In Defense of Capital Punishment
Citation (APA): feser, e. (2017). In Defense of Capital Punishment [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
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In Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser
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If one accepts the legitimacy of punishment and the principle of proportionality, then it is impossible to claim that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.
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capital punishment can be legitimate, at least in principle.
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Traditionally, the aims of punishment are threefold: retribution, or inflicting on a wrongdoer a harm he has come to deserve because of his offense; correction, or chastising the wrongdoer for the sake of getting him to change his ways; and deterrence, discouraging others from committing the same offense.
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x LE TRE FUNZIONI
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Retribution is necessarily the most fundamental.
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LA PIÙ IMPORTANTE
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it also means that retribution— inflicting a harm that is deserved— must always be part of any act of punishment, even if it is not the only part.
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x L UNICA FUNZIONE SEMPRE PRESENTE. CORREZ: CI SONO GLI INCORREGGIBILI. DETERRENZA: CI SONO I CASI UNICI
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Now, what a wrongdoer deserves as punishment is a harm proportionate to his offense.
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Sometimes inflicting such punishments would be impossible (a mass murderer cannot be executed multiple times), or would do more harm than good.
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x PROP IMPOSSIBILE... MA X ECCESSO
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Even if it were claimed that a single murder would not merit it, it is not difficult to imagine crimes that would. Ten murders? Ten murders coupled with the rape and torture of the victims? Genocide? If wrongdoers deserve punishment and the punishment ought to be proportional to the offense, then at some point we are going to reach a level of criminality for which capital punishment is appropriate at least in principle.
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x TEN MURDER
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Obviously, questions might be raised about whether capital punishment is advisable in practice, even if it is allowable in principle.
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x PRATICA E TEORIA
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appeals to what he calls the “Essential Dignity View” of human beings, according to which “human beings… possess dignity, or excellence, in virtue of the kind of being they are;
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x CHI SI OPPONE SI APPELLA ALLA DIGNITÀ
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On this basis, Tollefsen concludes that “it is always wrong intentionally to kill a human person,”
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Tollefsen notes that a defender of capital punishment might claim that a guilty person has lost his dignity. But the defender certainly need not say this.
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x IL COLPEVOLE HA PERSO LA SUA DIGNITÀ
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On the contrary, to regard a person as deserving of punishment is implicitly to affirmhis dignity as a human being, for it is to acknowledge that he has free will and moral responsibility, unlike a robot or a mere animal.
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x PUNIRE È DARE DIGNITÁ
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Tollefsen also suggests that there are difficulties in determining which offenses merit capital punishment
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x COSA MERITA PM?
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We do not need to settle the question of whether an embezzler deserves fifteen years in prison or only ten in order to know that imprisonment as such can be a legitimate punishment.
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x NN NECESSARIO
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What is intrinsically wrong is the intentional killing of an innocent human being. That is why, contrary to what Tollefsen insinuates, those who oppose abortion and euthanasia but support capital punishment are perfectly consistent in their thinking.
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x ABORTO E PM
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Punishment, Proportionality, and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Chris Tollefsen
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The crimes of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, or of genocidal dictators like Hitler or Stalin, are obviously far worse than those of someone guilty only of (say) a single, painless murder or treason. Given the principle of proportionality, then, they merit a harsher penalty. Of course, in practice, such a penalty might be impossible to inflict: there is no way to execute a Bundy or a Hitler more than once. Hence, in practice, a sadistic mass murderer may end up receiving the same punishment as someone guilty of a single murder. On Tollefsen’s view, however, the worst of these offenses ought never, even in principle, to be punished more severely than the others; they do not entail a penalty proportional to their gravity.
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x UNICA VIA DI USCITA: RINNEGARE LA PROP.
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In short, the legitimacy of punishment entails desert, and desert entails proportionality; hence, to deny proportionality is implicitly to deny desert, and thus to deny the legitimacy of punishment. Though Tollefsen affirms the legitimacy of punishment explicitly, he denies it implicitly insofar as he denies the principle of proportionality.
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x INCOERENZA DELL OPPOSIFORE
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Rape, he correctly notes, is “intrinsically wrong” and thus “not available as an option for punishment,
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x ARGOMENTO OBIETTORE. ATTI INTRINSECAMENTE CORRETTI
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Rape, however, essentially involves several harms— there are the humiliation and bodily harm inflicted on the victim, but there is also the sexual perversion and sadism by which the rapist harms his own character. Now to indulge in such sexual perversion and sadism is intrinsically immoral; and therefore rape is intrinsically immoral, even if carried out as a punishment.
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x IL CASO DELO STUPRO E DEL CARATTERE
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the principle of proportionality
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it implies, at most, only that a rapist deserves the humiliation and bodily harm he has inflicted on others— just
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while “instrumental goods” such as “liberty and money” may be taken away from an offender in punishment for his offense, a “basic or intrinsic” good such as human life cannot be.
