I recently read the above quote from the ACLU and it got me thinking. Mostly because I, in part, disagree. Not with the point they attempt to make: that capital punishment is wrong. This I support fully.
My first issue is with the word “immoral.” Morality is a slippery slope, especially when applied to matters of justice and government. Of course, most people desire the label “moral.” But what exactly that means is rather dependent on the person, the society, and the culture. The United States is by clichéd definition “a melting pot;” it would be impossible to create a set of laws defined as “moral” by all citizens. All we can hope to do is produce laws which create the best society possible.
Even that statement, to the argumentatively inclined, is contentious. What is the “best” society possible? By whose definition, and perhaps more importantly, whose decision? As much as I enjoy a good philosophical discussion (and I really do), the majority of questions like these go beyond the scope of this essay. I’m not here to attempt to answer such a question or engage in such a discussion. Suffice to say, for this essay, that all citizens should be equal, and that there must be a balance of freedoms, rights, and safety. Naturally, in balancing these three concepts, it is difficult to keep morality out of it. Perhaps impossible.
Now don’t think that I’m advocating a sociopathic society, or saying that morals have no place. Obviously, they are vital to humanity. And they often line up quite well with the concepts of balanced rights and safety: to kill another deprives them of their rights, and it should therefore be illegal. To me, this act also happens to be morally wrong (in most cases). In this way, morals and laws can coincide nicely. But not always.
When one faction of a society attempts to blanket the rest in their morality – then, we have a problem. When denying a freedom sits well with some, there must be a way to protect the others. This safeguard must be constant and consistent, for as the world changes, so do morals. They are not immutable. This gives the charismatic great sway. A compelling and morally righteous leader is a powerful force – in the face of such force we must have a system as impartial and objective as possible.
But before it’s voiced, morality is an intensely personal concept. It is right and wrong – and the miles of territory in between. It can still the hand and fire the heart. It can incite wars within a single mind. And it does so internally. No one can truly know what another’s battles look like – or whether they exist at all. Thus, we cannot seek to punish on this basis.
Morals are personal. Justice cannot be.
My second issue is with this simple statement, and perhaps the keystone of the quote: that no one deserves to die. I disagree. I realize that this view is controversial. However, I believe that there are people who deserve to die. Perhaps they approved or participated in a mass slaughter for financial gain; perhaps they are a boss in the business of sexual slavery; perhaps they took part in genocide. I realize that these crimes reflect my own sense of morality, and not all people may agree with my assessment. This only furthers my point.
Another common argument against capital punishment is a simple question: who are we to decide the fate of another? I would answer: we are it. We are all that there is. Not as individuals, of course, but as a people, as a society, as a race. If someone does something despicable, horrific, it is society that labels it a crime. That is who we are to decide.
But no less important is who we are not. The killing of an innocent – as individuals, as a society, as a government – this we cannot allow. This we cannot be.
Whatever your morality, whatever your beliefs, it is impossible to contest that society is imperfect. People are imperfect. Truly, if it – and we – were perfect, this argument would not exist; it would be unnecessary. There would be no crime. But we aren’t, and there is. By extension, an imperfect society is incapable of creating a perfect system. Our justice is imperfect. We convict the guilty, certainly – but also, on occasion, the innocent. This flaw is inevitable. Thus, in our zeal to mete out this ultimate and final “justice” we risk committing the crime we so abhor – murder. The absolute deprivation of all rights, all freedoms. This chance – this tiny possibility – of stripping an innocent of the life they are guaranteed the right to pursue should be enough to abolish the entire practice.
To those callous few who would contend that this chance is tiny, and rare, and worth the risk so that we may punish those who deserve it, I ask: which one of your loved ones would you sacrifice for this cause? Your partner? Your mother or father? Brother or sister? Yourself? Would our nation’s ability to continue to kill the guilty merit that loss?
I think not.