Saturday, June 07, 2008

Why being in favor of the capital punishment is not in opposition to being pro-life

It would seem that: No one who is in favor of capital punishment can be called pro-life, for "pro-life" means that one is in favor of protecting the life of all men, but being in favor of the use of capital punishment means that one is in favor of the death of some men. But the premises "no man should be killed" and "some men should be killed" are in contradictory opposition to each other, and thus if one is true, the other must be false; and conversely, if one is false, the other must be true. Therefore it is impossible to be both pro-life and in favor of the use of capital punishment.

Sed contra: The relationship between contradictory opposites follows from the principle of non-contradiction, for if both premises in a contradictory relationship were either true or false, then something would both be and not-be at the same time and in the same respect. But from this it must also be admitted that two premises are only in contradictory opposition if holding both would violate the principle of non-contradiction. And this is not necessarily the case with regards to those who are both pro-life and in favor the use of capital punishment. To wit, the premises are not held to both be true in the same respect.

For this to be properly understood, one must first consider the difference between the antecedent and the consequent will. As the Angelic Doctor explains when discussing how the divine will is always fulfilled against the objection that Scripture teaches that God wills all to be saved, yet Scripture and the holy Fathers also teach that not all will be saved (Summa theologiae, I, q. 19, a. 6 ad 1), their is a difference between the antecedent will and the consequent will. This difference is not in the will itself, but in respect to the things willed. That is, a thing may we good or evil in its primary sense and when considered absolutely, and yet after some additional qualities or attributes are consequently considered it may be that the contrary is true.

Absolutely speaking, antecedent to any circumstances, that a man live is good and that he be killed is evil. But consequently to certain qualities or attributes it may be good that some man be executed insofar as it is necessary for the preservation of the commonweal. Thus it may be said that it is possible to have a general willingness that all men live insofar as they are men, and yet will simply that particular men be executed, when this is a just and necessary punishment, and that capital punishment thus be kept legal for this purpose.

Thus it is obvious how one can be both pro-life and in favor of the use of capital punishment. To be pro-life is to have a general willingness that all men live and to will simply opposition to those act or species of acts that unjustly take human life. But to be in favor in favor of capital punishment is to will simply in favor of those acts that justly take human life. And insofar as this is done for the purpose of the protection of the commonweal it is consonant with the general willingness that all men live, since those guilty of capital crimes and justly executed are those who are a danger to the commonweal because they are, by their own choice, a danger to the lives of other citizens.

13 comments:

ontheturningaway said...

But what if the being "pro-life" means that one is in favor of protecting the life of innocent men, rather than all men?

The most important part of this issue is the realization that the justice system is not perfect. Because of this simple fact, capital punishment by definition takes some innocent lives along with the guilty. We know this to be true, but we do not know how many or how often.

We must recognize that being "in favor of capital punishment" means supporting the act of taking someone's life because of a crime that has been committed, but the life may be extinguished needlessly because the crime was not, in reality, committed by the victim of the execution.

Therefore, if we use the generic definition of "pro-life" as your post seems to do, then someone who "is in favor of protecting the life of all men" would be opposed to this.

Even if (or perhaps especially if) we use the abortion-related definition of "pro-life," meaning one who opposes legalized abortion, that person should also be against capital punishment, because of a belief that unborn children should be killed if they are innocent. Because capital punishment is known to unjustly kill those who are innocent (an unknown percentage of the time), someone who is "pro-life" cannot, by definition, support capital punishment without being hypocritical.

In summary, if someone is "pro-life" that is presumed to mean that person is against the taking of innocent life. Therefore, since capital punishment obviously takes innocent lives, it is not possible to be both "pro-life" and pro-capital punishment.

brendon said...

But what if the being "pro-life" means that one is in favor of protecting the life of innocent men, rather than all men?

That is what, in fact, my post boils down to. Or so it would seem to me. After all, the general willingness that all men live is of the antecedent will, before all other qualities are considered. Consequently, one wills the life of the innocent and the death of the guilty, insofar as the guilty have committed crimes that make them a serious danger to the life of the citizenry and the preservation of the commonweal.

Because capital punishment is known to unjustly kill those who are innocent (an unknown percentage of the time), someone who is "pro-life" cannot, by definition, support capital punishment without being hypocritical.

