“The Capital Punishment Debate, Yet Again”—Prof. Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing

Professor Hadley Arkes’s “The Capital Punishment Debate, Yet Again,” appearing in The Catholic Thing, offers his insights as to the compatibility of capital punishment within the American regime. Some excerpts:

“All of this comes back, of course, as a jury in Boston hands down the death penalty for young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for all of the people that he and his brother killed and maimed at the Marathon. The news seemed to be received, at least in the first moments, with a quiet assent, that there was something simply, and finally, apt about the judgment. But before long we can expect to see those moral acrobatics played out again: that the people who find nothing worth their moral notice in the killing of 1.2 million small human beings in abortion, will decry a moral universe falling out of order when it comes to the execution of brutal, serial killers.”

“Aquinas taught the rightness of capital punishment when needed for defense of the community and the common good. And yet, that kind of teaching moves into the domain of the ‘contingent’ and the speculative: it would justify the taking of life on the basis of predictions about the dangers that may be averted.”

“But strictly speaking, the argument for deterrence suffers a problem of coherence. For we would be told that the killing of Jones would not be sufficient to justify the lethal punishment of Smith, who had killed Jones. And yet, under a theory of deterrence, the community could be justified in executing Smith out of a conjecture about other people he is likely to kill if he is left alive to act out his character. But by what moral reasoning would the life of some person as yet unknown, and some crime as yet uncommitted, be far more important than the life of Jones, snuffed out in the crime that was actually committed?”

“Twenty years ago, it was common to hear on late night television, jokes springing from the trial of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his wife. But one would never hear jokes made of the murder of victims in the Holocaust. At the end of her book on Adolph Eichmann, Hannah Arendt delivered this judgment on him: That you have done something so evil that the rest of us do not deserve to share the earth with you.”

“It makes a profound difference when we don’t begin by ruling out capital punishment in those ‘smaller murders’ – the killing of that young woman’s husband in Detroit, or the participants and bystanders at the Marathon in Boston. For what we are saying then is that we take those lives quite as seriously, we attach as much importance to them, as to the lives of those uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, who died in the Holocaust.”

Read the whole piece here.