The Reasonableness of the Death Penalty
The issue of the death penalty is an issue of no little account, but I think the predominate and primary issue is that of simple definition. Let me explain. All too often a proponent for the abolition of the death penalty fails to demonstrate a reasonable argument because they first fail to define the issue and second fail to acknowledge the reasonableness of the death penalty properly dispensed. Because they omit this most vital step, a true discussion is never had. Instead, what occurs is two people talking about two different things while believing they are discussing the same subject. Confusedly, the discussion becomes the defense of the death penalty’s reasonableness by one party — though they rarely realize that this is in fact their goal and concern — contrasted with the abolitionist’s argument about how the death penalty should be dispensed or administered. Simply put, neither is talking about the same thing while they both think they are.
What I seek to do, but will no doubt fail to achieve, is to present a solid proof for the reasonableness of the death penalty. It is a proof that sets the tone and is an area that first must be agreed upon before discussion on how the death penalty is dispensed or used can even be had. This is because it is simply abhorrent to man’s reason to reduce the death penalty unequivocally to murder. People become even more defensive when this unreasonableness is done so under the guise of protecting life since the death penalty itself is properly understood as a just means to protect life from those who would destroy the common good. If an abolitionist desires to be truly successful and to convert others to their cause, they must always maintain a reasonable argument. If they do not, they damage their own cause because their cause is reasonable and by rejecting reason, they undercut the very arguments that would demonstrate their position’s value to society.
As I have developed in another strain of thought, killing does not necessarily equate to murder. One can kill another to defend his family, self, others, etc. Common sense and the natural law demand such and most if not all mankind know this truth intrinsically. This is because while the intent of murder is to kill the other and take a life, the intent of self defense is the preservation of life with a secondary effect being the death of the attacker.
“The act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in being, as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful.”1
Since ending another’s life is not always murder and it can be lawful, it is possible — if not probable — that a death penalty can be judiciously utilized to protect society and the common good. Let us examine this. The act of self-defense has, by St. Thomas’s determination, two primary points. Protecting one’s life is lawful and doing so must be done with proportion to the end. Simply put, if one doesn’t have to kill another to preserve life, they are unjustified to do so.
This principle also applies to a governmentally dispensed death penalty. A verdict of the death penalty must be dispensed to preserve life and protect the common good while remaining properly ordered. St. Thomas puts it this way. “If the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good.”2 This must be done, however, by the proper authority not by individuals in an attempt at vigilante justice. “It is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, [and] so it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community’s welfare.”3 The form of government changes how this process occurs for example through a jury process or by judge, etc. Yet, it remains that it is lawful for such an authority to dispense a death penalty to protect the community and common good.
This hardly fleshes out the fullness of the issue, but I hope this serves as a catalyst to discussion and as a foundational point of agreement. For the Christian, whose reason is infused with the divine light of revelation, we must be cautious to put too much emphasis on that which is good if by doing so we defy reason and treat it with contempt. “Our Lord teaches that we should rather allow the wicked to live, and that vengeance [this term is to be properly understood as God’s perfect justice and due punishment for sin not human retribution] is to be delayed until the last judgment, rather than that good be put to death together with the wicked. When, however, the good incur no danger, but rather are protected and saved by slaying of the wicked, then the latter may be lawfully put to death.”4
In hopes to continue the conversation, I will state two propositions and hope that another will take up the task of proving or disproving them. (Arguments other than these are, of course, still very much welcome. These are merely meant to serve as starting points for one who wishes to engage, but doesn’t know where to start.) The first is that the death penalty is only just — is only good and morally sound — if it is not used for retribution. It can be solely for the defense of lives and the common good not to make “another hurt like I hurt.” Second, there is a categorical difference between a proper and just death sentence dispensed by the proper authority and the ending of life through means such as abortion, euthanasia, and the like. This is because a death sentence can be for the protection of the common good and is not murder, whereas these others are in fact murder.
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1 Summa Theologica, II-II 64, 7.
2 Summa Theologica, II-II 64, 2.
3 Summa Theologica, II-II 64, 3.
4 Summa Theologica, II-II 64, 2.