The Death Penalty is Not an Ethical Matter

This reflection is now available in Daniel P. Horan, OFM’s book Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century: Selected Reflections from the Dating God Blog and Other Essays, Volume One (Koinonia Press, 2013).

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7 Responses to “The Death Penalty is Not an Ethical Matter”

  1. “Two of the most well-known examples of intrinsically evil actions are abortion and torture.”

    As long as we’re talking about the Decalogue, let me suggest idolatry, impiety, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness as arguably better-known examples of intrinsically evil actions than the two you mention.

  2. Matthew M. Says:

    Deacon,

    Very well put. It helps to put things in perspective. If we use the argument that abortion is an intrinistic evil, even so far in the case of rape (that too has too many issues to discuss here), and two evils will never make a good, then the same should therefore be true of capital punishment, (at least the moral theology perspective).

    The great challenge I believe we all have, is really trying to see the Imago Dei in another person who has fallen so far, and has been covered so deeply by the societal failings, that they have committed such egregious, heinous crimes. So many times, if we cannot see our own Imago Dei, how can we see it in others? The Imago Dei is that we are inherently good: so, buried deep inside all the hurts of the world, there is good (somewhere) in every person, even the “evil”.

    Now, whether I can fully reconcile the moral theological ideal, with my civil reality: That is perhaps the greater challenge.

    PAX et vivat Iesus!

  3. Interestingly, one advocate against capital punishment takes a weaker position than you. Whereas you claim capital punishment is unconditionally evil, he argues that we can think of at least one condition under which it wouldn’t be evil. It is this: imagine a world in which capital punishment of a murderer somehow brings back to life the person whom they murdered. In such a world, capital punishment would seem to be just retribution. But given that we are not in such a world, capital punishment is morally wrong. His argument for why its wrong is a little more involved. But I won’t get into that now.

    • Hmmm… that is interesting, thanks for sharing, Scott! It raises some questions, though. The most glaring for me is, while one might argue for the ostensible justice of executing a murderer to bring back the victim, are we not essentially transforming homicide to an elaborate form of suicide? In other words, murderers — in this counterfactual world — basically take their own lives by taking the life of another (very deep thought even in the real present order), but the foundational concern — the deliberate taking of a human life is still not addressed. That’s the puzzle for me: how does one address the fundamental disorder of homicide (so-called righteous homicide as in state executions or the reprehensible homicide of murder)? Some good thoughts indeed, thanks!

  4. As I understand your argument, it is this: killing should not be considered under the category of “morally wrong,” but rather “inhuman.” That is, killing is counter to something fundamental in the meaning of humanness. Therefore, it is not an ethical matter, but rather something “prior” to ethics.

    Here is a question: In what sense is “not-killing” inherent to human life? Is it inherent like warmth is to a fire, that is, constitutive (where there is no warmth, there is no fire)? Or is it a necessary component not of humanness per se, but rather of human flourishing?

    If the former, how should we account for people who kill? If killing for a human is like being-not-warm for a fire, do killers lose their humanity? Are they to be considered sub-human? If so, killing could be justified by a weird circularity: killers, by virtue of killing, are not human, and therefore there is no reason to think they shouldn’t kill. Saying that they are failing to fulfill their alleged humanity would be a simple tautology. I don’t imagine that this is your view.

    If killing is counter to human flourishing, we are still required to relate our account of flourishing to obligation – to move from “is” (descriptive claims) to “ought” (normative claims). We have to answer the question: why should people flourish rather than not, especially if they’re satisfied to do the latter? In the case of your argument: why is it wrong to reject our identities as created in the image of God? Moreover, we must note that people fail to flourish all the time, and somehow we have to distinguish those failures-to-flourish that are morally problematic from those that are just disappointing or tragic. (For example, one could say that prayer is a necessary component of human flourishing, but we don’t think of a failure to pray as problematic in the same way as a failure to not-kill.)

    The questions in this last paragraph may have answers – I don’t suggest that they are impossible. But they are ethical questions. For a concept of human flourishing to have any normative weight, some kind of ethical theory is required. Thus, I say that killing is not a matter “prior” to ethics, even if we approach it from the angle of human flourishing.

    • Great questions! Posed, as one could easily detect, by someone primarily engaged in the questions of ethics and the analysis of normative claims. What you propose makes great sense within the context of previously conceived terms of identity, agency and action, however what I hope to elicit is a reconsideration of the foundational categories upon which such projects are currently (and previously) built. I’m not entirely sure what that looks like. I too thought about the circular and self-defeating potential of associating killing with being unhuman (not to be confused with inhuman, as it is primarily used to refer to qualities of treatment over and against substantive quality – hence my neologistic preference here with a different prefix), namely, that it could be used to justify the opposite aim. Nevertheless, the question of human flourishing and the common good, the two primary foci of Catholic moral teaching, fall short of providing the sort of a priori and foundational category I seek. I too don’t have the answer (at least not yet). My only hope here is to offer a heuristic comment and strike up some conversation (with which you have so generously aided — thanks!). My proposal is this: let’s reexamine some traditionally moral questions from the perspective of the human person as presented by contemporary theological anthropology.

  5. Matthew M. Says:

    As we are talking about being pro-life….things that are not so hidden in the “OBAMACARE” that are clearly anti-Catholic.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/hhss-birth-control-rules-intrude-on-catholic-values/2011/09/27/gIQAOj8s9K_story.html

    Very interesting commentary. I am saving for future classes. I will definitely give credit.

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