We tend to base our belief in man’s
superiority over the animals on our ability to reason and on our espousal of
moral values. I wonder.
The majority of people and certainly a
majority of those who have the power to make laws are opposed to capital
The possibility of executing an
innocent man or woman is often given as a powerful argument against the ‘ultimate
sanction’ but, in exploring the rational and moral objection to capital
punishment, this is an irrelevance. The possibility of such an appalling error
disturbs even the most enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment. Let us agree that no-one wishes to execute an
innocent man. So let’s eliminate this
objection by excluding from the hangman’s noose, or the doctor’s syringe,
anyone about whose guilt there is even the smallest shred of doubt.
We are now talking about a callous
murderer who has butchered an entire family in front of a large, sober, utterly
reliable audience and a bank of CCTV cameras..
Are we still opposed to capital punishment and, if so, why.
Well, there’s the “Capital punishment
is murder by the state” view. This
proposition seems to be based on an
assertion that capital punishment is wholly analogous to an individual
murdering another person.
I’m not sure such a proposition stands
up to even a cursory scrutiny. Unless
one takes the view that, even after due process of law, the state has no right
to punish anyone, the argument doesn’t make sense. The key point is “after due process of
law”. If I, acting as an individual,
lock someone up for some reason, it is kidnapping. But if this person has been tried and found
guilty of theft, the state is entitled to imprison the thief. Imprisonment,
after due process, is not kidnapping. If
the thief is lucky and gets off with a fine, the imposition of a fine is not
“state theft”. Execution after due
process, just like imprisonment and a fine, is a form of judicial
Then there is the “redemption” argument,
that no human being is so evil or depraved that he/she cannot be redeemed. This is an interesting argument and raises
the question of how to strike a balance between the various purposes of a penal
system. In general, penal systems set
out to fulfil four objectives:
- to punish the offender (to ensure the
offender has to face the consequences of his action by losing his liberty, his
money or his life)
- to protect the public (to prevent the
offender from committing further offences while in prison)
- to deter the offender and others (to
dissuade both the offender and others who may be tempted to offend from
committing the offence)
- to reform the offender (to redeem the
offender by education, or therapy or some other means to persuade him/her to abandon
offending ways and become an upright useful member of society.
Precisely how to strike the correct
balance amongst these four objectives is open to debate but most people would
agree that all four objectives are important.
The only one of these four that is inconsistent with capital punishment
is “reform of the offender”. While some
would argue reform is the most important objective for those offenders who are
to be put back in to the community, in the case of murderers this objective
carries less weight, since, if executed, the success or failure of the reform
process would not be an issue. Questions of proportionality arise. Is 15 years in prison a proportionate
punishment for killing one or more innocent victims? Issues of ‘protection of
the public’ carry more weight in cases of murder than in the case of less
serious offences (rather too many murderers have killed again when released)
and, while the evidence for the deterrent effect of capital punishment is
extremely doubtful in many cases, it probably has some effect amongst
professional violent criminals. The
argument for “reform” seems rather weak in this context, not least since
efforts at reform of hardened violent criminals seem rather less effective than
the simple ageing process.
You must be wondering where I am going
with this. Is this an open call for the
return of capital punishment? No, it
certainly isn’t, unless grotesque hypocrisy is deemed a capital offence.
The purpose of the above review of
arguments about capital punishment is to point out that the abolition of
capital punishment is fundamentally based on a perfectly legitimate revulsion
at the idea of the state taking a life.
This revulsion may be derived from religious faith or from humanist
principles. It can take the form of “God
gave life; and only God can take it away”.
Or it may be formulated simply as “A decent, civilised society should
not resort to cruel and barbaric punishments.”
The rest of this essay is addressed to those who agree with these
So you believe human life is of such
value that even the aforementioned murderer of an innocent family should not be
Does this respect for human life apply
to abortion?. Last year, despite the
ubiquitous availability of free birth control devices, there were 189,100
abortions in England and Wales, most of them paid for out of taxation. Around 17,000 abortions (9%) were performed
after 13 weeks at which point the foetus is formed into a recognisable baby
shape with hardening bones, growing muscle tissue, the ability to move and to
make sucking motions. No, you say,
abortion is every women’s right. So, evidently, this concern about the value of
human life does not apply to foetuses.
One might have thought that a foetus, being
capable of enjoying a longer human life than any adult and being entirely
innocent of any crime, is better placed to appeal to the ‘sanctity of human’
life view than a convicted mass murderer.
But I hear you object. I have
disregarded the wishes of the pregnant woman and, in any case, a foetus is not
a human being.
Well, let’s take that one apart. Yes, I have ignored the wishes of the woman,
but, if we believe in the sanctity of human life, is it not reasonable to give
of a human being precedence over the wishes of the potential
And, if a foetus at 24 weeks (the legal
limit for abortion in most circumstances) is not a human being, we are going to
have to define a “human being” rather carefully. A foetus of 24 weeks can, with assistance,
survive outside the womb; a new-born babe, without assistance, cannot. Once the child is born, we all agree that
the interests of the baby are paramount.
No-one would argue the wishes of the mother should take precedence over
the well-being, or the life, of the child, so it seems rather strange there is
so little debate about the right of a woman to terminate the life of the foetus
Of course, this line of argument should
disturb only those who claim to be committed to the sanctity of human life; and,
whatever the biological facts, they can always resort to the view that human
life does not exist until the moment of birth.
In the same year as 189,100 abortions
were performed in England and Wales, most of them at tax-payers expense, it was
revealed that 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the Iraq war. Some estimates put the figure much higher but
100,000 is more than enough. How many of
these civilians were killed by British military action is not known but it is
certain that some civilian men, women and children were killed by military
action which we, as UK tax-payers, financed.
So what conclusion can we draw? Well, it seems we cannot accept capital
punishment for proven murderers but we can live with, and pay for, the
termination of 200,000 innocent potential human beings and 100,000 actual
innocent human beings.
Those who oppose abortion and the
killing of civilians are entitled to oppose capital punishment. Those who favour the reintroduction of
capital punishment may also reasonably accommodate abortion and civilian
“collateral damage” in wars. But to
argue for the sanctity of human life, while agreeing with and financing
abortions and civilian deaths is surely to adopt an untenable position.
How can we reconcile these
extraordinary inconsistencies? Well, in
these muddled, dumbed-down times, where reasoned analysis is discouraged and
decried, the standard defence is: “I’m entitled to my views and it’s a matter
of what I feel comfortable with.”
To which I reply; “No you aren’t entitled
to your views if your views contradict each other – and how you feel is
irrelevant if it is used to excuse grotesque hypocrisy.” Now there’s a crime for which capital
punishment might usefully be reintroduced.