It has become popular in pro-life and ostensibly conservative circles to deride the death penalty as barbaric and incompatible with the pro-life position. Abortion, they argue, cannot be opposed if one simultaneously supports capital punishment, therefore it ought to be abandoned.
The reasoning behind this is rather simple; If the general public can be convinced that there is an inalienable right to life — meaning that one’s life cannot be taken or given away under any circumstance — supporting abortion becomes an untenable position. In order to convince people of an inalienable right to life, though, one must also oppose capital punishment even for society’s worst criminals.
However good their intentions may be, the conservatives who are choosing this path are wrong. Capital punishment is a societal good which ought not to be done away with and pro-lifers are not obligated to oppose it.
To begin, let’s dispel with the notion that there is an inalienable right to life.
For a right to be inalienable, it must be deemed so by a higher power, namely God. Without God, there can be no inalienable rights. After all, if we are nothing but advanced primates living in a universe devoid of meaning, how can we possibly have irrevocable rights? Surely we can’t, as there would be no authority capable of deeming them to be so or punishing those who infringed upon them. Any rights we may have in a world like this would be transient; conferred to us at the whim of the governing authorities under which we lived.
Since inalienable rights must come from God, one would think that if life were among those rights God would oppose capital punishment. Biblically, this is not the case.
In Genesis, God imposes a death penalty of a sort on Adam and Eve when they eat of the Tree of Life. A few chapters later, God tells Noah that “Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:6). God also makes it clear that death is a suitable punishment for many sins, including but not limited to murder and adultery.
For those who are interested in nothing but the New Testament, it seems that Saint Peter, after passing judgment on Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, imposed a death penalty of some sort on them as they dropped dead immediately after his condemnation.
Likewise, in Romans 13 Saint Paul says that those who do evil should be afraid of those who bear the sword, because “it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.” This too seems like a clear instance of support for capital punishment.
Considering all of this, it is clear that the Bible — Old and New Testaments alike — are not against capital punishment. In fact, it seems that both God and the Apostles were explicitly in favor of it. And if that is the case, the right to life surely is not inalienable.
Inevitably there will be some who either cannot be convinced by appeals to Scripture or do not agree with my characterization of it. To that end, it is worth considering the positions of a few of humanity’s greatest philosophers and theologians on this issue.
To start, Saint Augustine had this to say on the subject in The City of God:
“The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by general law or gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the justest reason.”
Another great theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, similarly supported capital punishment. Here are two excerpts from the Summa:
“Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason, we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (1 Cor. 5:6).”
“The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.”
Even if one does not accept the arguments in favor of capital punishment put forth by Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine, they are still forced to reckon with the fact that some of the greatest liberal philosophers – the tradition from which the idea of an inalienable right to life sprung – supported capital punishment.
Those who claim that the right to life is inalienable rely heavily on the liberal philosophical tradition which is perhaps best espoused in the Declaration of Independence when Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the right to life to be among those which were “unalienable.”
Though Jefferson declared the right to life to be inalienable in the Declaration, he supported capital punishment himself, indicating that he didn’t actually believe that to be true.
In 1778 – two years after penning the Declaration – he said that the death penalty “should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens.” Furthermore, he was clear in his belief that one’s right to life was forfeited in the cases of murder and treason.
Liberal support for capital punishment isn’t limited to Jefferson.
John Stuart Mill, perhaps the greatest liberal philosopher to ever live, gave a speech before the British Parliament on April 21, 1868, in opposition to a bill banning the death penalty. He had the following to say:
“When there has been brought home to anyone, by conclusive evidence, the greatest crime known to the law; and when the attendant circumstances suggest no palliation of the guilt, no hope that the culprit may even yet not be unworthy to live among mankind, nothing to make it probable that the crime was an exception to his general character rather than a consequence of it, then I confess it appears to me that to deprive the criminal of the life of which he has proved himself to be unworthy–solemnly to blot him out from the fellowship of mankind and from the catalogue of the living–is the most appropriate as it is certainly the most impressive mode in which society can attach to so great a crime the penal consequences which for the security of life it is indispensable to annex to it. I defend this penalty, when confined to atrocious cases, on the very ground on which it is commonly attacked–on that of humanity to the criminal; as beyond comparison the least cruel mode in which it is possible adequately to deter from the crime.”
From this excerpt, it is clear that Mill believes life – though it must be protected when innocent and ought not to be taken lightly – is not an inalienable right. Much like Saint Thomas, he believes that one can be justly deprived of their life if they are cancer upon society, going so far to say that the death penalty is the least cruel way in which criminals can be deterred from unlawful acts.
If it is clear that God – from whom all rights spring – did not intend life to be among those which are inalienable and the greatest philosophers and statesmen of the tradition upon which claims against capital punishment rest explicitly supported the practice, how can capital punishment be immoral on the grounds that it infringes upon the individual’s inalienable right to life?
The answer, of course, is that it cannot. Life is not an inalienable right as it has no fount from which to spring, thus absolving capital punishment from defying God or the vaunted liberal tradition. Furthermore, it seems the opposite of what the death penalty’s opponents claim is true, as God, theologians, and liberal philosophers seem to be in agreement that it is a benefit to society which ought to be employed when necessary.
Conservatives and pro-lifers who embrace the baseless notion that there is an inalienable right to life should reconsider their position. Though the claim, if true, would make anti-abortion advocacy far easier, one cannot embrace illogical premises for short term political gain.