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Essay/Term paper: Capital punishment: for and against

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Politics

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Capital Punishment: For and Against

Thesis One: In principle a case can be made on moral grounds both supporting and
opposing capital punishment. Thesis two: Concretely and in practice, compelling
arguments against capital punishment can be made on the basis of its actual
administration in our society.

Two different cases can be made. One is based on justice and the nature of a
moral community. This leads to a defense of capital punishment. The second is
based on love and the nature of an ideal spiritual community. This leads to a
rejection of capital punishment. A central principle of a just society is that
every person has an equal right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness." Within that framework, an argument for capital punishment can be
formulated along the following lines: some acts are so vile and so destructive
of community that they invalidate the right of the perpetrator to membership and
even to life. A community founded on moral principles has certain requirements.
The right to belong to a community is not unconditional. The privilege of living
and pursuing the good life in society is not absolute. It may be negated by
behavior that undermines the nature of a moral community. The essential basis on
which community is built requires each citizen to honor the rightful claims of
others. The utter and deliberate denial of life and opportunity to others
forfeits ones own claim to continued membership in the community, whose
standards have been so flagrantly violated. The preservation of moral community
demands that the shattering of the foundation of its existence must be taken
with utmost seriousness. The preciousness of life in a moral community must be
so highly honored that those who do not honor the life of others make null and
void their own right to membership. Those who violate the personhood of others,
especially if this is done persistently as a habit must pay the ultimate penalty.
This punishment must be inflicted for the sake of maintaining the community
whose foundation has been violated. We can debate whether some non-lethal
alternative is a fitting substitute for the death penalty. But the standard of
judgment is whether the punishment fits the crime and sufficiently honors the
nature of moral community.


Christian love, is unconditional. It does not depend on the worthiness or merit
of those to whom it is directed. It is persistent in seeking the good of others
regardless of whether they return the favor or even deserve to be treated well
on the basis of their own incessant wrongdoing. An ideal community would be made
up of free and equal citizens devoted to a balance between individual self-
fulfillment and the advancement of the common good. Communal life would be based
on mutual love in which equality of giving and receiving was the norm of social
practice. Everyone would contribute to the best of ability and each would
receive in accordance with legitimate claims to available resources. What would
a community based on this kind of love do with those who committed brutal acts
of terror, violence, and murder? Put negatively, it would not live by the
philosophy of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life."
It would act to safeguard the members of the community from further destruction.
Those who had shown no respect for life would be restrained, permanently if
necessary, so that they could not further endanger other members of the
community. But the purpose of confinement would not be vengeance or punishment.
Rather an ideal community would show mercy even to those who had shown no mercy.
It would return good for evil. The aim of isolation is reconciliation and not
revenge. never gives up. It is ever hopeful that even the worse among us can be
redeemed so that their own potential contribution to others can be realized.
Opportunities for confronting those who had been hurt most could be provided to
encourage remorse and reconciliation. If a life has been taken, no full
restitution can be made, of course, but some kind of service to the community
might be required as a way of partially making amends.


