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J. Budziszewski examined the Catholic position in favor of the death penalty his essay, Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice [firstthings.com] in the August/September issue of First Things, which I thought made a significantly better argument than Cardinal Dulles (whose heart, one could tell, just wasn't in it).

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Justice is giving each what is due to him. So fundamental is the duty of public authority to requite good and evil in deeds that natural law philosophers consider it the paramount function of the state, and the New Testament declares that the role is delegated to magistrates by God Himself. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,” says St. Peter, “whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Peter 2: 13-14). St. Paul agrees:


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For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience (Romans 13:3-5).

And



So weighty is the duty of justice that it raises the question whether mercy is permissible at all. By definition, mercy is punishing the criminal less than he deserves, and it does not seem clear at first why not going far enough is any better than going too far. We say that both cowardice and rashness miss the mark of courage, and that both stinginess and prodigality miss the mark of generosity; why do we not say that both mercy and harshness miss the mark of justice? Making matters yet more difficult, the argument to abolish capital punishment is an argument to categorically extend clemency to all those whose crimes are of the sort that would be requitable by death.

And Budziszewski goes on to answer his own question, first laying out the ground rules:

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I ask: Is there warrant for such categorical extension of clemency? Let us focus mainly on the crime of murder, the deliberate taking of innocent human life. The reason for this focus is that the question of mercy arises only on the assumption that some crime does deserve death.

Like Gelernter, Budziszewski asserts that only death can offer just recompense for the deliberate taking of innocent life:

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As Scripture says: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9: 5-6). Someone may object that the murderer, too, is made in God’s image, and so he is. But this does not lighten the horror of his deed. On the contrary, it heightens it, because it makes him a morally accountable being. Moreover, if even simple murder warrants death, how much more does multiple and compounded murder warrant it. Some criminals seem to deserve death many times over. If we are considering not taking their lives at all, the motive cannot be justice. It must be mercy.

This leads him to pose three questions:

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Is it ever permissible for public authority to give the wrongdoer less than he deserves? If it is permissible, then when is it permissible? Is it permissible to grant such mercy categorically?

Read the whole thing to discover his answers.

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Budziszewski makes a wonderful argument.

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[Budziszewski] asks: Is there warrant for such categorical extension of clemency? Let us focus mainly on the crime of murder, the deliberate taking of innocent human life. The reason for this focus is that the question of mercy arises only on the assumption that some crime does deserve death.
At least up until recently, much of the opposition from those in the Catholic Church to the death penalty has been rooted in appeals to mercy. Budziszewski is correct - an appeal to mercy admits the point that some crimes deserve death.

BTW, Dulles does better elsewhere. That post was handy as I saw it earlier today.

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The problem with all of these arguments is that they presuppose that the State should be given the right to kill its own citizens, under its own terms.

Hence, in the United States, the State can kill you if you are declared guilty of treason. Would anybody argue that this is a Christian position?

In a utopia, the case for capital punishment might be worthy, and I may be inclined to agree with this position.

We are not in a utopia, so let's not enact capital punishment as if we were.

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So as to not distract from my previous point, which in my mind is the most important, I'll answer just one objection that he raises below:

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Suppose the unlikely: that somehow we did keep all capital criminals in prison for the duration of their natural lives. Even then the protective purpose of punishment would not be fully satisfied. True, a man behind bars no longer endangers society in general. But he endangers other inmates, and he certainly endangers prison staff. Surely they, too, deserve consideration. We are forced to conclude that even today, with our modern penal systems, safety is still an issue. Safety must not trump desert: the risk of future harm to society cannot justify doing more to the criminal than he deserves. But in some cases it should keep us from doing less.

1) Other inmates, by virtue of their crime and punishment, have given up the right to be protected from other murderers (as well as many other of their rights).

2) Prison staff willingly hazard the dangers of dealing with murderers, and are compensated for taking this risk. To claim that murderers can't be imprisoned for life because prison staff could get hurt seems to assume that the prison staff are there unwillingly and are not being protected as they ought to be. That's just silly. It's their job they signed up for.

