People like to support the death penalty because they believe it deters crime. A simple Google search will quickly dispel this myth.
Others like to say that it provides closure to families of the victims. I’m not sure whether or not that’s true, but I have a hard time thinking that someone will feel a lot better after someone else is killed.
But those rationales are simply practical concerns. People tend to get caught up in the prevention-of-crime rationale. These are perfectly valid goals and, if the death penalty were applied differently, they might be achievable through that means. But, as the great legal scholar Guido Calabresi would observe, there’s a lot more to capital punishment than that. The law tends to try to achieve multiple goals simultaneously, and that’s why it never perfectly achieves any one goal. There are two related rationale for the death penalty, one that we don’t like to talk about and one that few know how to put into words.
More Honest Rationale: PunishmentPunishment is the third major reason for capital punishment that’s cited by average people. As a general matter, it incorporates both of my “more honest rationales.” Critics of capital punishment often say that life in prison is adequate punishment. In my mind, life in prison is worse than death for the perpetrator and less satisfying for society.
Retribution is one of the most powerful reasons to support the death penalty. I think people don’t like to talk about it because it’s often associated with revenge. But they’re not the same thing. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) gives as one definition for revenge “an act or instance of retaliating in order to get even.” This is something that society doesn’t want to admit to, and rightly so. Retribution, on the other hand, is “the dispensing or receiving of reward or punishment esp. in the hereafter.” So retribution has an element of divine moral justice. Which brings me to the other honest rationale for the death penalty: natural justice.
Natural justice is something that courts avoid in their resolution of issues. This is largely because it’s very difficult to set out principled standards and rules to follow. But, at the same time, most people would agree that there is something to the concept. In natural justice, the punishment should fit the crime, almost like poetic justice. For example, rapists should be castrated, thieves should be stripped of their own belongings, and murderers should be put to death.
What separates natural justice from revenge? Revenge is taken by individuals on behalf of themselves or their loved ones. Revenge is primal and chaotic. Natural justice reaches the same result as revenge. But revenge can go too far because of emotional considerations. In revenge, X kills Y’s wife, then Y kills X’s entire extended family (thank you The Punisher). But in natural justice, there is an adjudication to determine whether the accused has actually committed the crime, and the punishment is meted out fairly. Natural justice is action by an ordered society rather than wronged individuals.
I could take the natural justice discussion further, and I may at some point. I could also go through recommendations for how capital punishment should b implemented in a criminal justice system or discuss the Supreme Court’s capital punishment jurisprudence. But for now, we can sum up the argument as such: capital punishment can be supported on punishment grounds, because society demands retribution for heinous crimes on the basis of natural justice.
Capital Punishment and ReligionPeople like to cite hypocrisy in religion. They find most Protestants’ approval of capital punishment as being at odds with their disapproval of abortion. I imagine both sides are absolutely astonished at the apparent disparity: D thinks it’s okay to kill an innocent baby but wants to save the life of a murdering bastard; R wants to protect tissue at the expense of a woman’s choice and lifestyle but doesn’t have the decency to want to protect a real human being.
The most obvious response to this charge of hypocrisy on the part of Christians is this: the fetus (which is seen as a full-fledged human) has done nothing wrong. The murderer, on the other hand, has forfeited his own life by taking another life.
I found another response to the apparent disparity between the attitudes of the Old and New Testaments in part of a paper I wrote in a class called “Ministry in a Changing World,” a graduation requirement at my undergraduate university, which I took in May of 2003:
[W]e can look . . . to the fifth chapter of Matthew, verses, 38-42.Finally, what are your thoughts on capital punishment? Is it morally required of a civilized nation? Is it morally acceptable yet practically ludicrous? Do you still think it’s hypocritical to support the death penalty while decrying abortion (or backwards to support abortion while opposing the death penalty)? Or do you agree with me that it is the best way to implement a natural justice and to punish murderers?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
At first glance, this verse only tells us not to resist evil. But put in a historical context, it shows that God wants us to separate church and state.
Before this time, God’s people were also a nation, as Israel. God’s laws were not only a moral code, but also a code of law and order. “Eye for eye” was meant to be the rule of law for the people of Israel, so that they could keep the criminals in check. God’s new people, the Body of Christ, are no longer a nation. They are supposed to be members of all nations. And they will never be the majority. So the gospel of Jesus compels us to love our neighbor and not seek revenge. That is something up to the governments to do.