The Two Different Cases Regarding Capital Punishment
Thesis : In principle a case can be made on moral grounds both supporting and
opposing capital punishment.
Two different cases can be made. One is based on justice and the nature of a
moral community. This leads to a defense of capital punishment. The second is
based on love and the nature of an ideal spiritual community. This leads to a
rejection of capital punishment.
JUSTICE AND THE NATURE OF MORAL COMMUNITY
A central principal of a just society is that every person has an equal right to
“life, liberity, and happiness.” Within that, an arguement for capital
punishment forms along the following lines: some acts are so evil and so
destructive of a community that they void the right of the perpetrator to life.
A community founded on moral principals has specific requirements. The right to
belong to a community is not unconditional. The privilege of living and
pursuing the good life in society is not certain. The essential reason on which
community is built requires each citizen to honor the rightful claims of others.
The precious live in a moral community must be so highly honored that those who
do not honor the life of others void their own right to membership. Those who
violate the personhood of others, especially if this is done persistently as a
habit must pay the ultimate price. This must be done for the sake of the
community which was violated. We can debate whether some non-lethal alternative
is a suitable substitute for the death penalty. But the standard of judgment is
whether the punishment fits the crime and if it honors the nature of the moral
LOVE AND AN IDEAL SPIRITUAL COMMUNITY
Christian live, is unconditional. It does not depend on the worthiness or value
of those to whom it is directed. It is persistent in seeking the good of others
regardless of whether they return the favor or even deserve to be treated well
on the basis of their own wrongdoing. An ideal community would be made up pf
free and equal citizens devoted to a balance between individual needs and the
advancement of common good. Communal life would be based on mutual love in
which equality of giving and receiving was the social practise. Everyone would
contribute to the best of ability.
What would a community based on this kind of love do with those who committed
brutal acts of terror, violence, and murder? Put negatively, it would not live
by the philosophy of “an eye for an eye,a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a
life.” It would act to safeguard the members of the community from further
destruction. Those whe had shown no respect for life ould be restrained,
permanently if necessary, so that they could not endanger othe members of the
community. An ideal community would show mercy even to those who had shown no
mercy. It would return good for evil. Some kind of service to the community
might be required as a way of partially making amends.
In brief, is the argument for and against capital punishment, one founded on
justice and the nature of moral community, the other resting on love and the
nature of an ideal spiritual community. If we stand back from this description
and make an attempt at evaluation, one point is crucial. The love ethic
requires a high degree of moral achievement and maturity. It is more suitable
for small, closely-knit communities in which members know each other personally
and in some depth. Forgiveness is best in a setting in which people can
participate in each aother’s lives.
In short, for the moment the Christian witness to society is this: first
demonstrate that capital punishment can be administered in a just and efficient
manner. Then we will debate with you as to whether capital punishment is in
priciple necessary, fitting and right or whether a humane society will find non-
lethal alternatives to protect citizens from persistently violent criminals.
Until then the church should say “no” to this extreme measure.