Such, in brief, is the argument for and against capital punishment, one founded
on justice and the nature of moral community, the other resting on love and the
nature of an ideal spiritual community. If we stand back from this description
and make an attempt at evaluation, one point is crucial. The love ethic requires
a high degree of moral achievement and maturity. It is more suitable for small,
closely-knit communities in which members know each other personally and in some
depth. Forgiveness and reclamation flourish best in a setting in which people
can participate in each other's lives. If you press the motif to its highest
manifestation, it becomes an ethic of non-resistance to evil, unqualified
pacifism, and self-sacrifice in which self-interest is totally abandoned. The
non-resisting Jesus on the cross who surrenders his life to save others is the
epitome of at this level. Love at this point becomes superethical. It is
grounded in a deep faith in God that surrenders any reference to earthly justice.
That is the reason for speaking of love and the nature of an ideal spiritual
community. Love of this kind abandons the right to kill another in self-defense
and will refuse absolutely to kill enemies even in a just war. If made into a
social ethic, it requires the poor to sacrifice for the rich, the sick to
sacrifice for the healthy, the oppressed to sacrifice for the oppressor. It
allows the neighbor to be terrorized, brutalized, and slaughtered, since
restraint of the aggressor is forbidden. All this is indefensible on moral
grounds. To make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish between an
ethical dimension of love and an ecstatic dimension. Love as an ethical ideal
seeks a community based on mutuality and reciprocity in which there is an
equality of giving and receiving. Mutual love has a justice element in which
every person has an equal claim to fulfillment and an equal duty to be
responsible. Ethical love is unconditional and will reach out to others even
when they lack merit. But it will resist encroachment upon its own equal claim
to fulfillment and will repel if possible any denial of ones own right to be
fully human in every respect. Against the pacifist, ethical love would justify
killing in self-defense and killing enemies in a just war when non-lethal
alternatives are unavailable. They are necessary and tragic emergency means here
and now to stop present and ongoing violence. Capital punishment is opposed
since the crime has already been committed, and isolation can protect society
against future violence.

Love in the ecstatic dimension becomes superethical. In ecstasy one is
delirious with impetuous joy in the presence of the other and totally devoted to
that person's happiness and well- being. In ecstasy we do not count the cost to
ourselves but are totally self-giving, heedless of our own needs. In this mood
sacrifice for the other is not an ethical act of self-denial but the
superethical expression of what we most want to do. Ecstasy involves the
unpremeditated overflow of boundless affection and the impulsive joy of
exhilarating union with the loved one. The ecstatic lover dances with delight in
the presence of the beloved. Sensible calculations balancing rights and duties
have no place. Rational ethics has been transcended by spiritual ecstasy.
Ecstatic love expresses itself spontaneously in a certain frame of spirit. Love
expressed in ecstasy gives all without regard to whether the recipient has any
claim on the gift. It is pure grace. Consider the story of the woman who poured
expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus (Mk. 14:3-9). She was displaying love in
the ecstatic dimension. Some present were thinking ethically. They complained
that this perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. On
ethical grounds they were right. What the woman did was indefensible as a moral
act. It was irrational and superethical. This deed flowed spontaneously from
ecstatic love. Love has both an ethical and an ecstatic or superethical
dimension, and we should not confuse the two. It is quite clear, however, that
ecstatic cannot be the norm of large, impersonal societies. A corporation cannot
exist on the basis of forgiving seventy times seven an incompetent employee
whose repeated ineptness is costing thousands of dollars. Ecstasy is not even
the mode in which we can live all the time in the most exemplary family life
with spouses and children. Ecstatic love is an occasional, fabulous, wonderful
overflowing of spectacular affection that adds immeasurably to the joy of life,
but it cannot be the day to day standard for ordinary life even in the family or
the church. Can Christian love in the ethical sense be an appropriate norm for
a large, secular, pluralistic, civil society? Can unconditional love for the
other that regards the welfare of the neighbor equal with ones own be the ideal
expected of the citizens of New York or the United States? Surely, to agree with
Reinhold Niebuhr, that would be to hope for an "impossible possibility." Ethical
love is a description of ideal life in the family, in the church, and other
small communities in which unconditional regard for each other can be lived out
in face-to-face relationships. Even in these settings, we will often fail, but
we can hold it up as the criterion by which we are judged and to which we aspire
even in our shortcoming. In this sense, ethical love is the supreme norm that
serves as both goal and judge of all conduct. Realistically, however, we can
hope only for some rough approximation with decreasing levels of attainment as
we move away from intimate communities toward larger collectives. Nation states
are not likely, even occasionally, to become ecstatic in their devotion to each
other! Mutual, not even to mention sacrificial, love is hardly the guiding rule
of relations between General Motors and Toyota, nor does either have aspirations
in that direction. A workable ethical standard for the state and the nation will
appeal to the ideals defined by justice and the requirements of a moral
community. To say it otherwise, ethical love expressed as social policy for
large, impersonal societies takes the form of justice. What that norm involves
for New York or the United States as secular, pluralistic societies cannot be
spelled out here. Within this framework a strong but debatable case can be made
for capital punishment. Pragmatically and politically, of course, Christians
have to work within the framework of justice as defined by the secular society
in which they have their citizenship and seek to transform it in the light of
their own ideals.


