Michael Brendan Dougherty Has Said It Well

Regarding Mike Huckabee’s have-it-both-ways answer to the question of whether Jesus would support the death penalty, MBD says, “Basically, he’d kill them but he’d cry about it afterwards.” When asked tonight — and earlier when asked at the Morgan State University debate in Baltimore — Huck said that he supports the death penalty but feel really bad about it, since he’s actually had to execute prisoners (not personally, of course) as governor of Arkansas. The particular question he was asked tonight, however, and which Anderson Cooper reiterated and pressed Huck upon, was whether Jesus would support capital punishment. For all that Huck put on his “serious face” and wrung his hands about his decisions as Arkansas governor, when pressed he evaded the question by cracking a joke: Jesus was smart enough not to get into politics, he said. Funny, but why not answer the question? Presumably because an honest answer wouldn’t have served Huck’s political interests.

I’ve come around on capital punishment. I used to be for it, and in my gut I still am. But the gut is not the place for careful consideration of life-and-death matters. I changed my mind after thinking about the criticisms of capital punishment that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have made and asking myself whether it could ever be right to take the life of a man who is not in a position to pose a threat to anyone. The deterrent effects of capital punishment are debatable, and other countries have been able to control their crime problems without resort to the death penalty. There are other, I think better, cases to be made for capital punishment on moral grounds — that it’s the proportionate punishment for the crime, for example. But confronted with a choice between the principle of proportionality on the one hand and the principles of mercy and of precedence on the other (by precedence I mean that God has a higher claim to a man’s life, even a criminal’s life, than the State can ever have) I think the Christian should side with mercy and precedence.

Of course, there’s a overwhelmingly compelling secular reason to oppose capital punishment as well. If Mike Huckabee, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and the great mass of the American people all support a policy, it must be very bad indeed.

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12 thoughts on “Michael Brendan Dougherty Has Said It Well

  1. John W. Payne November 29, 2007 / 5:21 am

    What really blew my mind when Huckabee said that Jesus was smart enough to stay out of politics was that it implied that there was a moral duty not to sully yourself with such matters. That may be true, but then why the hell is Huckabee there? I realize it was a joke, but there’s truth behind it.

    Also, I’ve always thought that the possibility for court error was simply too high for the death penalty to be justified.

  2. Matthew November 30, 2007 / 4:07 pm

    I agree w/Payne. I am for the death penalty in theory, but the way things work out in the courts the death penalty is unevenly and sometimes wrongly applied.

    Tayo once mentioned that in Nigeria, if the police catch a murder red-handed, and there is no doubt he is guilty – they would execute him on the spot. Somehow, I don’t trust American law enforcement with that authority.

  3. Daniel McCarthy November 30, 2007 / 5:43 pm

    No, I don’t trust anyone with that authority either — somehow I don’t think the Nigerian authorities are completely reliable in that respect themselves, though Tayo would know better than I would.

    Still, I don’t find the potential for error to be the most persuasive case against capital punishment, since that potential exists with any kind of punishment, and I suspect there are fewer errors in capital cases. It’s true that a mistake in a capital case is irreversible — but then again, if you wrongly send someone to jail for a few years, that mistake is irreversible, too. It’s not as if the wrongly convicted prisoner who serves part or all of a prison term can get any of that time back. So the potential for error is a consideration, sure, but I don’t find it to be enough. (How many cases of wrongful execution can anyone point to the U.S., anyway? Virtually none in recent decades, from what I’ve seen.)

  4. Matthew November 30, 2007 / 8:42 pm

    While the state of prison life is horrifying to comtemplate, I don’t see any perfect equivalence between losing some years off your life and losing all years off your life. The most famous incident of near wrongful execution were the four men former IL Gov. George Ryan pardoned before commuting all death sentences in IL.

    The other main issue I have is the haphazard application of the death penalty – how not all capital crimes are worth equal punishment. I do agree that the dealth penalty as currently exercised is past its time.

    Huckabee reminds me of a deflated less conservative Jerry Falwell.

  5. Robert Higgs December 1, 2007 / 2:06 am

    The more you know about the people, the rules, and the actions that constitute the so-called criminal justice system, the less you believe that the system can do ANYTHING in an honest, competent, and just way. The whole apparatus is rotten to the core. To sanction people’s being sent to their deaths in this system is, in my judgment, morally capricious. I’m almost 64 years old, and long ago I had seen enough to reject every claim made on the system’s behalf. Even now, however, as I continue to learn more about it, I find that it smells even more rotten.

  6. Tim December 3, 2007 / 9:02 am

    Robert Higgs’s comments are well taken, but it is interesting that the hitherto popular liberal utilitarian argumen (ie “capital punishment does not deter crime”) has come under increasing pressure. See this recent article in the NYT. (here).