This would only be true if "support for capital punishment" was equivalent with "support for the system of capital punishment currently in place in our legal system." Saying that it is not contrary to the defense of innocent life and the preservation of the commonweal that some men be executed if their crimes are of sufficient gravity is not the same thing as saying that our current system of capital punishment is not in need of improvement or even a complete overhaul.

In summary, if someone is "pro-life" that is presumed to mean that person is against the taking of innocent life.

Agreed.

Therefore, since capital punishment obviously takes innocent lives, it is not possible to be both "pro-life" and pro-capital punishment.

Again, this is confusing the attempted instantiation of capital punishment in a particular legal system with the use of capital punishment in general. Once can hold that a particular system is unjust in its attempted application of capital punishment without holding that capital punishment is unjust per se.

ontheturningaway said...

I'm glad we could clarify that, and I think we are on the same page now. I enjoy this dialogue, good sir, so thank you for that. Further thoughts below:

I believe that capital punishment is inherently unjust because of the fact that no justice system can be perfect, therefore the only possible option is to limit punishments only to those that are not permanent (i.e. reversible and not causing death).

Likewise, any support of capital punishment must necessarily be made in denial or ignorance of that fact.

brendon said...

no justice system can be perfect

This I affirm, since every justice system is designed by man and man is incapable of perfection in this life.

the only possible option is to limit punishments only to those that are not permanent (i.e. reversible and not causing death).... any support of capital punishment must necessarily be made in denial or ignorance of that fact.

This I deny. The conclusion that we are epistemologically unable to achieve certainty as to the guilt of some particular individual does not follow from the fact that we are unable to achieve perfect justice. The only thing that follows from the fact that humans cannot achieve perfect justice is the necessity of treating capital punishment as a serious matter and developing a system with multiple chances to account for doubts, errors and corruption.

My own general guidelines on how a just system of capital punishment should work:

1. Capital punishment is only available for cases of treason and for cases of multiple murder, committed for some personal gain (including monetary gain, political gain, pleasure &c.), with malice aforethought. Such offenders are a perennial danger to the commonweal and their fellow citizens, since they are obviously willing to destroy society or kill others to achieve their own ends.

2. Juries have the power to reject capital punishment while still reaching a guilty verdict.

3. Judges have the authority to reduce a sentence of capital punishment decided on by a jury if they feel that the decision was swayed by manipulated emotions, inordinate desires for vengeance &c.

4. In the case of murder, if some relative of the victim asks for mercy in the sentencing of the offender, it should be granted without hesitation.

5. The appeals process should be rigorous, demanding and as long as necessary to be certain that no mistakes have been made.

ontheturningaway: said...

I'm a little confused about your first paragraph (of the preceding post). I define a "perfect justice system" as one that determines innocence or guilt with 100% accuracy, so I'm not sure what your definition of a perfect or imperfect system is.

If, "The conclusion that we are epistemologically unable to achieve certainty as to the guilt of some particular individual does not follow from the fact that we are unable to achieve perfect justice." then what does follow?

Please clarify that, and then hopefully I will feel comfortable responding to the rest of your last comment.

brendon said...

A perfect justice system is one that perfectly instantiates justice by rendering to each their proper due in accordance with their guilt and the seriousness of their crime. A justice system that is always accurate in deciding on guilt but never punishes offender in accordance with the seriousness of their crime would still be a system that failed to achieve perfect justice.

What follows from out inability to achieve perfect justice? The realization that there are hard cases, ones in which certainty is less achievable than in others. The realization that where some uncertainty exists it is better to ere on the side of mercy, especially since we too often let our emotions overcome our reason and sway us towards excessive rather than just punishment.

I am not saying that there are not hard cases. There obviously are hard cases. That is why there should be numerous ways and opportunities to reduce a capital sentence while there should be no way to increase punishment from non-capital to capital. But there will also be, however rarely, cases that are not hard and in which the justice of a capital sentence is not within the bounds of doubt.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

"I believe that capital punishment is inherently unjust because of the fact that no justice system can be perfect, therefore the only possible option is to limit punishments only to those that are not permanent (i.e. reversible and not causing death)."

Driving someone to the grocery store increases the likelihood of killing that person in a traffic accident. So, taking someone to the grocery store may result, and in fact has resulted, in the deaths of many innocent human lives. Thus, taking someone to the grocery store is inherently unjust, since there is no perfect ride to the grocery store.

So, if one is against abortion, one must also be against driving someone to the grocery store.

Reducto ad absurdum.

ontheturningaway: said...

