Capital Punishment and the difference between the social good and justice

People have often argued that the death penalty is not morally legitimate in our civilized society which has the means to safeguard the social good without putting some very dangerous individual to death (for instance because we have prisons which it is virtually impossible to escape from, and thus convicts have no realistic chance, once inside, of ever getting out and threatening the public). Others, on the side advocating for capital punishment, have argued that if the state doesn’t allow for a sentence of capital punishment then there will be less incentive to think twice about committing some crimes. For instance if the sentence for murder is a lifetime in prison instead of capital punishment then there is less of a deterrent to commit murder, in just the same way as if the sentence were 40 years in prison instead of a life sentence. Against this those opposed to capital punishment have argued that, empirically speaking, given the statistical data, places where capital punishment exists as a sentence do no show any significant difference in the rate of crimes committed for which the sentence is capital punishment when compared with places where capital punishment is not within the state’s power to sentence.

Alternatively, those who have argued for capital punishment have argued that the state can legitimately sentence somebody to death not with anything else in view other than justice itself. When a person has done something truly and remarkably wrong, like torturing (both psychologically and physically) little girls over a period of a few months until they die, just to see them possibly transcend their own pain (as in the movie Martyrs), then the state has the right to exercise its authority to the extent of putting that person to death, not to deter others from committing the same crime, but to do that which it is just to do.

Opponents of capital punishment from the religious sector of society argue that only God has the right to judge somebody or to exact justice in the moral sense, and so it would be overstepping the role of state, and it would in fact be to intrude into the territory which belongs to God alone. Some such people have argued that capital punishment can only be legitimated in the case where it acts as a deterrent and so aims toward social good rather than justice.

I used to hold this position until it was pointed out to me that Canadian law explicitly indicates that the courts have the right to exercise their power to sentence not only for the social good, but for the sake of justice. I used to think, along with St. Augustine, that, in the words of Dr. William Cavanaugh (who lectured last night at Concordia University on A Politics of Multiplicity: Augustine and Radical Democracy) “[on the Augustinian view of political theory] coercive authority is temporarily necessary, but coercive government is not natural.” He noted, however, that Thomas Aquinas, contra Augustine, regarded the state as a natural institution, the legislation of which intends to direct people to the ideal, the highest good of society.

It was in thinking about that last night that I came to this new thought today. Perhaps capital punishment could only be legitimate if it had justice in view, and could never be legitimate if it were intended as a deterrent. If we accept that it is morally unconscionable (unjustifiable) to treat a human person as a means to an end instead of an end in themselves, then it seems obvious that we cannot kill somebody in order to deter others from committing their crimes. If we did, then we would be treating that person as a means to an end, the end being social good. However, if the state sentences somebody to death, or to time in prison, it should be for the sake of realizing justice, which it is legitimate to do insofar as it is natural. For the state to sentence with justice in view is plausibly natural, and so can be in step with natural law theory in ethics, along with new natural law theory. Therefore, a person could be sentenced to capital punishment, but the only morally legitimate way for some governing body to pass that sentence would be if that governing body were seeking to exact justice (not vengeance) instead of seeking to deter others from committing the same crime.

However, even in the Catholic Church there are canon laws which are meant to impose penalties precisely as deterrents. For instance, if a woman in the Catholic Church, or a man, either procures for herself, procures for someone else, or performs an abortion, then they are automatically excommunicated. If that canon law were changed the Church’s doctrine would not have been overturned. Rather, the Church aims to deter people from procuring abortions because of how morally outrageous and serious a crime against humanity such an act is, and means, by excommunication, to draw attention to the moral unconscionability of the act.

Perhaps a governing body can intend for some sentence to be a deterrent, without treating the person sentenced as a means to an end instead of an end in themselves. For instance, the state can have justice as the immediate intention, and can intend the sentence to act as a deterrent only secondarily.

Two final thoughts: 1) somebody once said to me that the reason capital punishment cannot be allowed is that we are sometimes wrong, and we can never give back the life which we have taken. My response was that we can also never give back years of somebody’s served sentence if wrongly convicted either. The questions here concerned have to do with when we have morally sufficient certainty that the convicted person is guilty, and whether the sentence of capital punishment is in proportion to the crime or crimes committed. 2) Another person once argued that capital punishment was actually too expensive for society, more expensive than a lifetime of prison related expenditures. I think such a point is dubious, but suppose for the sake of argument that it were true, couldn’t justice demand the state to exercise capital punishment even if it were an economic burden? I think so.

To be clear, I’m not for capital punishment in Canada necessarily, I am only here reviewing some arguments floating around in my head, and it looks to me like the better arguments are on the side of allowing capital punishment as a sentence for certain horrendous crimes.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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4 Responses to Capital Punishment and the difference between the social good and justice

  1. Persto says:

    This is off topic, but I am curious, since you are a well-versed Catholic, to know how you feel about the new pope and the current state of affairs within the Church?


    • Well, the jury is still out for me, though everything I have heard about the Pope is good so far so I reserve a cautious optimism about him. However, he has some pretty big shoes to fill given our last two Popes.

      By “the current state of affairs in the Church” I’m hesitant to interpret you as referring to anything in particular because it’s so broad that it might mean everything in general, which means nothing in particular. Perhaps you can specify?

