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Capital Punishment: Is Man a Machine or a Moral Agent? Explore More Content

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See how your view of capital punishment says a lot about your view of mankind.

I've been looking for an opportunity to comment on an LA Times letter to the editor from mid-January. I think it's the right time now because of the recent execution of William Bonin, the freeway killer. Though there are hundreds of people on death row, this is only the third execution in California since the renewal of capital punishment. William Bonin was executed by lethal injection, not by the gas chamber. There's a belief that this is more humane. I thought it was interesting, in reading the accounts of the execution, that nothing was said about the process or manner of death other than that it was by lethal injection. Generally, there is a long, boring description of the painful process of death a person goes through in the gas chamber. California now considers the gas chamber cruel and unusual punishment so they have gone to lethal injection. I think that's fine. I'm for capital punishment. One of the reasons is because I think it gives us an opportunity for moral clarity with regards to the punishment issue. This brings up the piece I saw in the L.A. Times in mid-January. The writer, Robert Finn, makes this comment: " Times " editors place the continuation of an article on California's upcoming first execution by lethal injection right next to an article on Israeli President Azar Wiseman's visit to a former Nazi death camp near Berlin. Now whether intentional or not, this juxtaposition serves as a reminder that even legal execution is murder, a fact that no amount of technological improvement can mask. Whether the government kills millions of innocent Jews or a single vicious and unrepentant murderer, the death penalty diminishes us all." Signed Robert Finn, Long Beach.

This was one of those pieces that stands out for me as an example of a lack of moral clarity -- an inability to make valuable moral distinctions regarding behavior. Of course, I expect such a thing in a culture that is run through and through with relativistic thinking, and has a view of man that diminishes him to a mere machine. The language of this letter to the editor, the juxtaposition of this article about capital punishment by lethal injection and the other article about Wiseman's visit to a Nazi death camp, equates the two as if they were morally equivalent. He equates the execution of a vicious and unrepentant murderer with the killing of innocent Jews. Apparently, Robert Finn can't distinguish between guilt and innocence, even when it is in his own writing.

There is a moral distinction. It isn't the same to kill an innocent person as it is for the state to properly execute someone who is guilty. I have heard quite a number of arguments against capital punishment. I've spent a lot of time discussing and even debating this issue. I have noticed a couple of things about those who argue against capital punishment, per se . I think there may be some arguments against capital punishment which question the way it is executed, whether it is just and whether everybody has an equal chance. I understand that people like Chuck Colson are against capital punishment because of certain inequities in the system. But that is a different kind of objection. This objection is different from the person who objects to capital punishment, per se . That is someone who objects to capital punishment in itself, who believes there is no circumstance in any kind of situation in which capital punishment is a justified form of punishment. Those who argue against capital punishment, per se , argue based on a couple of different things. All of those arguments make a principle error. The error they make is in their assessment of what it means to be a human being.

As I read the account of the Bonin execution yesterday morning, there were comments about Bonin's life -- his abuse-ridden childhood, the difficulties he faced growing up, his experience as a Viet Nam war vet which suggested that might have influenced his behavior. Similar kinds of arguments came up when Robert Alton Harris faced execution. One of the strongest appeals made by the defense had to do with an alleged fetal alcohol syndrome of Harris. Apparently his mother was an alcoholic and there was some evidence that her alcoholic condition influenced his development as an unborn child. The underlying argument was that if these are factors that compel a person's actions then they ought to be considered mitigating circumstances in his punishment.

I have two thoughts about this and each of them, I think, is very, very important. The first one has to do with our view of man. Before we resolve the question of how we ought to deal with human beings who do bad things, we have to ask the question, "What kind of being is man?" I realize that some of you may think that is too philosophical. But, in fact, you have already answered the question based on the kind of response you give to the capital punishment question. If you are taken by these kinds of argument -- fetal alcohol syndrome, bad environment, Viet Nam war, child abuse, things that may dispose a person to certain immoral or antisocial conduct -- then that tells me that your view of man is very mechanistic. In other words, you view human beings, by and large, as machines and not as moral agents. What happens when a machine goes bad? Do we punish the machine? Of course not. We fix the machine. If the machine can't be fixed, we discard it. Or, if in the case of an animal, we will remove the animal or kill the animal. Not because it is guilty and it ought to be punished because we don't hold them morally responsible since moral terms don't seem to really apply to animals. But we remove it from any position of being able to do harm to others in society. The underlying point of view or philosophy about the nature of man is what seems to form our decisions about capital punishment. That's why people use defenses against capital punishment like this one: "It doesn't do any good because, first of all, you can't reform a dead man and, secondly, it is not a deterrent for other people committing the crime in the future." You see, what this argument amounts to is a pre-commitment to the idea that any action the state should take with regards to a person committing a crime should be actions that fix the problem, repair the machine, or at least influence other machines not to go bad in the future. That's why we have the idea of reform at the heart of much of our penal system, at least philosophically. It doesn't work out that way a lot, but rehabilitation is the idea. Michael Jackson -- talk show host in Southern California on a secular station -- argued last week that if we are executing someone just to get back at the person who committed the crime, then that is not justice, it's vengeance. Furthermore, capital punishment doesn't work to deter crime. Therefore, since we shouldn't be vengeful and since we should work to deter crime in the future, capital punishment is not justifiable.