Greetings, Francis.

While your reduction of my arguments do indeed make it seem absurd, they only accomplish this because you overlook one simple fact, which is always overlooked by people who reference analogies like your grocery store.

Going to the grocery store is, at some level, inherently necessary. Despite the risk of being killed en route, the cost-benefit analysis shows that the risk is very small, and more importantly that the risk is due to circumstances beyond your control.

When the government kills someone, the circumstances are very much in the hands of the system, which we already determined to be imperfect. This is not a case of an inability to control the circumstances, because it is the government itself that causes the death, not random chance, bad luck, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This does not render justification for the measure impossible by itself, but in order to maintain justification, you must undergo a cost-benefit analysis and show that capital punishment is, at some level, necessary.

In other words, what is gained from it? Why ever use it when there are other options, which mounting evidence shows are cheaper by orders of magnitude, no less effective than capital punishment, and most importantly (and most obviously), non-lethal?

There are plenty of reasons to not kill someone. What reason do you have?

brendon said...

Not to speak for Dr. Beckwith, but...

When the government kills someone, the circumstances are very much in the hands of the system, which we already determined to be imperfect.

Well, no. You seem to have determined that they are imperfect, always, period. I, as I have perhaps not made as clear as I thought, have determined that they are imperfect to meet the necessary demand for certainty in certain cases. One cannot validly say that because some particular cases are unjust, it follows that all such cases are unjust.

What reason do you have?

Justice.

ontheturningaway: said...

Since it is impossible to achieve certainty in all cases, it is impossible to achieve certainty, even regarding certainty itself, in any such case. I hope that makes linguistic sense.

Is it justice to take a life, knowing the person to which it belongs may not deserve to lose it?

brendon said...

Since it is impossible to achieve certainty in all cases, it is impossible to achieve certainty, even regarding certainty itself, in any such case. I hope that makes linguistic sense.

It makes sense, it's just not true.

Is it justice to take a life, knowing the person to which it belongs may not deserve to lose it?

No, but it is just to take a life knowing the person to whom it belongs does deserve to lose it.

Not all cases are hard cases. The fact that some cases are hard cases does not make all cases hard cases. The fact that some things are difficult to know with certainty does not make it impossible to know anything with certainty.

Doubt is not a virtue.

ontheturningaway: said...

"No, but it is just to take a life knowing the person to whom it belongs does deserve to lose it."

You never really know. And in reference to the paragraph following the above-quoted passage, DNA evidence in particular has overturned convictions that were not considered "hard cases" at the time. That does not make all cases "hard cases," it makes all cases subject to human fallibility.

Therefore I maintain that it is not justice to take a life in these circumstances, because you never really know if that the person to whom it belongs deserves to lose it.

brendon said...

Therefore I maintain that it is not justice to take a life in these circumstances, because you never really know if that the person to whom it belongs deserves to lose it.

Poor reasoning. You cannot logically move from the truth of the statement, "some people sentenced to death are not deserving of their punishment," to the truth of the statement, "no people sentenced to death are deserving of their punishment."

And in reference to the paragraph following the above-quoted passage, DNA evidence in particular has overturned convictions that were not considered "hard cases" at the time. That does not make all cases "hard cases," it makes all cases subject to human fallibility.

If DNA evidence is good enough to prove innocence, why isn't it good enough to prove guilt? And if we cannot be certain of guilt even with DNA evidence, how can we be certain that those whose convictions DNA evidence overturned are not actually guilty of the crimes they committed? You cannot stand by the empirical reliability of such a method in one case and not another.

In fact, the use of DNA evidence actually argues against your conclusion in two ways. First, if the convictions were overturned before the accused were executed, then the system is working as it should, since the innocent have not been punished for crimes they did not commit. Second, even if some innocent people were executed before DNA evidence, the availability of DNA evidence makes such situations unlikely, so the circumstances that would have made the use of the death penalty imprudent no longer exist.

Finally, while I find the possibility that an innocent will be executed to be troubling, I do not, in the end, see it as a strong argument against the death penalty. If we cannot trust our judges, magistrates and prosecutors to be faithful, practice due diligence and neither fudge nor make mistakes on capital cases, then we cannot trust them to ever do these things. And if that is the case, them the entire justice system is a sham. If they cannot work in accordance with the gravity of such cases, then they do not have the ability to give any case its due weight. Thus they will be just as likely to perform falsely or poorly on lesser cases.