The "safety" issue in a life-sentence prison is a non-issue.

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Originally Posted by jjp
The problem with all of these arguments is that they presuppose that the State should be given the right to kill its own citizens, under its own terms.
No, that's not the point. The point is that the State can exact justice in terms of the death penalty for murder and other appropriate crimes when the process is just (that is, in accordance with the natural law (if not openly the traditional Christian teaching).

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Hence, in the United States, the State can kill you if you are declared guilty of treason. Would anybody argue that this is a Christian position?
I certainly would. Those Americans who fought against us in WWII were rightly executed on the battlefield when they were encountered. Last week we justly executed Al-Awlaki for what amounted to treason (joining with an enemy to bring down the United States).

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In a utopia, the case for capital punishment might be worthy, and I may be inclined to agree with this position.

We are not in a utopia, so let's not enact capital punishment as if we were.
I disagree. Your point is illogical. The natural extension of your logic is that we should not allow the State to do anything at all because the society we live in is not utopian.

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Originally Posted by jjp
1) Other inmates, by virtue of their crime and punishment, have given up the right to be protected from other murderers (as well as many other of their rights).
If anything, this is an appeal to house non-violent prisoners (those not convicted of murder) separately from violent prisoners. Most agree with this statement.

Originally Posted by jjp
2) Prison staff willingly hazard the dangers of dealing with murderers, and are compensated for taking this risk. To claim that murderers can't be imprisoned for life because prison staff could get hurt seems to assume that the prison staff are there unwillingly and are not being protected as they ought to be. That's just silly. It's their job they signed up for.

The "safety" issue in a life-sentence prison is a non-issue.
Prison staff are paid and knowingly undertake the task.

The argument here is about the safety of the innocent. Prisoners do escape and we do read of escaped murderers who murder again. As noted earlier, a life sentence for murder is typically less than 12 years. [Though I'm happy to hear that you'd like them all to move to your neighborhood! biggrin ]

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Originally Posted by Administrator
Originally Posted by jjp
The problem with all of these arguments is that they presuppose that the State should be given the right to kill its own citizens, under its own terms.
No, that's not the point. The point is that the State can exact justice in terms of the death penalty for murder and other appropriate crimes when the process is just (that is, in accordance with the natural law (if not openly the traditional Christian teaching).

I understand those are the points being made, but my criticism is of the presuppositions that they rely on. One must presuppose that the State should have this power, which is what I call into question.

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Hence, in the United States, the State can kill you if you are declared guilty of treason. Would anybody argue that this is a Christian position?
I certainly would. Those Americans who fought against us in WWII were rightly executed on the battlefield when they were encountered. Last week we justly executed Al-Awlaki for what amounted to treason (joining with an enemy to bring down the United States).

Here you equate treason with battlefield realities, another presupposition I would certainly call into question. Is it an historical Christian position that those who betray the State they reside in should be put to death? Really? Crucify him!

As for Al-Awlaki, it wasn't a just execution, as he was never tried. You can call it a battlefield killing, but that is something different that what you are claiming.

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In a utopia, the case for capital punishment might be worthy, and I may be inclined to agree with this position.

We are not in a utopia, so let's not enact capital punishment as if we were.
I disagree. Your point is illogical. The natural extension of your logic is that we should not allow the State to do anything at all because the society we live in is not utopian.

No, the natural extension of my logic is that we should limit what the State can do (imagine that), and killing its own citizens is within those limits.

It never ceases to amaze me how often people are willing to give the State a blank check and hope it fills everything out they way they want it to.

These discussions do not exist in a vacuum. The people that are elected today have questionable motives and I for one would not trust most of them with this power. Imagine when the true enemies of Christ seize the reins, and use the power you have argued for them to have against you.

See you in Gitmo.

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Originally Posted by Administrator
Originally Posted by jjp
1) Other inmates, by virtue of their crime and punishment, have given up the right to be protected from other murderers (as well as many other of their rights).
If anything, this is an appeal to house non-violent prisoners (those not convicted of murder) separately from violent prisoners. Most agree with this statement.

