A Re-Examination of the Death Penalty

A philosophical analysis

The notion of the death penalty needs to be revisited.

The death penalty is currently forbidden for a variety of ascribed ethical reasons. These include the notions of the sanctity of human life, and the idea that a civilised society does not put its own members to death. These notions are fundamentally metaphysical and hence are generally substantiated by some kind of religious faith for their support. However, there is no substantial evidence in nature, nor in the conduct of our society, for the centrality of these viewpoints.

First, life is constantly renewing and destroying itself in the most profligate manner, from the lowliest amoeba to the mindless couplings of all animal species, including homo sapiens. Hence, in nature, there is nothing that can be said to affirm the sanctity of life. At the same time, the thousands of abortions performed annually in Australia testify to the actual scant regard in which the ‘sanctity’ of human life is frequently claimed to be held.

It can be further noted that, subsequent to the extra-judicial execution of Osama Bin Laden, by naval personnel acting on the orders of the American President, there were no protests of any significance from any country in which the death penalty is banned, including Australia. This is not to say that a philosophical or religious argument cannot be mounted against the death penalty. Rather, it is the case that the killing of different individuals, cannot justify the ban on the taking of human life, is a core value in our society.

There are certain traditional texts, for example the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, in which ‘clinging to life’ is seen as a barrier to the spiritual development of the individual. Such texts by no means advocate the deliberate taking of life. Rather they indicate that ‘clinging to life’ means attachment to the material aspects of existence, and as such is a manifestation of the ego, defined in the Yogic rather than the Freudian sense as the ‘selfish self’, that is the self which is attached to the material world and its rewards. Rather than be pre-occupied with the material world and its material attachments, detachment from life itself is advocated.

In Literature, Shakespeare, among others for example, appears to affirm such an approach. Describing the execution of the traitor Cawdor in Macbeth, it is stated that:

...nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving of it...
To throw away the dearest thing he own’d
As ‘twere a careless trifle.

It may thus be argued that clinging to life has become translated in the West into the notion of the sanctity of human life. As such, it is rather an expression of the human ego than of any genuine spiritual position.

If these arguments demonstrate that

a) regard for the sanctity of human life in our society is rather more myth than fact and;

b) that attachment to life is not an appropriate core value, then it can be argued that they provide a basis for the re-consideration of the death penalty. But first there is a further set of concepts to be considered in conjunction with the discussion of the sanctity or otherwise of human life.

In Australian society, which is historically founded on certain principles laid down by British philosophers three hundred or more years ago, there is an unspoken contract which binds the lives of all law-abiding Australian citizens, be they Muslim or Christian, Jewish or non-believer. This contract, first enunciated by Edmund Burke in the 18th century, maintains that, as members of one society, we all adhere to an implied social contract that seeks to preserve our society in its essential nature, to support each other in sickness and in health, and not to seek the physical or social harm of our fellow citizens. The process of doing this is comprised by the mutually inclusive concept of rights and responsibilities. It is a social contract to which all tacitly give assent by virtue of our peaceful residence in our society, and our acceptance of the benefits generated by this society.

Following from this, it can be argued that certain acts, if deliberately considered and wilfully undertaken, can directly place the individual who perpetrates them outside the boundaries of the social contract. If this is the case, the commission of these acts in turn absolves society from rendering that individual the consideration or protection normally mandated by such a contract. There are two separate categories of action that may be said to fall within the ambit of this argument. First there is any heinous and, above all, sustained assault on individual lives. Second, there is the advocacy and/or perpetration of indiscriminate and life-threatening attacks on innocent members of the general public.

It may be argued that the death penalty is entirely appropriate for cases whereby individuals, or small groups have taken it upon themselves, consciously, to commit heinous violations upon others. In each case their action was premeditated. In each case, any notion of care or responsibility is so far lacking from their actions that the perpetrators have violated every norm of decent human behaviour. Thus, by their actions, they have taken themselves out of the ambit of the social contract. Hence, our society is absolved in any way from any responsibility toward them. This includes the responsibility to keep them alive, and to spend hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, (money which could and should be spent on infinitely more worthy recipients), in maintaining them, safe and secure from harm in jails for the rest of their lives, or even for as long as may be determined by a court. Hence, can there be any objection, for the good of society, to having them permanently removed? Their removal will diminish the sum of evil in society. It will also rid society of individuals whose lives have demonstrably shown that they are committed to the harm of others, and who have been shown to not be worthy, under any circumstance, of being kept alive.

If there is a case to be made for the execution of certain kinds of individuals then this must also extend to those who are apprehended in the very act of attempting mass destruction, such as the criminal attacks on Glasgow airport some years ago, the Boston bombings, or 9/11.

It is entirely likely that life in the West, including countries such as Australia, has entered a new phase, and we have not, as a nation, realised it yet. Gratuitous violence, of a kind generally unknown by previous generations, is now perpetrated in a consistent manner on the innocent, and the lives of many may be threatened by the few. In Australia, at the moment, such violence is represented currently by the likes of Adrian Bayley and Bandali Debs. Such acts cannot be allowed to continue to place our fellow citizens in daily fear of their lives or safety. Thus the treatment of those who commit heinous crimes, as well as of those who seek to do violence to our way of life, requires a radical rethinking. There is no doubt that advocating the death penalty in these situations presents a series of dangers in terms of the way in which certain courses of action might conceivably be abused. That is not a reason for avoiding their consideration, or for not working through these issues that confront all of us.

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