Questions of Morality Admit No Exceptions

By David Brodsky

With the federal government considering a national moratorium on capital punishment, several states considering similar measures, students in colleges and universities in the area voting to support such measures and the entire nationwide organization of Knights of Columbus being charged by the Holy Father to fight aggressively to end the death penalty in the United States, I find this a time particularly relevant to share my own views, emphasizing of course the philosophical ramifications of capital punishment over the practical.

It has been a particular disappointment to me that so much of the debate on this issue centers on the practical application of the death penalty instead of asserting forcefully that, even if it could be applied infallibly, it would still be unjust.

Many point out that a staggering percentage of people on death row are innocent, that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime, that the death penalty is a cruel and often racist punishment and that it cannot be overturned. Still, one assumption is granted by many opponents to the death penalty: that if capital punishment could be applied with the confidence that we are executing only guilty men and that crime would taper if we proceed, it would be justified. Is this a stable assumption? I would most vigorously say it is not.

One of the hardest concepts for many morally reflective people to accept is the idea of deontology – Kant’s notion that duty is the basis of all morals and that if one has a duty not to do something, one cannot do it even if doing it would yield favorable consequences. For instance, if in 1943, I ran into Hitler knowing that if I pulled out my Remington semi-automatic, blew him into oblivion, and saved the lives of millions of innocent people, I still could not do it because I am under a universal duty not to murder. This concept is a bit difficult for most to stomach, but it is the basis of rationally objective morality.

Moral notions are based on reason. Reason allows us to consider concepts based on their moral permissibility. Pure reason always leads to an objective, normative conclusion, not one that changes based on situation. Thus, if capital punishment can rationally be seen as wrong, it does not matter in the slightest whether or not it is an effective deterrent to crime. And if capital punishment is seen to be right, its rightness does not depend on whether or not it can be implemented justly.

I contend that, as justice is an objective notion, and the logical basis of all morality is to promote justice, capital punishment is not justifiable because we are compelled to use justice as a standard to analyze our own actions – not to judge the lives of other human beings – our equals with natural worth, according to our own moral conclusions.

We must now ask ourselves what the purpose of a system of justice is. In a democratic state, we cannot rest our justice system on the moral interpretations of any religious group or even of our culture as a whole. Our justice must be based on something fundamentally social in nature and not in any way oppressive to any who disagree. We can see that laws are set up not to look out for the moral constitution of the people of a society, but rather to protect the innocent from having their liberty adversely affected.

We make (just) laws only to protect one individual from all the others. When a person chooses to assert his own interests over the vested interests of the state, that state, having participated with the individual in a tacit social contract, has the right to remove the individual from its free society and put him into a situation where he is not part of any social contract at all besides that to which he agrees: a mock state of nature scenario where the prisoner exchanges his hard labor and obedience for food and protection.

Does a state here acquire any grounds on which it can put one of its citizens to death? Of course not! To judge the quality of a human life requires faculties which would allow for individual moral judgements to be made. These are faculties not available to humans nor is it the business of the state to resolve moral issues; we cannot judge those who are not naturally subordinated to us – one human can never judge another on morals; only God has the power to judge rightly. A system of justice is just a network of human beings and just as fallible as any individual; when a murderer kills, he is vilified for passing his own judgement on the person he kills. How is this any different than the very fallible “justice” that the state wants to secure for itself by legalizing capital punishment?

We all have emotional wills. We would all like to see those gruesome murderers put in their place. We look to the state to free us from the sins of others. What hypocrites we are! We constantly assert how evil the sins of other people are, but we look for sympathy anytime we make mistakes. Doing things that are morally wrong is indeed a trait of evil, but we all sin, some more than others.

The quality of our will, the purity of our humanity and the intent of our action is the basis of what we do, and it is not a criteria upon which human beings can judge other human beings. The best we can do is restrict membership in our free society to those who surrender their freedoms to the greater good; we cannot restrict membership in our world to those who abide by our guidelines. We have no right to do that, no power to judge, but we have the audacity to ask our state to kill for us, when the blood is on our hands.

David Brodsky is a freshman in the College.

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