Okay, but it does nothing in favor of the morality of capital punishment, which is what I was addressing.

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Originally Posted by jjp
2) Prison staff willingly hazard the dangers of dealing with murderers, and are compensated for taking this risk. To claim that murderers can't be imprisoned for life because prison staff could get hurt seems to assume that the prison staff are there unwillingly and are not being protected as they ought to be. That's just silly. It's their job they signed up for.

The "safety" issue in a life-sentence prison is a non-issue.
Prison staff are paid and knowingly undertake the task.

The argument here is about the safety of the innocent. Prisoners do escape and we do read of escaped murderers who murder again. As noted earlier, a life sentence for murder is typically less than 12 years. [Though I'm happy to hear that you'd like them all to move to your neighborhood! biggrin ]

Again, this is a criticism of the current framework in which prisoners are held (or not, as the case may be), which I would likely find sympathy with. What it is not is an argument in support of the morality of capital punishment.

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Originally Posted by jjp
Again, this is a criticism of the current framework in which prisoners are held (or not, as the case may be), which I would likely find sympathy with. What it is not is an argument in support of the morality of capital punishment.
The protection of the innocent is most certainly one point in the argument supporting capital punishment. Only in a utopian world can you claim that murders never escape to murder again. The others, of course, have already been discussed (justice).

--

I remember a local talk show on which this was discussed. The caller identified himself as a "staunch Catholic" and said he taught his teen age son that he ought never to murder anyone. That if he did, he would pray for him but he would not oppose his execution for murder because it would be a just execution. Emotion was certainly part of this, but the child walked away understanding that should he ever murder another human he would, by his own actions, forfeit his life.

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My thoughts on this subject are along the lines of the imperfect nature of "the system."

To begin with, we have the fact that eyewitness identification is still frequently the key piece of evidence used to convict a murder suspect, even though it is notoriously unreliable. Furthermore, both prosecutors and defense lawyers frequently use emotional appeals to influence the jury, which sometimes (perhaps most of the time?) causes them to overlook some very real evidence--or the absence thereof. Finally, there is the phenomenon that is often seen in cases where a murder evokes a public outcry (not all murders do!), and the public practically demands that the police find a suspect, and that the courts find him guilty--circumstances that are hardly conducive to a fair trial.

Given all these impediments to a fair and honest trial, I would certainly wish to decline from being a proponent of the death penalty.


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Originally Posted by Administrator
Originally Posted by jjp
Again, this is a criticism of the current framework in which prisoners are held (or not, as the case may be), which I would likely find sympathy with. What it is not is an argument in support of the morality of capital punishment.
The protection of the innocent is most certainly one point in the argument supporting capital punishment. Only in a utopian world can you claim that murders never escape to murder again. The others, of course, have already been discussed (justice).

If you are conceding that this discussion does not exist in a vacuum and that utopian ideals are thrown out the window, then what it comes down to is expediency.

You say the threat of murderers escaping is greater than the threat of the State abusing the power to kill its citizens (or, rather, that the odd prisoner escape is a greater potential evil than a State that abuses this power).

This difference in outlook marks our divergence in the morality of capital punishment.

That we would all be venerating a syringe had Christ come today is lost in the conversation, as is the notion that States such as Iran and China are lockstep in the morality that is being expounded here. Is their agreement with you an example of a broken clock being right twice a day?

Forgive my skepticism.

--

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I remember a local talk show on which this was discussed. The caller identified himself as a "staunch Catholic" and said he taught his teen age son that he ought never to murder anyone. That if he did, he would pray for him but he would not oppose his execution for murder because it would be a just execution. Emotion was certainly part of this, but the child walked away understanding that should he ever murder another human he would, by his own actions, forfeit his life.

This is an argument that claims capital punishment is an effective deterrent, something that statistics do not bear out, radio show anecdotes aside.

I would hope my child would learn not to kill not because of the severity of the punishment, but because it is wrong - even if society allowed it. It's dangerous to teach children a morality that is based solely on the measure of the consequence.

