By Robert Hanna
THINKING FOR A LIVING: A PHILOSOPHER’S NOTEBOOK 18
319. A new argument against capital punishment. In early-ish August and early-ish December I read two very good New York Times opinion pieces by Margaret Renkl, “America Has Stopped Being a Civilized Nation,” and “There’s a Lot of Killing inThou-Shalt-Not-Kill States,” in which she compellingly argues against capital punishment from a dignitarian point of view.
As she so aptly and crisply puts it at the end of “There a Lot of Killing…”:
There are numerous pragmatic reasons to abolish the death penalty. It doesn’t deter crime. It doesn’t save the state money. It risks ending an innocent life. (The Death Penalty Information Center lists the names of 164 innocent people who have been exonerated after serving years on death row. The most recent, Clemente Javier Aguirre, was released from a Florida prison just last month.) It is applied in a haphazard and irrational manner that disproportionately targets people of color. It puts prison staff in the untenable position of executing a human being they know personally and often truly care for.
But the real problem with the death penalty can’t be summed up by setting pros and cons on different sides of a balance to see which carries more weight. The real problem of the death penalty is its human face.
A person on death row is a person. No matter how ungrieved he may be once he is gone, he is still a human being. And it is not our right to take his life any more than it was his right to take another’s.
I absolutely agree with Renkl’s basic line of reasoning and conclusions.
My only objection to her pair of articles concerns the first one’s title — no doubt not chosen by Renkl herself, but instead by her NYT editor.
It should have been “America Has Never Been a Civilized Nation,” since the USA as a nation-State has always had the death penalty and has also always had the 2ndAmendment to the Constitution, both of which are rationally unjustified and immoral.
320. This titular objection, in turn, also set me to thinking about formulating a new argument against capital punishment, from a specifically existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchist point of view.[i]
It’s a fourteen-step argument, and here’s how it goes.
First, according to Kantians and other dignitarians,all rational human animals are human persons, aka people.
Second, according to Kantians and other dignitarians, all people are
(i) absolutely intrinsically, non-denumerably infinitely valuable, beyond all possible economics, which means they have dignity, and
(ii) autonomous rational animals, which means they can act freely for good reasons, and above all they are
(iii) morally obligated to respect each other and to be actively concerned for each other’s well-being and happiness, aka kindness, as well as their own well-being and happiness.
Third, therefore, according to Kantians and other dignitarians, it is rationally unjustified and immoral to undermine or violate people’s dignity under any circumstances.
More specifically, people have dignity as an innate endowment of their rational humanity.
So dignity is neither a politically-created right, nor an achievement of any sort.
Nor, correspondingly, can anyone lose their dignity by thinking,choosing, or acting in a morally or legally very bad way.
Fourth, existential Kantians specifically, hold that the meaning of rational human life is the pursuit of principled authenticity,that people’s lives are never defined by the worst things they’ve ever done,and that they always and innately possess the ability freely to change their lives radically for the better.
Fifth, if you’re dead, then you cannot pursue principled authenticity,and you no longer possess the ability freely to change your life radically for the better.
Sixth, at any time, all the bad things you’ve done,and especially the worst thing you’ve ever done, have already happened and they cannot be changed or undone by any other act, especially including by your being punished after the fact.
Seventh, if it’s rationally unjustified and immoral for ordinary people to do X, then it’s rationally unjustified and immoral for the State to do X.
Eighth, coercion is when some people force other people to heed or do what they command, by means of violence or the threat of violence, in order to satisfy the coercer’s self-interested or Utilitarian ends.[ii]
Ninth, according to Kantians and other dignitarians, since using people as mere instruments or means to satisfy self-interested or Utilitarian ends is always rationally unjustified and immoral, and coercion is an aggravated form of using people as mere instruments or means, then all coercion is rationally unjustified and immoral.
Tenth, because all States claim the right to coerce people just because they possess the power and the means to do so, but the coercion of people by other ordinary people is rationally unjustified and immoral, and the mere institutionalized, governmental, State possession of power and the means to coerce does not convert what is rationally unjustified and immoral into something rationally justified and moral, it follows that all States are rationally unjustified and immoral.
Eleventh, the death penalty is when the State legally kills someone in order to coerce them by punishment after the fact of some (actual or supposed) wrongdoing.
Twelfth, it’s a violation of human dignity, hence rationally unjustified and immoral, on existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchist grounds,for ordinary people to kill other people in order to coerce them by punishment after the fact of some (actual or supposed)wrongdoing, since if someone is dead then they cannot pursue principled authenticity and freely change their lives for the better, and all the bad things they’ve done, especially including the worst thing they’ve ever done, have already happened and cannot be changed or undone by any act, especially including any act of punishment after the fact.
Thirteenth, therefore at the very least it’s equally a violation of human dignity,hence rationally unjustified and immoral, on existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchist grounds, for the State to do this; and arguably it’s an even worse violation of human dignity for the State to do this, since the State, which is a coercive authoritarian social institution on a grand scale, is itself rationally unjustified and immoral.
Fourteenth, therefore the death penalty is rationally unjustified and immoral, on existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchist grounds.
The one big philosophical advantage of my longer argument over Renkl’s short one, I think, is that mine explicitly displays how capital punishment isn’t simply the rationally unjustified and immoral killing of a human being with dignity, it’s also in direct violation of fundamental existential and political principles.
[i] See R. Hanna, The Rational Human Condition Volume 3 — Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (New York: Nova Science,2018), PREVIEW; and R. Hanna, The Rational Human Condition Volume 4 — Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (New York: Nova Science, 2018), PREVIEW.
[ii] In other places, I distinguish between primary coercion (the kind of coercion defined in these notes), and secondary coercion, which is someone’s forcing other people to heed or do the their bidding by using harms or the threat of them short of violence (e.g., getting you fired from your job). But that distinction isn’t important for my purposes here.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 228
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Sunday 20 January 2019
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