I am leery of the death penalty for two reasons, one philosophical, one brutally concrete.
The philosophical reason is that I object to the State, that amorphous and unaccountable collection of legislation, having the absolute power of life and death over any individual. The State already has a fair amount of control over our daily lives, sometimes with our explicit consent, sometimes only with the implied consent of I’m still choosing to live here so I guess I have to..? And I swallow a lot of things that fall short of taking an individual’s life, as non-mortal injuries carry with them the chance (in varying degrees of course) of recovery and restoration–however, your life is the one thing you can’t ever recover from losing. There is no recompense for that. When one individual takes another’s life, he or she has a set of consequences to face for having done so, and I am not just referring to legal ones–it is right that there should be a price exacted from anyone who does the ultimate, unrecoverable injury to another. In the case of the State, no recompense can ever be exacted; no one can be held guilty; no price can ever be paid–society did it! Whatever that means, and it can mean anything and everything and boils down every time to mean precisely whatever the person using the word wants it to mean. (Other words that have become so soggy and fluid are “government” and “culture” and “values.” It amazes me sometimes that those words are still in the dictionary. The way they are most commonly used robs them of any objective meaning at all.)
The brutally concrete reason is the complete imbalance in whom it is applied to in terms of race and gender. Even if it were something we were all philosophically prepared to accept, obviously that it is used disproportionately against a specific flavor of citizen is completely unacceptable.
However, you may have noticed, I do not object to the death penalty on any moral grounds–I don’t claim I think it’s wrong always, for any reason whatsoever, for one individual to kill another. There are instances of individuals killing other individuals that do not deeply disturb me, though I’m always saddened that any situation ever deteriorates to the point where that’s a viable or even the most viable solution. It IS sad.
Is it because I am consumed with “bloodlust?” Is it because I don’t “respect human life equally?”
Um, definitely not the first one. As a matter of fact, I am far more immune to bloodlust than most Americans I know. I do not watch reality TV, nor do I watch any sport that is centered around one person pounding on another while froth-spitting crowds roar them on–in short, watching real people inflict pain and humiliation of any degree upon each other not only does not attract me, it actively repulses me. That is “bloodlust,” my friends. I agree that it may be a significant part of our society, but it isn’t any part of me.
As for the second–that’s both true and not true. I do not respect all human life equally, but it has nothing to do with my feelings on the death penalty. I do not hold every speck of life that happens to have Homo sapiens DNA in its cell nucleus as being of equal worth, which is why I support reproductive choice, living wills, physician-assisted suicide and the concept of “brain-dead.” My philosophy here holds, though, that what I personally value the lives of others at is completely meaningless; my “valuing” of them should have no impact upon their continued existence whatsoever. The only “valuation” that should have that impact is their own. The only individual who gets to set a value on any individual’s human life is that individual. Period. In the cases where the human life in question is not capable of setting value upon its own life because it lacks the cognitive ability to do so, such as pre-viable fetuses and anyone at any stage of development who does not have a functioning brain, the person who is most affected by the continued existence or lack thereof of that individual gets to set the value on that life. Period.
In terms of a child rapist and his eight-year-old victim, say, I would consider both of them able to set their own value on their own lives and those values are the only ones that should ever count.
So, I am unhappy enough about the death penalty to consistently oppose it, regardless of the “worth” I feel any other individual has. However, if someone I personally find to have little to no value drops dead, I don’t even pretend to be upset about it or attempt to work up any feelings of “oh but we’re all EQUALLY valuable as human lives!” It’d be a lie. Even there, I make an automatic distinction between the method of death and the fact that the death results in the absence of that person from Earth–I am always repelled by and opposed to any deliberate and avoidable infliction of pain upon one human being by another and do not ever find any moral excuse for that. (Back to why I don’t watch all that sadistic crap on TV and how deeply horrible I find the practice of torture.) However, in regards to the bare fact of the sudden absence of certain human lives? I don’t care and in some cases, I think the world is an improved environment from when that person was alive. No doubt cold, but quite true.
Next: The Joys (or lack thereof) of Partisanship