An Absurd Death (Penalty)

Political tradition has long called for the death of those who have committed heinous crimes; murder, forgery, and social disruption—all have had the penalties of death at some point in time (and in some cases, still do). But does such a penalty have any grounds to stand on? That is to say, if we look deeply into the matter, does the penalty of death for heinous crimes actually make sense?

Consider: for what purpose does the law impose death? Clearly, it does this to maintain order (which Plato tells us is the same as justice [1]). But, again, why maintain order? Well, order brings about expediency, which ensures our survival. In other words, when a state legislates just laws, criminals are sentenced to die in order that life may be preserved.

This sounds strange, but is a reasonable enough answer. Those who are killed are killed because doing so prevents the deaths of others—here the preservation of more life is the final end and true purpose of execution. Life here maintains value, is protected, and justice is maintained.

But what if the guilty party can reasonably be contained and prevented from killing again? Is there justice in their execution?

This brings us to the question of whether their life still has value—and so indeed whether life itself has value. For if the value of a life can be lost, it is not then an intrinsic property of the life itself, but an extraneous or accidental property of it, being then an intrinsic feature of that which must be attributed to the life in order for it to have worth. To illustrate and better explain my meaning, let us suppose that virtue is what gives life its value. If this is the case, when a life is without virtue—for example, because one feels no remorse for a mass murder they have committed—then it has no value, and consequently it was not the life itself which ever had a value, but merely the virtue which was ascribed to it. Most plainly put, if we suppose that any life has even the potential of having no worth, life itself necessarily has no worth.

But if life itself has any value, and the guilty is being executed on account of their destroying of that which has value (that is, not in order to protect that which has value, which has been recognized as just in the second paragraph), we unequivocally repeat their crime and increase its effect—we too destroy that which has value, and moreover have increased the net loss of life and its intrinsic value, all the while being entirely capable of preserving that object of value which we have just destroyed. Therefore—if we suppose life to have any worth—the death penalty as anything but a necessary means of preservation is an injustice of the kind for which the guilty is being killed.

And again we fall into a similar trap if we suppose that life is truly worthless and only accidentally with value—or at least this is so when considering reasonable suggestions as to what the provider of that external value of life is. Let us again return to the notion that virtue provides this value. Virtue, as defined by the General Doctor, is “a certain perfection of a power [2].” Now perfection lies properly speaking in the degree to which a thing exists [3], and so insofar as some power within a thing exists, it is virtuous. Therefore, under this notion of virtue granting worth, insofar as the guilty life still exists (and therefore too has its natural powers), it has worth, and so the execution of them falls into the trap of the above paragraph (i.e. we destroy that which has value, duplicating their crime and increasing its effect). Again, this will be true if we take any number of reasonable accidental attributes as the source of worth, because something has worth insofar as it is desirable, desirable insofar as it is perfect (or brings about perfection in some thing), and perfect insofar as it exists [3].

This means then, in summary of the above conclusions, that the execution of the guilty is just insofar as it is necessary to preserve life—in all other ways and situations it is absurd and unjust.

Works Cited:
[1] Plato. Rep IV, 433b, trans. Jowett
[2] Aquinas. ST I-II. Q55. A1. trans. Fr’s OP
[3] Aquinas. ST I. Q5. A1. trans. Fr’s OP

11 thoughts on “An Absurd Death (Penalty)

  1. It seems to me that we hold life in higher value by requiring the life of those who take life. By exacting the ultimate penalty for taking a life, you give life the ultimate value. The worse the crime, the harsher the penalty, is a way of saying that some crimes are worse than others, and the harshest penalty of all is reserved for the worst crime of all. After all what could be a greater deterrent to taking a life, than the threat of losing your own? By imposing lesser deterrents, you give life a lower value.


    1. Deterrence standards must nevertheless themselves be held to moral standards; no matter how well something may serve as a deterrent, it can not be rendered moral by that fact—we cannot morally (or, “goodly,” so to speak) engage in immorality (the destruction of being, ie goodness) for the sake of discouraging immorality (ie the destruction of goodness, ie being). Moreover, we have no effect on the value of life whatsoever, properly speaking. Hence: CCC 2267.


      1. I agree that we can’t engage in immorality for the sake of discouraging immorality. But doesn’t that beg the question? You seem to be assuming that using capital punishment as a deterrent is immoral, in order to argue that it’s wrong to use capital punishment as a deterrent.