      • Persto says:

        Yes, I was referring to its unattractive stance on contraception and gay rights and its administrative difficulties within the last 20 years or so–a pope steps down, the child sexual abuse scandal, the financial problems, the shady Vatican politics, and so on. Many people seem to think the Church is in decline as a result of its administrative issues and its unpopular stance on contraception and gay rights. Is this something you agree with or no?


  2. Alright, that’s a bit more specific, thanks. So as far as its stance on contraception and gay rights go, I am entirely and adamantly in agreement with the Catholic Church. First, I agree that contraception is morally unconscionable precisely because it divorces the marital act from the openness to its natural ends. The Catholic Church is also one of the few religious traditions which is so adamant about respecting, loving and protecting the rights of homosexual people worldwide (you may hear about a Muslim dying for being homosexual, but you don’t ever hear about a Catholic dying for that). Moreover, the Catechism says the following about homosexuality:

    Chastity and homosexuality

    2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

    2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

    2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
    ~End quote

    Homosexuals are not special, they are called to chastity just like everybody else, including married couples. Now, if by Gay Rights you mean something which goes further than human rights, to a realm of rights which only gay people have, then I begin to take issue with what those might be. For example, people often speak about the right to marry – of course gay people already have the right to get married, they just don’t want to get married to anyone whom they do have a right to get married to (people of the opposite sex, appropriate age, etc). When Gay Rights activists, therefore, argue for homosexual marriage, what they are actually doing is arguing that our society’s definition of marriage should be changed, and this is an extremely reckless and dangerous thing to do, which has huge social, political, moral, and religious consequences. Currently homosexual couples can get civil unions which grant all of the same rights as marriage, and just isn’t ‘marriage’ on paper. They can even have a ceremony and call it their wedding day if they like. However, when they push for the right to get married, what they are aiming at is not to get married (Polls taken within the gay community show that most gay people pushing for the right to get married do not ever want to get married, so they want marriage to be redefined in order to bring about a social change rather than a personal benefit). Just on philosophical grounds, given Kant and Aristotle, I would disagree with this short sighted fanaticism on their part, the goal of which could be easily accomplished in other less harmful ways. If the goal they have in mind is to bring it about that society as a whole is more accepting of them then there are other ways to break through the social stigma surrounding homosexuality. In fact, one of the best ways might be to become Catholic and argue for chastity and the respect of persons.

    The sexual abuse scandal is obviously very sad, for any Catholic (for any human being). Of course, as any intelligent and well informed person will be aware, sexual abuse of minors is not a problem for the Catholic Church in particular (it has been demonstrated to be worse among protestant ministers by about five times, and worse among high school and elementary school teachers about one hundred times). However, what people find troubling is not that there is a sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church as well, but that the Catholic Church hasn’t handled it responsibly since those in charge simply moved priests around. This is a bit of a tricky matter because most of the moving around occurred to protect both the priests and the parishes, but people don’t think it was legitimate to protect the rights of the priest. Most of the time the priests were sent to get reparative therapy, and much of the time, such as the case which Joseph Ratzinger got in trouble for later on, the priest wasn’t actually guilty of anything when they were moved, but confided in his superiors that he felt unhealthy tendencies, and so was allowed leave from parish duties to get reparative therapy, and then later allowed to return to parish-priesthood obligations. There are more things I could say about the sexual abuse scandal, but they come down to this: it is a very sad thing indeed, and the Catholic Church’s administration has not been perfect in this regard.

    From what I understand, the administrative difficulties of the Vatican are in no way connected to our emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, and the reason he stepped down had nothing to do with them anyways. However, the Vatican certainly does need a lesson in management.

    I’m not sure to what you’re referring when you say shady Vatican politics – the Vatican has been pretty open to dialogue politically, as the various speeches at the U.N. of the last two Popes serves to remind us. Perhaps you mean internal politics, but what could you have in mind apart from what you already mentioned? I don’t know.

    I do not think that the Catholic Church is in decline worldwide, and I do not think that whatever decline it seems to be in in some parts of the world is due to the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, or other such issues. Look at the Liberal Anglican communions, for instance, where contraception is allowed, there are women acting as priests, they are pushing for the redefinition of marriage even within the church, they have less press exposing any sexual abuse scandals, and yet their pews are consistently more empty. The reasons for the decline are more complex. Additionally, speaking realistically, if the Catholic Church changed her teaching on contraception, then not only would all those people pushing for her to change her teaching still not enter into the Catholic Church, but a vast number of her members, including theologians, bishops, priests, nuns, laity and even monks, would leave, because if the Catholic Church ever overturns an infallible teaching then she also dissolves her own claim to be the infallible Church which Jesus gave to the world (which is an essential and fundamental feature of the Catholic faith). The Catholic Church cannot change her teachings without proving that the Catholic faith is false, and the ‘Catholic’ Church doesn’t really exist. So, even if it were possible to change it (and I believe it’s not because the Church, in her capacity as our teacher, is led into all truth and preserved from all error by the Holy Spirit), administration would be calling for the death and dissolution of the Catholic faith altogether, and it would not survive worldwide for another century. So, as bad as the administration is in some ways, it just isn’t realistic to think that it is that bad.

    Hope that goes some way towards answering your questions.

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