Albert Camus, the novelist and member of the French Underground during the occupation of France by the Germans, died at the young age of 46 in an automobile accident. Throughout his life he was opposed to capital punishment. He sensed that his opposition would be ineffectual, but he thought it worthwhile none the less. Indeed, he championed the view that despite the absurd nature of human existence one ought always to fight against what one thought was evil. Once one stops fighting he simply takes up space. He thought capital punishment was evil.
A clue to the depth of that feeling is found in his autobiographical novel The First Man, which was published after his death by his daughter, working from notes scribbled in the margins of the hand-written manuscript. In that novel he tells of an experience his father had early in the child’s life when he went to a public hanging of a man who was reputed to have killed his employers and three children. There was widespread hatred directed toward the killer and the trial was quick and public hanging was the verdict. Speaking of himself in the third person, as “Jacques,” Camus describes the scene afterwards:
“. . . Jacques’s father was livid when he came home; he went to bed, then got up several times to vomit, and went back to bed. He never wanted to talk about what he had seen. And on the night he heard the story, Jacques himself, when he was lying huddled on the side of the bed . . . choked back his nausea and his horror as he relived the details he had heard and those he imagined. And throughout his life those images had followed him even into his sleep . . .”
I have written about capital punishment before though it is a topic that seems to be only of mild interest to people for the most part — perhaps because we don’t have public executions — yet. There has been discussion of such a possibility, but even in this blood-lusting culture so far it has remained only a dream in the hearts and minds of those who think justice is all about revenge. Because, in a word, that is was capital punishment is: revenge. It is assuredly not justice, especially in an age when we discover growing numbers of cases of false identity and miscarriages of the legal procedures that incarcerate (and execute) men, mostly black men, only to discover that they were innocent. Indeed, it is precisely the likelihood (and I stress that term) of human error that undermines any possible argument for taking the life of one human being because he presumably took another or other lives. If humans were infallible, which we assuredly are not, there might be a case for capital punishment. But because we are not and because we tend to let our passions and raw emotions dwarf our judgment, there can be no possible argument for taking a human life to avenge another life.
I have often thought about this on a deeply personal level: how would I react if my wife or my sons were killed and the killer was caught and brought to trial? Would I want that person executed in order to right a wrong? It’s hard to say, but I expect I wouldn’t be thinking clearly and would simply want someone punished and punished soundly for what they did. But that would be my emotions taking control. In my mind, when it is clear, I know that it would be wrong. Taking a human life under any circumstances is wrong and cannot be justified. It can be rationalized, we can find bad reasons for doing what we want to do on a visceral level, but it cannot be justified.
Perfectly said, Hugh. It is indeed only about revenge, because it’s proven not o be a deterrent nor completely accurate in how it’s wielded. And because it solely about revenge, capital punishment then is basically the state rewarding other people’s desires by taking someone else’s life. Is that something we want to define our society?
It means that as a society we have abandoned altogether the moral high ground.
Once again, you offer a provocative and thoughtful comment.
I have thought a great deal about capital punishment, ever since an unnamed philosophy professor at Southwest State College raised the issue in a course on philosophy and social issues in 1969.
The issue is complex, and, as you point point out, directly related to the fundamental moral question of whether it is ever justifiable (not merely capable of being rationalized) to take the life of another person. Simply saying “Yes” or “No” to this question covers over a lot of important territory.
For example, if one were to simply say “Yes”, it is justifiable to take the life of another person, then the obvious next question is “Under what circumstances is it justifiable to do so, or do you mean it is justifiable to kill another person under any circumstance?” If one were to say it is allowable to kill another person under any circumstances, then we are led down the road of a war of all against all — which makes society and even the sense of person-hood itself, entirely questionable. This appears irrational on its face.
By the same token, if one were to say “No”, it is never justifiable to take the life of another, then the question arises, “Do you mean to say that it is never, under any circumstances, justifiable to take the life of another person, even in defense of yourself or another person.?” I have met people who take this point of view to heart, and I admire them greatly and believe our world would be a better place if everyone lived by this adage. Unfortunately, this is a dictum that works best if everyone believes it; it works far less effectively if even a small group of powerful people do not believe it — though I grant that widespread pacifist movements can be effective.
For me, on a practical level, the question of justifiable capital punishment comes down to the practical (pragmatic?) recognition of three types of questions: emotional, moral, political. They are not mutually exclusive.
EMOTIONAL: If we base our answer to the question of whether killing is justified on emotional grounds, then it all depends upon whose emotions are in question. People can more easily kill if they are in a state of rage or if they do not feel empathy for others. Some may feel others should die, but do not feel like actually killing them personally; they prefer to let others do the deed. Others may not be emotionally capable of killing or considering the killing of others. Finally, revenge is based on an emotional response. We can understand how the family of a murder victim may feel like killing the perpetrator with their bare hands, but is this emotion a sound basis for social policy? If so, where does it end?
If rage is a poor basis for social policy, then it seems to follow that revenge is also a poor basis for justifying State executions. Sadly, throughout history, this has been one of the most popular reasons for killing. Even more unfortunately, it is the most common reason given for the support of capital punishment.
MORAL: IF one argues for the right to kill, one also has to set conditions for when it is permissable to do so, most likely in the cases of individual or collective self-defense; if one argues against, one must also deal with immediate individual or collective self-defense. The details of either set of conditions are not important here. What is important, however, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that capital punishment constitutes an act of justifiable individual or collective self-defense — because it occurs long after the act against which an individual could have defended themselves.
POLITICAL: The question in a political context is whether citizens give the State the legal authority to execute its own citizens. This is not vengeance, though that emotion may motivate some. This is not morality, though moral justifications may be intoned in courts of law and in the sphere of public opinion. This is legalistic, procedural termination of a citizen’s existence. Max Weber, the eminent social historian, argued that the defining characteristic of the State is a legitimate monopoly on violence. This has nothing to do with emotion or morality. It has to do with the concentration of power and political control of the bureaucratic organizations that manage it. It is both profoundly unemotional and is complete amoral. My concern here is not simply the execution of the innocent. I refuse to justify the State-sponsored killing of the non-innocent. It puts too much power in amoral hands.
In the end, for me at least, it is quite easy to argue against the notion of revenge as a basis for capital punishment; it is relatively easy to argue against capital punishment on a moral basis, even if one allows killing another under conditions of immediate self-defense; it is easiest of all to argue against capital punishment on political grounds because I do not want to yield to any State the legitimate authority to take the life of its citizens, even those who have been convicted of horrendous crimes.
If history provides any lessons, one of them appears to be that States that practice capital punishment generally do so in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and often fairly haphazard manner — notwithstanding the time money and effort that go into the process.
Despite its popularity in certain quarters, capital punishment is a form of justice that renders the entire notion of justice itself questionable.
Very nice analysis! I do think (focusing on the moral as is my tendency) that one can say self-defense, to use your example, may be, ion certain cases, expedient but cannot be justified morally. This is also the case for capital punishment which, as you say, is a form of revenge, not justice. Well done.