Tackle new issues with humility and without fear: Capital Punishment

In refining my position, I may end up significantly changing it or reversing it entirely.

In refining my position, I may end up significantly changing it or reversing it entirely.

I’m not afraid to get embarrassed, and I want to share this philosophical, political, and epistemological journey with you, the reader, in hopes that you will enrich it.

I have not given comprehensive review to my position on capital punishment since before I became active in politics. Because other issues in justice reform are of professional (and personal) importance to me, I am now pushing myself to create a fully-formed policy position on the lawfulness, utility, and justice of the death penalty in the U.S. This post is not anywhere near that position. It is only a starting point.

I have spent my entire life in favor of capital punishment in principle, concerned only with technicalities of execution (that is a truly egregious pun) such as appeals, methods, severity of qualifying convictions, and fiscal concerns. Since entering the justice reform space, however, a space which is rife with remedies sought for bipartisan and ideologically pluralistic mistakes, I have had cause to reconsider the validity of capital punishment from a libertarian or constitutional framework (lowercase letters for both). I point this out because my existing political views, on balance, could be described as “constitutional conservative with libertarian, Reformed Christian, classical liberal, and classical realist influences.” Most American conservative orthodoxy is loath to completely abolish the death penalty, and I would say that describes me as well.

However, I have been in dialogue with a friend who is working for the end of the death penatly among conservative circles: conservative as in supply-side, anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-life. And I owe him the respect of a serious dialogue for what is his expertise and not mine.  Excerpts follow.

I’m blogging out of Boston, of course:

Like I mentioned in my voicemail, Tsarnaev is likely to be the biggest death penalty flashpoint of the next 20 years (it having been 20 since Timothy McVeigh, now that I think about it). And I am right in the middle of it. I know there’s something to do here; I just want us to chat about what exactly. My personal views are, of course, still up for debate. And you’re definitely not alone on the conservative side. But you already know that.

I also texted you this link. [The American Conservative, “Why Conservatives Ignored the Ferguson Report”] I send this to speak to the idea that sometimes society suffers [from] a depersonalisation of the social other. Someone like Jonathan Haidt would probably like that idea, especially for conservatives.

A subsequent message from my friend, who has obviously had practice at crafting a “shut-down” message:

I remain focused on the death penalty system as a whole from a conservative perspective. It is, after all, just a government program that risks innocent lives, costs more than life-without-parole, and I don’t believe that giving an error-prone state the power to kill its citizens is wise or a form of limited government.

Yours truly, a little outmuscled in the paint. Honestly, yours truly attempting to form a full opinion for the first time in any forum. I won’t clean up my rushed writing though I will [add some comments]:

I see all those points. I also can’t shake the feeling that something is off from where my faith is. If you can beat me, I will join you. I try to be rational that way.

Now, my points of resistance. The government is a lot of things, but it is also (in theory) us ourselves. And we’ve already given it [probably should’ve said we the people can modify it as we see fit, since I believe that to be true] power over life and death in many small and large ways, war being the most obvious example. Fiscal reforms could be in the form of getting to execution more quickly. I bet it doesn’t cost very much in Texas.

This is where I may start to drift into other philosophies, or say things I’m not supposed to think based on other commitments. [Yes.] I can’t do away with the idea that some citizens come into grievous breach of the social contract and their lives truly do become forfeit in remedy. [Another political mentor: “Life is not ours to take.”] The term “body politic” isn’t in fashion anymore, but to extend the conceit to cancer or sepsis—and what must be done for treatment in those cases—does bespeak an individualism turned mindlessly, malevolently harmful to the other members.

I also think of those prisoners who remain dangerous to their peers and to corrections staff while incarcerated, through either their own actions or by orders given, and those who would become demagogues over the course of their imprisonment. There are a lot of problems with international criminal justice, and so this reference may not be worth much. Still, I always think of Hannah Arendt when she describes the motivation for putting Eichmann to death: “And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.” [Israel, within its first 15 years of existence, is probably not a great historical appeal for even-handed theories of retributive justice.]

As conservatives we tend to believe that our nation is meant, (probably) by Christian motivations, to further what is objectively [some of us arrive at our “objective reality” by less travel than others, I know] good and diminish—choosing that word from among others of varying connotations of strength and extent—what is objectively evil. We have accepted that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”. A murderer has deprived his victim(s) of liberty, among other things. If we are to put away evil and mete out justice, we are already in the business of choosing who lives and who dies. [That last sentence was obviously written before coffee. It’s a couple clauses short of fitness for public consumption.]

Just as we have been disappointed by this administration’s foreign policy, I can’t see my way to eliminating a viable option for the furthering objectives of our Constitution of its enemies, foreign…and domestic. [I know I’ve tripped over myself somehow in the last two paragraphs and in this one. Like the time in Algebra II that I was finishing the test too quickly and tried to distribute a quotient of two sums.] I can definitely, however, understand serious reforms including discontinuation of capital sentencing for many types of cases. I do worry for the fates of innocent men and women in this system, but to save their lives I would introduce criminal penalties to prosecutorial misconduct before I would do away with the death penalty. [I am really tied to leaving hats on the ground, aren’t I? I need to study some anthropology and psychology and get to the bottom of why I’m missing, not just what.]

I’d like to know if you hear any observations like this elsewhere. I’ve found that compared to most I am possessed of an uncommon combination of ideology and temperament, which lends itself to arguments such as the above—what we might call “lateral black-and-white thinking.” [A little too much and too fast of both, resulting in the benefits of neither, I fear.] I eagerly await your response. This is a position of mine that dates from before any serious interest in politics, so it is very much up for grabs.

Yes, yes it is.




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