News National ‘Big claims need big defences’: The moral problems with pro-death penalty arguments

‘Big claims need big defences’: The moral problems with pro-death penalty arguments

Death penalty advocates have failed to mount convincing moral arguments. Photo: Getty
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In 2008, Garry Linnell described in explicit terms in the Daily Telegraph precisely how he’d like Ivan Milat to die.

Seven years later, under Fairfax mastheads, Linnell dismissed concern for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran because “They took their chances and they lost.”

He insists that once you stop thinking of the truly monstrous pedophile and accused murderer Peter Scully as a fellow human, “the rest comes naturally”.

The rest, just to be clear, is concluding Scully should be killed as painfully as possible.

So after more than a decade of advocating for the death penalty across the national media, it’s odd to hear Linnell now claim in The New Daily that “Capital punishment is the debate we’re no longer allowed to have”.

Myuran Sukumaran (pictured) and Andrew Chan were executed in Indonesia in 2015. Photo: Getty

Death penalty opponents often point to cases where innocent people have been sentenced to die.

Linnell agrees such miscarriages of justice are unavoidable.

But, he adds, if you think that makes the death penalty wrong, “you must also support abolishing the penalty of life sentences. Both end with the same result – death in prison”.

That little word “must” sets a philosopher’s ears twitching.

Here, ‘must’ only works if ‘dying in prison’ is a relevantly similar element of both types of punishment.

It isn’t. With life imprisonment the punishment is the loss of liberty itself, not how and where the sentence ends.

The risks aren’t comparable either.

You can’t undo the fact that someone has been wrongly imprisoned. But you can at least release them and try to salvage something from a tragic situation.

It’s too late to salvage anything when you’ve killed the wrong person.

Linnell is even more dismissive of the idea that execution violates the ‘sanctity of life’.

‘Sanctity’ here is a bit overdone. You don’t need to think that human life is sacred to think that humans shouldn’t be executed. You just need to think they matter in a particular kind of way.

In 1996, 28-year-old Martin Bryant massacred 35 people and injured 18 in a shooting rampage in Port Arthur.

That word ‘human’ typically does a lot of work in arguments around the ethics of killing.

Yet it’s a very slippery term.

We slide effortlessly between its biological and ethical meanings.

(Linnell thinks Martin Bryant was ‘never’ human, but surely accepts Bryant is a member of Homo sapiens).

The idea is, very roughly, that there’s something distinctive about beings like us that makes it wrong to kill us except in cases of extreme, even tragic necessity.

Linnell’s view is that those who have committed the most repugnant crimes have forfeited that status.

“A person who takes another life in the cruellest and most sadistic fashion surely cannot be defined as being fully human. They lack the same traits – including that reverential respect for life – the rest of us possess.”

But why should we think that it’s ‘respect for life’ which makes us ‘human’?

After all, sadistic cruelty is also distinctively, even uniquely human.

Indeed, Linnell also thinks a desire for retribution makes us human too, “a genuine part of our species” that lies “deep in our DNA”.

Yet presumably he doesn’t think people who lack that desire have lost their right-to-life-giving humanity.

So why is ‘respect for life’ the trait that does the work here – and not, as philosophers have usually claimed, rationality, or self-awareness?

Death penalty advocates argue that it’s OK for the state to kill some people because those people aren’t really human. Photo: Getty

This is also where Linnell stumbles into a very common mistake: Fallacious appeal to nature.

A desire for retribution may well be natural, but ‘natural’ doesn’t mean ‘right’.

Selfishness might turn out to be natural too, but that doesn’t make it good to be selfish. Some natural traits might even be positively evil.

Besides, if the worst offenders aren’t really human, how does retribution even make sense?

They can’t both be rational agents deserving of punishment and morally subhuman. The more you try to work with this line of argument, the more it starts to come apart in your hands.

I know how this comes across. It all sounds very abstract and nit-picky, like I’m just scoring trivial debating points in the face of genuine suffering.

Moral progress is both hard-won and fragile. Photo: Getty

But this stuff matters.

It matters because moral progress is both hard-won and fragile, because even our entirely justified anger and pain and revulsion can just as easily lead us back into places we struggled to leave.

Moral philosophy is hard work, particularly when life and death are on the line.

Big claims need big defences, and fatal claims need even bigger ones, not sweeping appeals to poorly thought-through concepts.

So if death penalty advocates want to convince us that it’s OK for the state to kill some people because those people aren’t really people, they’ll need to do considerably harder yards than this.

Patrick Stokes is associate professor of philosophy at Deakin University and a Melbourne-based writer and broadcaster

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