This brings me to thesis two. The most compelling arguments against capital
punishment can be made on the basis of its actual administration in our society.
I will list five of the usual points.

1. The possibility of error.Sometimes a person might be put to death who is

2. Unfair administration. Capital punishment is inflicted
disproportionately on the poor and minorities.

3. Weakness of the argument from deterrence.The claim that the threat of
capital punishment reduces violent crime is inconclusive, certainly not proven,
extremely difficult to disprove, and morally suspect if any case.

4. The length of stay on death row. If there were ever any validity to the
deterrence argument, it is negated by the endless appeals, delays,
technicalities, and retrials that keep persons condemned to death waiting for
execution for years on end. One of the strongest arguments right now against
capital punishment is that we are too incompetent to carry it out. That
incompetence becomes another injustice.

5. Mitigating circumstances. Persons who commit vicious crimes have often
suffered from neglect, emotional trauma, violence, cruelty, abandonment, lack of
love, and a host of destructive social conditions. These extenuating
circumstances may have damaged their humanity to the point that it is unfair to
hold them fully accountable for their wrongdoing.

Corporate responsibility somehow has to be factored in to some degree. No
greater challenge to social wisdom exists than this. The conclusion of the
matter is that the present practice of capital punishment is a moral disgrace.
The irony is that the very societies that have the least right to inflict it are
precisely the ones most likely to do so. The compounding irony is that the
economic malfunctions and cultural diseases in those same societies contribute
to the violence that makes it necessary to unleash even more repression and
brutality against its unruly citizens to preserve order and stave off chaos. To
the degree that society provides opportunities for all citizens to achieve a
good life in a sensible culture, it is reasonable to believe that the demand for
capital punishment will be reduced or eliminated. The fact that our prisons are
so full is the most eloquent testimony imaginable of our dismal failure to
create a good society. Massive incarceration indicates the bankruptcy of social
wisdom and social will. It points to the shallowness of our dedication to
solving the basic problems of poverty, moral decay, meaninglessness, and social
discord. Meanwhile, our leaders divert our attention with the alluring fantasy
that capital punishment will make our citizens more secure against violent crime.


What, then, is the role of the church? It is two-fold.

(1) Ideally and ultimately, followers of Jesus are the salt of the earth,
light of the world, leaven in the secular loaf. As such, Christians go into the
world with the aim of moving, lifting, and luring society in the direction of
ethical love. The vocation of Christians is to hold up ethical love as "a
transcendent gauge exhibiting the moral defects of society and thus spread the
infection of an uneasy spirit" (A. N. Whitehead). In particular, Christians
should work to overcome the larger injustices, social disarray, and cultural
illness that create an atmosphere conducive to violence. This work will involve
both political action and cultural transformation.

(2) Pragmatically and immediately, Christians will translate ethical love into
mandates of secular justice and work for the best approximation of the norm that
is possible under given circumstances.

Hence, Christian witness may be but is not necessarily directed against capital
punishment on moral grounds in principle. The choice is a matter of practical
discernment and social wisdom in a particular situation.Christians should
insist that if capital punishment is to be practiced, it must be administered in
a just way. On this count, present-day society fails miserably. My prediction is
that a society that becomes sensitive enough to make sure that the death
penalty is administered in a just way will then do away with it altogether in
favor of more humane practices such as life imprisonment with no possibility of
parole. In short, for the moment the Christian witness to society is this:
first demonstrate that capital punishment can be administered in a just and
efficient manner. Then we will debate with you as to whether capital punishment
is in principle necessary, fitting, and right or whether a humane society will
find non-lethal alternatives to protect citizens from persistently violent
criminals. Until then the church should say "no" to this extreme measure.


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