In Defense of Capital Punishment

Edward Feser, writing  at Public Discourse on September 29, 2011, “In Defense of Capital Punishment“:

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. Retribution is necessarily the most fundamental. Strictly speaking, we cannot correct someone who doesn’t deserve correction; at most we might try to affect his behavior (via drugs, say) in a sub-personal manner that doesn’t appeal, as true correction does, to his sense of desert and shame. We also cannot justly inflict a punishment on someone for purposes of deterrence unless he deserves that punishment. That retribution is fundamental doesn’t entail that those with the authority to do so must always exact retribution on an offender. It does, however, mean that retribution may be exacted, all things being equal (though of course things are not always equal); 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.

I agree with Feser that retribution is fundamental, though I would go further:

Justice, at bottom, can only be revenge. Murder and mayhem cannot be undone or somehow ameliorated. The loss of a life, a limb, or an organ is permanent. Other injuries take time to heal, and may heal imperfectly; the healing time and its attendant costs are lost, in any event. Theft is rarely made whole.

Aside from the inculcation of morality, our surest protection from predation is the promise of swift and sure vengeance. When the state fails in its duty to exact that vengeance, it becomes illegitimate.(“What Is Justice?,” June 19, 2011)

Deterrence and retribution (vengeance) are tightly bound. As for correction, the best corrective is to keep criminals away from the rest of us, for as long as is reasonably possible.

What about capital punishment? Here is Feser:

If wrongdoers do deserve punishment, and if punishment ought to be scaled to the gravity of the crime (harsher punishments for graver crimes), then it would be absurd to deny that there is a level of criminality for which capital punishment is appropriate, at least in principle. 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. To claim that no crime could justify capital punishment—to claim, for instance, that a cold-blooded genocidal rapist can never even in principle merit a greater punishment than the lifelong imprisonment inflicted on a bank robber—is implicitly to give up the principle of proportionality and, with it, any coherent conception of just punishment.

My thoughts parallel Feser’s

Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because punishment was certain…. There must be a hierarchy of … penalties for crime, and that hierarchy must culminate in the ultimate penalty if criminals and potential criminals are to believe that crime will be punished. When punishment is made less severe and less certain … crime flourishes and law-abiding citizens become less secure in their lives and property. (“Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?,” October 4, 2004)

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?

Why Stop at the Death Penalty?