Capital Punishment: For and Against

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.


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. 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 degree of moral achievement and maturity. It is