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To begin with, we have the fact that eyewitness identification is still frequently the key piece of evidence used to convict a murder suspect, even though it is notoriously unreliable.

"Notoriously" unreliable? So how many eye witnesses become reliable? And, if eyewitness testimony is unreliable in murder cases, then what about lesser crimes? Slowly but surely, you are backing yourself into a corner where perfect becomes the enemy of the good, where, because human nature is fallible, nobody should ever be convicted of anything at any time, anywhere.

Fortunately, forensic science has come along way, and few people are now convicted on the basis of a single eyewitness alone. If you like, we could caveat waiving the death penalty in cases where DNA evidence is not available. And though the attention goes to the handful of cases in which DNA has exonerated a wrongly convicted man, in many more cases DNA has proven that the man convicted in fact did the crime.

In one notorious case, a man was executed, protesting his innocence right up to the time they put the needle in his arm. A prominent death penalty opponent undertook to clear the man's name, feeling that if he could demonstrate a man had been wrongly executed, public sentiment would turn against capital punishment. After a number of years, he got court permission to subject key evidence to DNA analysis not used at the original trial (DNA was in its infancy when the man was first tried, and no court up to his execution had allowed DNA testing as part of an appeal).

The matter was covered by Sixty Minutes (or another network news magazine), and it was interesting to see the man's face crumple when he was told the laboratory analysis confirmed that the convicted and executed felon had indeed committed the crime for which he was executed.

The guy took the bad news like a mensch, though--he admitted that the criminal had fooled him from the get-go, that the man was a charming and compulsive liar, and that he had been foolish to believe his story.

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I think prison escapes that result in murder are comparatively rare and exceptional, and exceptions should never be the basis of a rule. Obviously no system is perfect. What IS more common is for released murderers to offend again, and this does happen in places like Australia where life terms generally mean 25-30 years served. I gather that life without parole happens more so in the states, and whether offenders who are sentenced to life should get early release is certainly debated here.

What is equally apparent though is that Australia (and this is also true of pretty much all states that lack the death penalty) is that it has substantially lower murder rates (and violent crime rates generally) than the US. Whether this is because of the relative lack of availability of firearms or because of the lack of a culture in which killing is commonplace or for some other reason depends on your perspective.

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Originally Posted by JDC
Originally Posted by jjp
Anybody who thinks the death penalty is anything but retribution is kidding themselves.

You say that like it's a bad thing.

Look up cheshire home invasion or triple murder in cheshire ct. I'm sure they will burn in hell.

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What is equally apparent though is that Australia (and this is also true of pretty much all states that lack the death penalty) is that it has substantially lower murder rates (and violent crime rates generally) than the US.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Australia is not the U.S. is not France is not Germany is not Britain. In any case, in almost all of these countries a majority--in some cases a very large majority--of the citizenry support the death penalty or its reinstitution, proving once again that the people usually have more common sense than their more enlightened masters.

I think I also pointed out that--already--human rights advocates in Europe are denouncing the U.S. practice of sentencing murderers to life in prison without parole (and meaning it!) is inhumane; several countries already will not extradite prisoners to the U.S. if they face not only capital punishment, but life without parole.

Since the average sentence for a murderer in the U.S. is only twelve years, and something less in Europe, the problem is not that we punish murderers too harshly, but that we are slouching into treating murder like any other crime against persons and property (in fact, you can get a longer sentence--much longer--for certain white collar crimes than for killing a man).

By the way, the U.S. is rapidly becoming one of the safer countries in the world. You are much safer walking the streets of New York, Los Angeles or even Washington, DC, than you are in London or Paris. Make of that what you wish.

One final point: I never argued for capital punishment on utilitarian grounds, I care not one whit whether it encourages, discourages or has no effect whatsoever on potential murderers. I support capital punishment because it is the ultimate affirmation of the sanctity of life. And if this seems paradoxical to you, I suggest that Christianity is going to seem very strange indeed, with all that stuff about the first being last, the master of all being the servant of all, and of losing one's life in order to save it. Christianity is a faith based on paradoxes. Why should this one cause so much confusion?

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