Archive for Thursday, June 28, 2001

Capital punishment

June 28, 2001


To the editor:

Dennis Prager's defense of capital punishment in the June 10 Journal-World is seriously muddled. According to Prager, not executing someone for murder is unjust because allowing your murderer to keep his life is like allowing a bicycle thief to keep your bicycle. This analogy is bogus. My bicycle is rightfully mine. Why should I suppose that my murderer's life is rightfully mine?

Prager claims that because taking away a rapist's freedom by incarcerating him shows how much we value freedom, taking a murderer's life shows how much we value life. Is this so? We imprison the rapist, not because we value freedom, but because we regard rape as a serious wrong. If imposition of a large fine rather than incarceration would better deter rape, we would have good reason to punish rape with a large fine.

Prager attributes the opposition to capital punishment to secular influences. Nevertheless, the religious should have a problem with endorsing capital punishment. The commandment says "Thou shalt not kill." It does not make exceptions for murderers. (Augustine refused to make an exception for suicide for the same kind of reason). If the commandment is taken to be God's revelation to humankind, and that commandment is taken to be one of the 10 foundations of moral wisdom, then it is hard to see how there could be some more basic consideration that could override it. This explains why often Christians have adopted some form or another of moral absolutism. Of course, this line of analysis leaves us with a problem. The commandment, so understood, seems unrealistically stringent. It would even prohibit just war and killing in defense of one's own life. Accordingly, some minimal exceptions have seemed necessary.

Is capital punishment necessary? It does not bring victims back to life. It is necessary, of course, that society deter murder, because we value life. However, there is no evidence that capital punishment is a greater deterrent to murder than a long prison term. If we place the high value on human life, whether for religious or secular reasons, that Prager endorses, then we shall kill only when necessary. Capital punishment is unnecessary.

Don Marquis,


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