Capital Punishment

By: Omer Kassam

Thesis One: In principle a case can be made on moral grounds both supporting and
opposing capital punishment.

Thesis two: Concretely and in practice, compelling arguments against capital
punishment can be made on the basis of its actual administration in our society.

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.


A central principle of a just society is that every person has an equal right to
"life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Within that framework, an
argument for capital punishment can be formulated along the following lines:
some acts are so vile and so destructive of community that they invalidate the
right of the perpetrator to membership and even to life. A community founded on
moral principles has certain requirements. The right to belong to a community is
not unconditional. The privilege of living and pursuing the good life in society
is not absolute. It may be negated by behavior that undermines the nature of a
moral community. The essential basis on which community is built requires each
citizen to honor the rightful claims of others. The utter and deliberate denial
of life and opportunity to others forfeits ones own claim to continued
membership in the community, whose standards have been so flagrantly violated.
The preservation of moral community demands that the shattering of the
foundation of its existence must be taken with utmost seriousness. The
preciousness of life in a moral community must be so highly honored that those
who do not honor the life of others make null and 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 penalty. This punishment must
be inflicted for the sake of maintaining the community whose foundation has been
violated. We can debate whether some non-lethal alternative is a fitting
substitute for the death penalty. But the standard of judgment is whether the
punishment fits the crime and sufficiently honors the nature of moral community.


Agape, Christian love, is unconditional. It does not depend on the worthiness or
merit 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 incessant wrongdoing. An ideal community would be
made up of free and equal citizens devoted to a balance between individual self-
fulfillment and the advancement of the common good. Communal life would be based
on mutual love in which equality of giving and receiving was the norm of social
practice. Everyone would contribute to the best of ability and each would
receive in accordance with legitimate claims to available resources.

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 who had shown no respect for life would be restrained,
permanently if necessary, so that they could not further endanger other members
of the community. But the purpose of confinement would not be vengeance or
punishment. Rather an ideal community would show mercy even to those who had
shown no mercy. It would return good for evil. The aim of isolation is
reconciliation and not revenge. Agape never gives up. It is ever hopeful that
even the worse among us can be redeemed so that their own potential contribution
to others can be realized. Opportunities for confronting those who had been hurt
most could be provided to encourage remorse and reconciliation. If a life has
been taken, no full restitution can be made, of course, but some kind of service
to the community might be required as a way of partially making amends.


Such, 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