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x ALTRO ARG OBBIETTORI. I BENI DI BASE
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There may be reasons derived from something other than “life, just in itself,” to destroy life in some cases rather than protect it. Indeed, the principle of proportionality gives us just such a reason.
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After all, life by itself can’t be what gives human beings their dignity; plants and non-human animals also have life, and yet Tollefsen would not deny that it is legitimate to kill them.
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x LA VITA E LA DIGNITÀ
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Tollefsen regards this liberty as a “merely instrumental” good, the taking away of which is not contrary to human dignity!
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x LIBERTÀ E DIGNITÀ
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Given that it is our capacity for rationality and free choice that affords us our special dignity, liberty of action would seem to be no less basic and intrinsic a good than life is.
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x È LA LIBERTÀ CHE CI DÀ DGNITÀ
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On rehabilitation and execution
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The reader writes: I would think that even if the retributive goal of punishment would prescribe death for the perpetrator, capital punishment could still be (and, I think, is) illegitimate in theory, let alone in practice, because it neutralizes the second goal of punishment, rehabilitation. It is in this sense -- neutralizing the possibility of rehabilitation -- that capital punishment seems to me to most completely attack the dignity of the criminals in that it robs from them any possibility of making amends for their crimes.
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x OBBIETTORE: INCOMPATIBILITÀ TRA PM E RECUPERO
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punishment has three purposes– retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrence– does not entail that each of these purposes must be realized in a given act of punishment in order for that act to be morally legitimate. For example, we may justly imprison a recidivist thief even if we know from experience that he is extremely unlikely to change
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x L INCOMPATIBILITÀ NN RILEVA
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the fact that a given act of capital punishment may not fulfill all of the ends of punishment does not by itself suffice to make that act morally illegitimate.
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Second, while there is obviously a sense in which capital punishment can prevent rehabilitation, there is also a sense in which it actuallyfacilitates rehabilitation. How so? Consider first that a wrongdoer cannot truly be rehabilitated until he comes to acknowledge the gravity of his offense. But the gravity of an offense is more manifest when the punishments for that offense reflect its gravity
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x CONSAPEVOLEZZA COME PREMESSA RIABILITATIVA
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In short, a society in which capital punishment is at least on the books– in which it is at least officially acknowledged that those guilty of the worst crimes are deserving of death, even if that penalty is never in fact inflicted– is a society more likely to foster rehabilitation, not less likely.
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Moreover, merely having the death penalty on the books may be insufficient to convey the gravity of the worst crimes. An actual execution now and again may be necessary convey this gravity, and thus to facilitate rehabilitation.
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That is not to say that concerns about rehabilitation are not also a serious reason to limit capital punishment.
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your article appears to forget the person responsible for carrying out the punishment, the executioner. I thought that you were headed in this direction when you mentioned not inflicting rape on rapists; it seems to me that, from a purely retributive perspective, the rapist might deserve rape. And the most compelling reason for not raping him is the effect on the humanity of the person responsible for carrying out the punishment. Similarly, throughout history, we have sought ways to minimize the effects of execution on the executioner.
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x ALTRA OB. IL BOIA
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Capital punishment is just the taking of someone’s life, where the person has lost his right to that life. There is no additional factor involved that would give the act anything of the moral character of murder, in the way that raping a rapist would involve acts that have part of the moral character of rape.
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x FATTORI ADDIZIONALI
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What if we merely tortured the rapist, leaving the sexual aspect out
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I would say that he does deserve it, but I would agree that we should still not inflict such a punishment on him. Why not? The reason is that the moral hazards involved in such a practice are too great. Human beings naturally tend to recoil at inflicting pain on others or causing them bodily damage. The reason nature has given us such feelings is that it is, in general, good for us to avoid inflicting pain
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x LECITA MA XICOLOSA
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Since capital punishment is no more inherently wrong than surgery or police work are, neither is desensitizing oneself to executing the guilty any more inherently wrong than desensitizing oneself to performing heart surgery
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x CHORURGIA E DESENSIBILIZZAZIONE. LA DES È ARG IMP. E SE È POSSIBILE GARANTOIRE PROP PER ALTRAVIA È BENE FARLO
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Catholicism, conservatism, and capital punishment
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natural law and Catholicism
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The upshot of my discussion will be that the natural law and the Catholic tradition both entail a view of capital punishment that is unmistakably conservative (rather than "liberal and progressive," as Chris says his own view is).
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Those who are unfamiliar with recent developments in Catholic moral thought might not realize that there are (at least) two general theories going under the name "natural law" these days, and they are very different.
