add nothing to this pre-existing disincentive; it actually incentivizes the criminal to avoid imprisonment at all costs. Any murderer, knowing that they face the death penalty if caught, will do anything and hurt any person so as to escape that punishment. Is that the kind of mindset our system should incentivize?
The argument based on vengeance is both commonplace and disturbing. Many personal appeals are made in this theme: “If someone hurt your loved ones, wouldn’t you want to see the guy dead?” (Statistically speaking, it’s usually a guy.) My answer to this, without fail, is yes. If someone hurt my friends or family, I would want to see him punished in every way possible. That neither implies that he should be killed or that those desires within me are healthy or productive. If we regularly murder human beings out of vengeance and spite, we are little better than the ones we punish.
Justice is the most complex argument for the death penalty, but still one I don’t think holds much water in today’s world. It’s an argument based on an ideal all Americans claim to hold, and no one can satisfyingly define, myself included. I’m not sure what justice is, or precisely how it can be implemented, but I definitely believe it is something beyond “an eye for an eye.” That ancient and misguided principle underlies arguments for capital punishment based on justice, because those arguments presuppose that some form of reciprocal punishment is obligatory in the wake of a moral transgression. If that’s justice, it’s a notion of justice completely distinct from that of mercy, which I think is a necessary aspect of the virtue in question.
The question of mercy brings me back to the overall theme of this week on campus: respect for life. What does this mean in the context of capital punishment? Many would claim that support for the death penalty is a pro-life position because the death penalty promotes safety and security. Does abortion not do the same? If protecting human life, from conception to natural death, entails a significant consideration of security and stability, it would seem unconditional opposition to abortion is misguided. Limiting one’s children to the amount of children one desires certainly makes for a more stable society. But pro-life people consistently reject that logic because it entails the destruction of a human life for the pursuit of a lesser goal. If you wouldn’t murder an adult for “stability,” then you shouldn’t murder an unborn child. I think the analogous argument holds for capital punishment. What are we saying when we sacrifice our prisoners in the pursuit of “security”? What does this mean about whose lives we value? When can we truly call ourselves “pro-life”?
Vince Mallett is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. He is proud to hail from Carroll Hall and northern New Jersey. Vince can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.