Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Death Penalty and Human Dignity II: Mercy

In an earlier post, I argued that one consequence of human dignity is that we are moral agents who can commit crimes that truly merit death.  If that were all there were to the story, it would be strange indeed that the Pope and the bishops would invoke dignity in order to keep the number of executions to a minimum.

Kazimirowski Eugeniusz, Divine Mercy, 1934

However, there is another aspect of human dignity that is entirely relevant.  Perhaps a robot could be programmed to act with perfect justice, but a robot could not actually give or receive forgiveness.  A robot could not show mercy, nor the theological virtue of charity.  Those things can be done only by persons.

But mercy is absolutely central to what should be happening from a Catholic perspective. After all, there are several other ways in which someone who deserves death may escape execution. 
  • He may escape from custody, with or without the help of his guards.
  • The official(s) who decide his punishment may 
    • be intimidated by threats of riots or violent retribution.
    • be bribed or blackmailed. 
    • be too lazy or squeamish to carry out his duty.
    • approve of the crime and become accessories to it.
By the way, none of these are new.  The same things would have been true during the reign of Caesar Augustus.  

Also, although these circumstances would secure the physical well-being of the criminal, and they may preserve for him "the possibility of redeeming himself", they would not be actual, concrete moral goods.  For a moral good, mercy is needed.  

This has consequences.  
  1. The law is not a person; it is more like a robot, or at least like a computer program.  If it is important to preserve the possibility of mercy, a responsible person has to be chosen who can act personally on behalf of the State in dispensing mercy.  In our culture, this is the governor or, at the national level, the president.  The law should not eliminate the possibility of the death penalty, because.
  2. Aside from prohibiting the grossest of abuses (for example, the selling of pardons), there should be no obstacles to the chief executive granting at least sufficient mercy to spare the criminal's life.  I understand that this is not the case in some places; I have heard that in Texas the governor cannot commute the death sentence without the recommendation of the parole board.  If this is true, it needs to be changed. 
  3. The chief executive has a responsibility to protect the public.  He will have to use prudence to determine whether it would endanger the public to spare someone whose guilt has been firmly established for a heinous crime worthy of death.  If it would not endanger the public, he should be strongly urged to show mercy, remembering that he personally, as well as the State he serves, is in constant need of mercy.
  4. Capital cases, which we have been discussing, are more extreme than other criminal cases, but the same principles apply in all cases:  
    • first determine the actual guilt and the limits that justice places on punishment, 
    • then determine how much of that punishment is demanded by prudence, 
    • then show as much mercy as possible.  

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