    In the past conservative opponents of this liberal utilitarianism argued that capital punishment was necessary, regardless of the alleged non-deterrent effects, on grounds of justice. Now that the empirical evidence is increasingly supporting capital punishment, it’s fascinating that conservatives, increasingly alienated from the social engineering machine the welfare state has become are turning against C.P. Can a liberal defection to the pro-CP camp be long off?

  7. Tim December 3, 2007 / 9:17 am

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some valuable insights on Capital Punishment too.

    ” 2266 The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.[67]

    2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.

    “If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

    “Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ [68] ”

    As to my previous point about liberal utilitarians, it is fascinating to note that Alan Dershowitz, who has recently been making the case for torture, has previously in career opposed firearm ownership, defended pornography and is a supporter of animal rights. My guess is that modern liberals will come to support C.P. once the ‘punishment’ word is removed. If CP is ever reclassified as a new fangled form of socially aware euthanasia, watch out!

  8. Christopher December 4, 2007 / 2:43 pm

    I’ll say what everyone may be thinking. I like, no love, the death penalty because it feels good. Of course it doesn’t deter a single murder, I just loved it when Duncan Hunter said that we needed the death penalty to deter the “Charles Mansons of the world”. Yeah, right. Regardless, if watching the death of a murderer who killed a realtive makes the family feel a moment better it’s worth it.

  9. Tim December 6, 2007 / 1:56 pm

    The discussion of capital punishment seems an appropriate place to remember something from C.S. Lewis.

    I have found the following in an article from Murray Rothbard discussing C.S. Lewis’s critique of the modern belief that “rehabilitation” is a humane and civilised alternative to “punishment”. The full article is online here.

    Noting that the “reformers” call their proposed actions “healing” or “therapy” rather than “punishment,” Lewis adds:

    “But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver … to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success — who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared — shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust — is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.”

    Lewis goes on to demonstrate the particularly harsh tyranny that is likely to be levied by “humanitarians” out to inflict their “reforms” and “cures” on the populace:

    “Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better,” is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.”

    Furthermore, Lewis points out, the rulers can use the concept of “disease” as a means for terming any actions that they dislike as “crimes” and then to inflict a totalitarian rule in the name of therapy.”

    “For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call “disease” can be treated as crime; and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to plead that states of mind which displease government need not always involve moral turpitude and do not therefore always deserve forfeiture of liberty. For our masters will not be using concepts of Desert and Punishment but those of disease and cure…. It will not be persecution. Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, that will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic. Even in ordinary medicine there were painful operations and fatal operations; so in this. But because they are “treatment,” not punishment, they can be criticized only by fellow-experts and on technical grounds, never by men as men and on grounds of justice.”

    Perhaps paleos need to remember that the liberal left’s opposition to capital punishment (at least for non-foetuses) has little to do with any natural rights natural justice position. They were perhaps more opposed to the idea of punishment than it’s “capital-ness”. If some machine to obliterate the personality and reprogram it were available, the liberal left’s ‘anti-CPers’ would be all in favour of it. And presumably want it made both universal and compulsory! Paleos should not be afraid to oppose C.P. just because liberals also oppose it, if perhaps for different reasons.

  10. Will Grigg December 8, 2007 / 9:56 pm

    It’s gratifying to see some thoughtful conservative discussion of the moral merits (such as they are) of capital punishment. I’m grateful to see that I’m not the only paleo-con/paleo-libertarian who had a relatively recent change of mind on the subject.

    Oddly enough, what made me abandon my longstanding, albeit reluctant, support for the death penalty was — of all things — the US-led1999 terror bombing of Yugoslavia. This came after a number of episodes, the Waco slaughter among them, in which various government agencies killed innocent people on a whim and without their agents displaying a tremor of remorse.

    The spectacle of a 78-day bombing campaign against a country that had done NOTHING to justify that assault finally prompted me to understand that the regime ruling us simply cannot be trusted with the power of discretionary killing.

    I firmly believe in the right to lethal self-defense. But I cannot support the killing of other human beings for any other reason.

  11. John Lowell December 21, 2007 / 3:01 pm

    Speaking entirely as a Catholic, I’m gratified by any Evangelical expression of opposition to the death penalty, rare as they are, and conscious as I am of Church teaching on the question. Catholic doctrine on capital punishment is in the process of a kind of a deepening as is its sense of the relation of Jesus Christ to the natural environment. Behind both is a shift in context away from a Thomistic vision of the reason for the Incarnation toward a more Scotian one, I would not be surprized eventually to see a new treatment of the question of vivisection also. A basis for such development is already in preliminary form.

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