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The Third Rock Forum - Human Rights

Article Title
Should hypocrisy be a hanging offence?
Topic Section(s)
Human Rights
Submitted : 04-12-2010 18:37
Amended : 09-11-2014 11:26
Status : Approved:  
Likes : 2
Dislikes : 0

We tend to base our belief in man’s superiority over the animals on our ability to reason and on our espousal of moral values.   I wonder.

The majority of people and certainly a majority of those who have the power to make laws are opposed to capital punishment.  Why?

The possibility of executing an innocent man or woman is often given as a powerful argument against the ‘ultimate sanction’ but, in exploring the rational and moral objection to capital punishment, this is an irrelevance. The possibility of such an appalling error
disturbs even the most enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment.  Let us agree that no-one wishes to execute an innocent man.  So let’s eliminate this objection by excluding from the hangman’s noose, or the doctor’s syringe, anyone about whose guilt there is even the smallest shred of doubt. 

We are now talking about a callous murderer who has butchered an entire family in front of a large, sober, utterly reliable audience and a bank of CCTV cameras..  Are we still opposed to capital punishment and, if so, why.

Well, there’s the “Capital punishment is murder by the state” view.  This proposition  seems to be based on an assertion that capital punishment is wholly analogous to an individual murdering another person.

I’m not sure such a proposition stands up to even a cursory scrutiny.   Unless one takes the view that, even after due process of law, the state has no right to punish anyone, the argument doesn’t make sense.  The key point is “after due process of law”.    If I, acting as an individual, lock someone up for some reason, it is kidnapping.  But if this person has been tried and found guilty of theft, the state is entitled to imprison the thief. Imprisonment, after due process, is not kidnapping.  If the thief is lucky and gets off with a fine, the imposition of a fine is not “state theft”.  Execution after due process, just like imprisonment and a fine, is a form of judicial punishment. 

Then there is the “redemption” argument, that no human being is so evil or depraved that he/she cannot be redeemed.   This is an interesting argument and raises the question of how to strike a balance between the various purposes of a penal system.   In general, penal systems set out to fulfil four objectives:

  • to punish the offender (to ensure the offender has to face the consequences of his action by losing his liberty, his
    money or his life)
  • to protect the public (to prevent the offender from committing further offences while in prison)
  • to deter the offender and others (to dissuade both the offender and others who may be tempted to offend from committing the offence)
  • to reform the offender (to redeem the offender by education, or therapy or some other means to persuade him/her to abandon offending ways and become an upright useful member of society.

Precisely how to strike the correct balance amongst these four objectives is open to debate but most people would agree that all four objectives are important.  The only one of these four that is inconsistent with capital punishment is “reform of the offender”.   While some would argue reform is the most important objective for those offenders who are to be put back in to the community, in the case of murderers this objective carries less weight, since, if executed, the success or failure of the reform process would not be an issue. Questions of proportionality arise.  Is 15 years in prison a proportionate punishment for killing one or more innocent victims? Issues of ‘protection of the public’ carry more weight in cases of murder than in the case of less serious offences (rather too many murderers have killed again when released) and, while the evidence for the deterrent effect of capital punishment is extremely doubtful in many cases, it probably has some effect amongst professional violent criminals.   The argument for “reform” seems rather weak in this context, not least since efforts at reform of hardened violent criminals seem rather less effective than the simple ageing process.

You must be wondering where I am going with this.  Is this an open call for the return of capital punishment?   No, it certainly isn’t, unless grotesque hypocrisy is deemed a capital offence.  The purpose of the above review of arguments about capital punishment is to point out that the abolition of capital punishment is fundamentally based on a perfectly legitimate revulsion at the idea of the state taking a life.  This revulsion may be derived from religious faith or from humanist principles.  It can take the form of “God gave life; and only God can take it away”.  Or it may be formulated simply as “A decent, civilised society should not resort to cruel and barbaric punishments.”  The rest of this essay is addressed to those who agree with these abolitionist sentiments.

So you believe human life is of such value that even the aforementioned murderer of an innocent family should not be executed.

Does this respect for human life apply to abortion?.  Last year, despite the ubiquitous availability of free birth control devices, there were 189,100 abortions in England and Wales, most of them paid for out of taxation.  Around 17,000 abortions (9%) were performed after 13 weeks at which point the foetus is formed into a recognisable baby shape with hardening bones, growing muscle tissue, the ability to move and to make sucking motions.   No, you say, abortion is every women’s right. So, evidently, this concern about the value of human life does not apply to foetuses.

One might have thought that a foetus, being capable of enjoying a longer human life than any adult and being entirely innocent of any crime, is better placed to appeal to the ‘sanctity of human’ life view than a convicted mass murderer.  But I hear you object.  I have
disregarded the wishes of the pregnant woman and, in any case, a foetus is not a human being.

Well, let’s take that one apart.   Yes, I have ignored the wishes of the woman, but, if we believe in the sanctity of human life, is it not reasonable to give the life of a human being precedence over the wishes of the potential mother?

And, if a foetus at 24 weeks (the legal limit for abortion in most circumstances) is not a human being, we are going to have to define a “human being” rather carefully.   A foetus of 24 weeks can, with assistance, survive outside the womb; a new-born babe, without assistance, cannot.   Once the child is born, we all agree that the interests of the baby are paramount.  No-one would argue the wishes of the mother should take precedence over the well-being, or the life, of the child, so it seems rather strange there is so little debate about the right of a woman to terminate the life of the foetus she carries.

Of course, this line of argument should disturb only those who claim to be committed to the sanctity of human life; and, whatever the biological facts, they can always resort to the view that human life does not exist until the moment of birth.

In the same year as 189,100 abortions were performed in England and Wales, most of them at tax-payers expense, it was revealed that 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the Iraq war.  Some estimates put the figure much higher but 100,000 is more than enough.  How many of these civilians were killed by British military action is not known but it is certain that some civilian men, women and children were killed by military action which we, as UK tax-payers, financed.

So what conclusion can we draw?  Well, it seems we cannot accept capital punishment for proven murderers but we can live with, and pay for, the termination of 200,000 innocent potential human beings and 100,000 actual innocent human beings.

Those who oppose abortion and the killing of civilians are entitled to oppose capital punishment.   Those who favour the reintroduction of capital punishment may also reasonably accommodate abortion and civilian “collateral damage” in wars.   But to argue for the sanctity of human life, while agreeing with and financing abortions and civilian deaths is surely to adopt an untenable position.

How can we reconcile these extraordinary inconsistencies?   Well, in these muddled, dumbed-down times, where reasoned analysis is discouraged and decried, the standard defence is: “I’m entitled to my views and it’s a matter of what I feel comfortable with.”  

To which I reply; “No you aren’t entitled to your views if your views contradict each other – and how you feel is irrelevant if it is used to excuse grotesque hypocrisy.”   Now there’s a crime for which capital punishment might usefully be reintroduced.