        I understand that you argued that capital punishment is immoral as a means of preventing a killer from killing again, since (you contend) there are now other ways of doing that. But what about as a means of deterring other potential killers from killing for the first time?

        I agree that the value of life is inherent. But what I was talking about was our recognition of the value of life, our manner of upholding that value and teaching and imparting it to the members of our society.

        One of your arguments seems to be, all life has value, and the fact that someone murders doesn’t eliminate the value of his life. But this argument seems to assume that the reason we kill murderers is because their lives no longer have value. But I have never understood that to be a reason for executing murderers. On the contrary, it’s to emphasize the value of life by imposing the ultimate punishment for taking a life.

        From the fact that a life has value, it doesn’t follow that a life can never be taken. You acknowledge this when you say that laws authorizing capital punishment were just, in past times (since it was the only way to prevent people from killing again). So a life can be taken for a good reason. I think the deterrent effect, and the lesson it imparts about the value which society places on innocent human life, is a good reason.


    2. My previous reply was poorly worded and not nearly as in depth as it should have been to explain my meaning. Hopefully this clarifies and convinces.

      The primary issue with execution as a deterrent lies in the consideration of objective goodness (or the lack thereof) and its relation to moral goodness (or the lack thereof). Objective goodness is readily defined as being [ST I. Q5. A1.] and thus so too the promotion of it, whereas moral goodness is reliant on the act, its actor’s intention, and the circumstances of it all being objectively good [CCC 1755].

      Now, in the case of “double effect” acts, as the Catechism calls them, the intended direct effect is taken to be the object, or true act of the “double” [CCC 2263]. In such cases, one act necessarily involves another, but (crucially) both of these are the direct and personal doings of the actor (i.e. not resulting consequences and therefore falling into the circumstances aspect [CCC 1754]).

      Execution which directly saves the lives of others who are in peril is a true “double effect” act, insofar as both the preservation of objective goodness and the destruction of objective goodness takes place through the agency of the actor. Hence, the intention gains an elevated status, determining which act is to be considered the true action, so to speak. Anything besides these two direct acts, which the actor is the agent of, falls into the category of circumstance, which the Catechism holds cannot render anything immoral as moral or vice versa, because the actor is not the agent of circumstance [CCC 1754].

      In contrast, deterrence execution has only one direct effect through the agency of the actor (i.e. the loss of objective goodness), and while the consequence of this act is objectively good (deterrence from murder), this consequence (and all others) nevertheless is specified as falling into the category of circumstance by the Catechism [CCC1754] and thus is unable to render the act as morally good. To put it in a simpler manner, as the executioner is merely the agent of killing (the act), while the killing is the agent of deterrence (the consequence), the action itself which the executioner is the agent of is objectively evil—i.e. bringing about a loss of being.


  2. I understand that the only direct effect of the execution is the killing of the murderer, and the consequence of deterrence is a circumstance and therefore doesn’t affect the morality of the killing. But how does this differ from the situation you described in past times, when people were purportedly executed only to prevent them from killing again? Isn’t prevention a consequence rather than a direct effect of the execution?

    Obviously the execution directly prevents the killer from killing again, but we don’t actually know that he would have killed again. It’s not the same as a situation in which killing “directly saves the lives of others who are in peril”, e.g. hitting a guy over the head with a brick to prevent him from cutting someone’s throat. It’s more of a theoretical prevention, is it not? We assume that the person has a propensity to kill based on the fact that he has killed before. But for all we know, he may have killed only due to unique circumstances and will never kill again. For this reason, the prevention of further killing seems more like a consequence to me (even somewhat of a hypothetical one), and therefore a circumstance, rather than a direct effect of execution (as would be the case in the brick example).

    The other thing I’m unsure about is your statement that the taking of any life is objectively evil. I understand that you can only do something that is objectively evil if it is a matter of double effect. So you can only execute a murderer with the intention of preventing further murders. Thus, you are directly acting to prevent murders and the murderer’s death is only a “side effect” of that act, so to speak. Is that right?

    But what if the purpose of the execution is not prevention or deterrence but retribution? In that case, could we say that the intended direct effect of the executioner would be retribution, and the death of the murderer only a “side effect” (sorry, I’m not sure what the precise term should be)? (In which case the argument would turn to whether retribution is a valid justification for execution, obviously.)


