In my previous column, we saw that the practical objection about executing innocent convicts can be solved by heightening the capital standard to guilt beyond any doubt. Now, let’s look at some of the conceptual objections.
Conceptual Objection 1: You cannot teach people that killing is wrong by killing.
What punishment could we assess against criminals that wouldn’t be wrong when done to innocent people?
Is it inconsistent to punish embezzlers with fines? Is it inconsistent to put kidnappers in the liberty-deprived condition of prison? Would we be inconsistent, or merely brutal, to adopt a more Indonesian response to assault by publicly flagellating offenders?
Precisely because every form of punishment is a form of harm to the convicted, the problem with this objection is that it proves too much, indicting all expressions of any justice system. That’s why the proper response to it is to ask why the person advocates anarchism, since only the anarchist view (that all outside impositions upon a person are wrong) is consistent with the principle of this argument.
But that’s probably a bit much for your naïve friend in a casual discussion. Instead, ask him if he also opposes execution because of the risk that the convict is innocent. If so, then he is simultaneously arguing that all killing is wrong and that the killing of innocents is uniquely wrong. Every person who opposes capital punishment because of the risk to innocents affirms, in making that argument, that there is something vastly different between killing those who have done nothing to deserve it and killing those who have. And clearly, this is the distinction that solves this objection.
Simply put, to allege that killing murderers and killing innocent citizens are the same is to deny the distinction between guilt and innocence which is the presuppositional foundation of all law in the first place. If we cannot distinguish between how we should treat lawbreakers and non-lawbreakers, we have much more elementary problems than rationally discussing the validity of capital punishment.
Conceptual Objection 2: It erodes the sanctity of human life.
There are two ways for our justice system to show that something is sacred: by protecting it from violation and by punishing those who violate it. Clearly, in this case, the two are interconnected. Life is uniquely precious, which is exactly why taking the life of one who deliberately takes innocent life is the only way to affirm life’s sacredness. Rather than proclaiming the preciousness of life, allowing a known murderer to live is a declaration that life is not precious enough to justify the forfeit of another life as punishment.