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x DUE LEGGI NATURALI
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On the one hand, there is what we might call the "traditional" or "classical" natural law theory, one of the key assumptions of which is that ethics crucially depends on certain traditional metaphysical theses, such as realism about universals (of the sort historically associated with Plato and Aristotle), a belief that there are final causes in nature, and so forth. On the other hand, we have what has come to be known as the "new natural law theory," which tries to reconstruct a broadly natural law approach to ethics without appealing to any of these metaphysical assumptions.
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x LA DISTINZIONE
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For the “new natural law” approach, it isn’t that determining the content of morality crucially depends on knowing whether there really is a God or whether we really have immortal souls
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x MORALE INDIP. DALLA RELIGIONE
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rather, what is crucial is that we have a need for religious fulfillment of some broadly defined sort,
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John Paul II’s views on this subject were a departure from traditional Catholic attitudes, which have always upheld not only the in-principle legitimacy of the death penalty, but also its appropriateness in many practical circumstances.
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x GPII DEPARTURE
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The constant teaching of the Church has always been, not only that capital punishment is in principle legitimate, but also that it is in principle legitimate precisely as a means of securing retributive justice.
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x INSEGNAMENTO TRADIZIONALE
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“If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture (notably in Genesis 9: 5-6 and Romans 13: 1-4). I doubt whether the tradition is reversible at all, but even if it were, the reversal could hardly be accomplished by an incidental section in a long encyclical [i.e. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae] focused primarily on the defense of innocent human life. If the Pope were contradicting the tradition, one could legitimately question whether his statement outweighed the established teaching of so many past centuries.” (National Catholic Register March 24-31, 2002)
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x COMMENTI A GOII DULLES
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John Paul II’s view must be interpreted as a prudential judgment (with which, again, Dulles happens to agree)– a fallible application of traditional principles to contingent circumstances, not a denial of traditional principles.
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x INSEGNAMENTO PRUDENZIALE
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The basic argument is actually quite simple. If we accept that people can deserve to be punished for their offenses and that a punishment ought to be proportional to the offense, then it follows that the worse the offense is, the worse is the punishment deserved, and that the worst offenders deserve to get the worst punishments.
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x RIPETOZIONE ARGOMENTO
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the bumper sticker question “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” assumes falsely that what death penalty advocates (or most people for that matter) think is wrong is “killing people,” full stop, so that they are caught in a contradiction. In fact, what they think is wrong is killing innocent people, people who do not deserveto be killed.
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x OBIEZIONE: UCCIDERE È SBAGLIATO
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Similarly, to claim that capital punishment is “state-sanctioned murder” or “cruel and unusual” is simply to beg the question, since if the argument just rehearsed works, then the punishment is sometimes deserved, and thus cannot be inherently unjust (which murder is, by definition) or excessive in the way cruel and unusual punishments are.
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x OBIEZIONE CRUDELTÀ
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Chris claims that since life is one of the basic goods that determine “the parameters of the morally permissible,” it can never be legitimate intentionally to deprive someone of his life.
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x ARGOMENTO CHRIS
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This in no way entails a denial of the “dignity” of the person executed, contrary to what Chris seems to think. On the contrary, it affirms his dignity by treating him as a free and responsible individual who must be held accountable for what he does, rather than (as is common among death penalty opponents) regarding him as a mere cog in a social machine, less responsible for his own actions than is the “society” that molded him into what he is.
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x RIP RISPOSTA
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Now if the “new natural law theory” is poorly interpreted as strictly entailing hostility to capital punishment, it is, as I suggested earlier, not too hard to see why its advocates might nevertheless be tempted to such hostility. If you limit yourself in your moral reasoning to this-worldly considerations, it is not surprising if you might inadvertently come to overestimate the value of life in this world.
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x I MATERIALISTI SOVRASTIMANO LA VTA
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Life in this world cannot be a basic good, at least not in the sense required for Chris’s argument, if its point is preparation for life in the next world.
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x VALORE DELLA VITA
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While “new natural law” theorists are certainly not atheists, and while a commitment to theism is not strictly necessary to the moral defense of capital punishment, there does seem to be at least a psychological and sociological connection between hostility to capital punishment and a kind of “practical atheism,”
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x ATEISMO STRISCIANTE
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naturally tends to lead to a desire to extend the natural lifespan, even of murderers, as far as possible and at all costs.
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x L SSESSIONE
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The medievals emphasized individual guilt, and therefore individual responsibility. Moderns minimize or even deny individual responsibility or guilt, dissolving human agency into the nexus of physical causation, obsessing over our “collective responsibility” for this or that, and emphasizing “structural” rather than personal elements of justice and social life.
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x NATURA UMANA
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True, the rhetoric of “human dignity” has increased in modern times; indeed, modern people simply won’t shut up about it, even as they kill their own unborn children by the millions and live lives of depravity unimaginable to previous generations. If medieval people talked less about their own dignity, it is because they were more concerned about God’s dignity; if modern people talk more about it, it is because they are more concerned with themselves.
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x RETORICA DELLA DIGNITÀ