    1. Ah, again I should have used better wording (I’ll be sure to place an edit in when I get the chance). In the article, when I state that “those who are killed are killed because they otherwise would kill many more,” I mean to express that, after already having committed murder, they are being executed in a self-defense of sorts—that the authority is actively inhibiting a direct attempt at further murder. The example of the brick scenario you give would be an accurate portrayal of such a situation. I do agree that the execution of one who has murdered once, in the anticipation of further—as of yet unattempted—murders, would under this line of reasoning be immoral. But as to whether a serial killer can be killed in the anticipation of further murders when he cannot be imprisoned, I’ll have to examine the question further; however, at a glance I lean towards that it would too be circumstance and not a “double effect,” and so too morally evil.

      I’m not completely sure as to what you’re unsure about regarding my saying that the taking of any life is objectively evil, but:

      If you’re unsure as to whether the statement is true, we have to call to mind that objective evil is by definition any ontological deprivation [ST I. Q49. A1. & ST I. Q5. A1.]—that is to say, any lessening or destroying of something’s existence. Because of this, even a fire which evaporates water is doing something objectively evil, as Aquinas points out in the Summa Theologica [ST I. Q49. A1.].

      If you you’re unsure about the way the “double effect” works, the way you described it with the murder’s death as a “side effect” appears accurate to me at least.

      As to if retribution can justify execution, that the preservation of life is the only “if” scenario given in which execution is permitted by the Catechism [CCC 227] seems to heavily suggest not; although I do see some potential for probabilistic arguments to be made in the favor of the contrary position, stemming from CCC 2302 and the passage from St Thomas it quotes [ST II-II. Q158. A1.].


  3. You write, “I do agree that the execution of one who has murdered once, in the anticipation of further—as of yet unattempted—murders, would under this line of reasoning be immoral.”

    But in the OP you wrote, “when a state legislates just laws, criminals are sentenced to die in order that life may be preserved”. Are you now retracting that statement? If so, it sounds like you’re saying that capital punishment never was nor ever can be morally justified.

    Just curious, have you read Edward Feser on this topic? ( (I’m planning to buy his new book as soon as it comes out.)


    1. The two statements are not in opposition to each other, or at least I do not intend for them to be.

      In regards to the first of the two statements you present, I was operating under the assumption of the accused having no declaration of intent to murder again, or there being no other reasonable certainty that their actions will be repeated. This was building off of your noting that, “…for all we know, he may have killed only due to unique circumstances and will never kill again.” But, again, as unfortunately seems to be be the case often here, I was not clear.

      The second statement is in reference to situations in which the murderer or potential murderer presents a clear and imminent danger to the population (by declaration of intent or some other source of reasonable certainty), in which case the “double effect” justifies the execution.

      In regards to the article, I haven’t read it before, but I find his claim that “capital punishment can be legitimate specifically for purposes of retribution and deterrence, and not merely for the purpose of counteracting some immediate physical threat,” improperly and so too unsatisfactorily substantiated, as no dogmatic documents confirm this view.

      Quite the contrary, when it comes to dogmatic pronouncements (rather than various theological opinions, which, although valuable, are certainly inferior to dogma), such a statement seems misinterpretive at best. This even being evident in his own citation of P St Pius V’s Roman Catechism (although this is not itself a dogmatic document, it nerveless authoritatively professes dogmatic teachings), in which it states: Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Note the choice of “and” (actually, “et,” in the Latin original), rather than “or” (Latin, “aut”). When exercising this legitimate power, the state does not do this for punishment *or* protection, but only punishment *and* protection—excluding either makes the execution unjust. This being why the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “if, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect peoples safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means…”

      Additionally, his treatment of Sacred Scripture is akin to a protestant who uses Second Timothy 3:16 to argue in favor of sola scriptura, or at other times appears to simply ignore the distinctions between the Old Testament’s moral, legal, and identity laws.


  4. I don’t think any mental acrobatics are required here. In doling out capital punishment, you are stealing away the criminal’s ability to repent and experience the forgiveness of God. Usurping the position of Christ in his infinite mercy. That’s quite some arrogance. Per the CCC, this could only ever be justified if a society doesn’t have the means of preventing say a murderer from killing again. And surely that refers to the absolute poorest of societies, tribal living etc.

    As for capital punishment as a deterrence… I would be interested to see some stats on that. The US, as one of very few developed countries that still employs capital punishment in some states (the only one hat springns to mind) certainly has significantly higher rates of violent crime than other developed nations.


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