The Problem with the “Innocents are Executed Too!” Argument

UPDATE: To my very pleasant surprise Fr. McCrae got back to me in an e-mail to apologize for not putting up a couple more of my comments and for not responding to me, explaining that basically it would have given him too many comments to personally handle if he posted and responded to each one. He also said that while he realized (I’m paraphrasing) that one could still be a faithful Catholic and disagree on this topic, he was wary of expressing too much disrespect of the American Bishops on his blog (I don’t think I went very far in that regard but that’s his call – it’s his blog after all).

Fr. McCrae is a gentleman for getting back to me, and if it’s not clear I want to emphasize that his opinions on this matter have not changed my opinions about his orthodoxy as a Priest in any way – and if anything, I’ve gained more respect for him personally.

Original Post: Fr. Gordon McCrae, the innocent Catholic Priest in jail for sexual abuse, has written a post where he argues against the death penalty. I have a lot of thoughts on that, and I’ve posted them in the thread. But I hear one objection all the time. It’s articulated well by a poster named Tom, who writes this:

It is hard to fathom that a Catholic priest in this day and age would pen a full-throated defense of the death penalty. With the overwhelming evidence of innocent people condemned to death rows and later exonerated, it is almost a matter of justice to oppose the death penalty. To anyone who says “the state has never executed an innocent man” I invite you to visit the closest Catholic Church and go in and gaze upon the crucifix.

Before I get to the problem with the innocents are executed objection, I want to get one thing straight: I have never, ever, once, ever heard anybody say that “the state has never executed an innocent man. And I mean NEVER. That would be an incredibly stupid thing to say, especially for a Christian, and Tom is attacking a strawman. I don’t think he’s ever heard anybody say this either. He’s just absorbed this supposed objection, repeated by anti-death penalty activists to make pro-death penalty supporters look bad, through cultural osmosis and parroted it here. Nobody has ever said this, or if they have none of the most intelligent and best supporters of the death penalty have said it, so let’s just get that garbage out of the way now.

Now, to business: Here’s my problem with the “innocents are executed” argument: All you’ve done is provide a defense for getting rid of any form of incarceration or punishment in our justice system entirely, because innocent people are arrested – like Fr. McCrae. Yes, innocent people are executed. Innocent people are jailed too. Should we get rid of imprisonment as a form of punishment (or possible rehabilitation, if that’s your thing)?

Just because there are problems with innocents being executed doesn’t mean that execution is not sometimes a just form of punishment for certain crimes. Eliminating execution because we’re scared of hurting innocents is akin to eliminating kindergarten time-outs because you might make a mistake. The logic is exactly the same, and it’s bad logic.

I used to believe that this was a good objection too, but thinking it over I actually think it fails rather spectacularly. Go figure, I guess.

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5 Responses to The Problem with the “Innocents are Executed Too!” Argument

  1. Ilíon says:

    Exactly.

    But, it’s worse that what you explore here — blanket opposition to capital punishment is logically blanket opposition to *all* laws.

    I have a post about this on my blog — but it seems that WordPress seems to send posts referencing Blogger into permanent limbo. Should anyone want to try to read the post, my blog is at iliocentrism dot blogspot dot com … then, look for the post called “I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances” under March 2013

    Again, I’m sorry about these round-about instructions, but it seems to me that WordPress is playing dishonest games, far all my attempts to directly reference the post just vanish.

    • I go a bit further myself:

      Fr. McCrae, I disagree with your premise. The Church does not ONLY support the death penalty when it’s the only option. John Paul II did, and the Catechism affirms his opinion, but that would mean that for thousands of years the Church was using the incorrect logic until he corrected them. Now I know that since this isn’t dogma it is, in theory, possible that this is true, but I find this INCREDIBLY unlikely. I mean, Thomas Aquinas was in favor of the death penalty; you don’t need to agree with him, but JPII never made any sort of infallible statements contradicting him.

      Furthermore, I think taking the death penalty off the table cheapens the victim’s worth. As humans we are the only ones capable of making moral decisions. Thus, we are the only beings that merit punishment; simple logic dictates that certain crimes are worthy of the death penalty. And the Church, of course, believe in retributive justice as moral (not revenge). That is one of the premises for the doctrine of Purgatory.

      Recall the good thief Dismas in the Bible. He was good because he recognized he DESERVED his punishment. Instead of trying to claim that he was reformed and shouldn’t be killed, he recognized that his death was just. And Jesus, when he learns this, does not free him from his death sentence. He simply rewards him in the afterlife. His temporal punishment and debt to society still had to be paid.

      Recall, even, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I don’t speak for the book, but in the musical. Valjean only escapes the law (after his conversion) when he has some duty to carry out. He always promises to return to Javert and accept his punishment, because he knows it would be just – and probably the death penalty. Justice must, of course, be tempered with mercy, but then it is called the justice system. It is designed to give fair retribution for crimes. Mercy can OCCASIONALLY be offered to the Valjeans of the world but as a gift, not something to be expected for every murderer. On the contrary, allowing every murderer to escape death themselves cheapens their worth as a human being by claiming that they don’t have the moral autonomy to commit an act that would merit such a punishment, when clearly they do.

      I love the story of the Good Thief. I find it extremely instructive. A prisoner who begs for mercy, or a prisoner who supposedly repents then claims that this is enough justification for them to avoid the death penalty, is looking at things in a very, very wrong way. Dismas recognizes he is guilty. Instead of railing at the Heavens like the other thief because he’s (apparently) repented, he knows that he owes a debt to society and deserves his fate, and so he does not argue, but accepts it. And this recognition of guilt and understanding that he deserves his punishment is what makes him worthy of Paradise.

  2. Ilíon says:

    Furthermore, I think taking the death penalty off the table cheapens the victim’s worth. …

    As I discuss in my blog entry, a society that *refuses* to execute the murder gives him the power to cast his victim(s) out of society, to make them into non-persons,

    On the contrary, allowing every murderer to escape death themselves cheapens their worth as a human being by claiming that they don’t have the moral autonomy to commit an act that would merit such a punishment, when clearly they do.

    Sometimes to does that, sometimes it (falsely) accords them super-human status.

  3. moralnemesis says:

    Well I think the point of the “innocent people are executed” argument is that execution is a very final act of punishment. A person who is sentenced to life imprisonment can be released once evidence of his innocence is brought to light. A person who is executed cannot be brought back from the dead.

    Of course, I can’t speak to the religious issues, as I am an atheist.

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