A Non-Pacifist Argument Against Capital Punishment
ABSTRACT: In this paper I present a moral argument against capital punishment that does not depend upon the claim that all killing is immoral. The argument is directed primarily against non-philosophers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Oddly, the moral argument against capital punishment has not been effective in the United States despite the biblical injunction against killing. Religious supporters of the death penalty often invoke a presumed distinction between ‘killing’ and ‘murdering’ and avow that God forbade the latter but not the former. Self-defense and just wars are cited as cases of morally justified killing. Accepting these premises, I point out that when cases of justified killing in self-defense are altered to include an element of delay, disarming and premeditation, they too become murder. Since the death penalty clearly involves the elements of delay, disarming and premeditation, I conclude that the death penalty is murder in the biblical sense and ought to be abolished in any God-fearing (or otherwise moral) society.
Traditional opposition to capital punishment has generally been based on one or more of the following claims: (1) Capital punishment is immoral because all killing is immoral, (2) Capital punishment is unjust because killing is irreversible, or (3) Capital punishment is ineffective because killing is not a deterrent to killing.
I propose to argue instead that capital punishment is immoral because of the kind of killing it is, rather than because it is a kind of killing simpliciter. This is a specifically moral argument, but it differs from the usual pacifist argument in that it does not assert or depend upon the claim that all killing is immoral.
Herbert H. Haines has written that "The...predominantly moralistic critique [of capital punishment] has never met with much success in the United States..." (1) I believe that there are two principal reasons for this lack of response to the usual moralistic argument. One is that Hume was right in his suggestion that one of the chief roots of morality is our sympathy for our fellows, and the murderer is about as unsympathetic a character as anyone in society. By his awful act he (and most murderers are male) causes our sympathy to shift from the inhuman killer to the pathetic victim. We no longer feel for the murderer the bonds of sympathetic concern that underlie much of moral protection. But the other reason is the one that I am most interested in – it is that the moral teaching of our dominant Judeo-Christian religious community has been that capital punishment is not murder.
Those of us who were raised in the Judeo-Christian morally tradition that is significantly based on the Ten Commandments often were initially perplexed to see that our respected elders permitted or even engaged in various kinds of killing despite the clear Biblical injunction "Thou shalt not kill." If we ventured to ask about this,...