(originally sent to SDA and RMF 9/12/08)
I found myself wondering, if a man is convicted of a triple homicide (for example) that he didn’t commit, is life without the possibility of parole a lesser or a greater punishment than death? Or, put more generally, is the permanent detainment of an innocent individual more lawful or less lawful than the execution of that same individual? Of course I’m assuming the man in question had a fair trial and was just unfortunate, a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and not that he was deliberately railroaded.
I know the argument will be made that, in the case of a life sentence imposed upon an innocent individual, the possibility exists that his innocence will be found out and that he will go free making the punishment possibly less severe—certainly less intractable.
However, all punishment is intractable—at least the part already inflicted—and there’s no way to give a man back the years he lost in prison any more than we can give a man back his life. And so, to make the point I’m getting at clearer, let’s say we have two men, both convicted of a murder that neither one committed, one was sentenced to life and the other to death, and that the one man has died in prison and the other has died in the chair. We have just learned of each man’s innocence but both men are dead. Their punishments are utterly intractable. In such a case, to which man has the government committed the greater injustice? Is it more wrong to deprive an innocent person of his liberty or his life?
Now, whether a government has the legitimate right or authority to deprive a man of his life or liberty may be the fuel for another debate. I would suggest, based on our Constitution, that OUR government unequivocally does claim for itself that right provided it does not do so “without due process of law”.
However, extraordinary circumstances excepted, the right and authority of a government to deprive a man of his life or liberty does not translate to the private individual acting on his or her own authority.
The slavery that existed in the United States of America prior to the Civil War is almost universally recognized today as a great moral evil. It was not so universally recognized at the time when our laws recognized its legality. (Neither did its legality prove its morality.)
Proponents of slavery rationalized their right to deprive other people of their liberty by concluding that the enslaved weren’t really people or were a lower sort of people.
Likewise, proponents of abortion rationalize their right to deprive other people of their life in just the same way. Either the fetus has not attained to personhood or the fetus is a person whose life is less valuable than those making the decision to terminate its life.
The vast majority of us who are alive today would agree with the essential abolitionist position which is that slavery was not something to be tolerated or compromised with. It was a great moral evil. Moral evils must not be contained but confronted. They must be recognized and not ignored.
Lincoln recognized this when he confronted American Slavery and Reagan recognized this when he confronted Soviet Communism.
And so I get back to my original question, is it more wrong to deprive an innocent person of his liberty or his life. Opponents of capital punishment will say the latter without hesitation. How then can they be in favor of abortion unless by diminishing the personhood of the one aborted?
As for those who recognize true personhood in the one aborted, how can the compromise pragmatic approach be warranted unless it would also have been warranted with regards to slavery?