I don't think those arguments work. The reason I don't think they work is because I have a different view of man. I do not believe that man is a machine. I think that human beings are free moral agents. They can make choices and they ought to be held responsible for the moral choices they make. This means two things. First, if people make good choices and make a worthwhile, virtuous contribution to the world, then that means we ought to praise them. And praise we do, oftentimes. I was on a show recently, a secular station, in which others were talking with vibrant praise for Magic Johnson for his contribution to society, his return to the sport and all the good that would do. He was a hero in their minds. Notice there was no problem with attributing praise to Magic Johnson because it seems that when someone does something good, he ought to be praised. That only works when someone can choose their actions. Therefore they are praised for making the right choice. But these same people who make bad choices ought not to be praised, but rather punished. Keep in mind the praise is not just so other people will do good things in the future. We are praising him as a good example to cause other people to act in a certain way. We hope that will happen. We hold up other individuals who are noble and virtuous as role models. But the praise is an end in itself because we think it is valuable to praise the individual for the good that he has done.

Secondly, if that is true, then on the other side of the coin that person who was worthy of praise for its own sake when doing something good is also worthy of blame, and therefore punishment, when he does bad. Not merely reform, but punishment for what he did wrong. And the punishment should fit the crime. We are not just to be concerned with rehabilitation, fixing the machine and influencing other people not to do bad in the future. So when somebody commits a capital crime, we are actually making a statement about the high level of value of human individuals who were made in the image of God, but nonetheless have the capability of choosing good and evil. We are acknowledging the meaningfulness of that individual's choice when we praise them for good things but also when we punish them for bad things.

My comments are meant to make the point that policy issues and ethical positions need to be informed by deeper philosophic commitments. In this case, the view of punishment vs. rehabilitation, retribution vs. rehabilitation, will ultimately hinge on how you view man. Is man a machine or is man a moral agent worthy of praise and punishment? I think many people are straddling those two views. They want to treat man like he's worthy of praise then treat him like a machine when it comes to the issue of punishment, saying we shouldn't punish people because it's revenge. Well, yeah, that's right. It is social revenge. No apologies. Justice is a kind of revenge. It is getting back, but it is an appropriate getting back when executed by the appropriate authorities. In this case, the state. The state has an interest in getting revenge. God has given them that responsibility. He has extended the responsibility to them to wield the sword on His behalf for the purpose of punishing evil doers. It says that very clearly in the Scriptures. In Romans 13 it also says to praise those who do right. What they want to do, though, is object to the punishment thing and say man is not responsible for his actions because there are extenuating circumstances. It was these extenuating circumstances that were the deciding factors that caused someone to do bad when they could not have done otherwise. Since something else caused them, something else is responsible, so we ought not punish them in this way. Of course, the argument breaks down because when the time comes around for praise, then the rules change. Then all of a sudden people are responsible for their behavior. It seems to me people either are responsible or they are not. If they are responsible, then both praise and punishment make sense. If they are not responsible, then let's get rid of punishment but let's get rid of praise, too. This is why B.F. Skinner was at least intellectually honest when he wrote his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, arguing that the environment controls all of our behaviors and is ultimately deterministic. If that is the case then we ought not be praised nor should we be punished. We should just be manipulated as machines so that we work better for the good of all. Of course, then you've got a problem of defining what this word "good" means in a mechanistic environment. My view is that man is not a machine. That is why it doesn't matter whether someone is reformed or not. If they are properly punished then the goal of punishment is fulfilled. Retribution. I think that it's noble in cases where there can be some reform and moral training to make someone a better person. But I don't want the tail to wag the dog. That's secondary to the question of punishment.

The other problem with this view, and I hinted at it just a few moments ago, is that it seems to prove too much. If man is not responsible such that he is not deserving of capital punishment, then how is he deserving of any punishment whatsoever? Last time we had an execution, Mother Teresa, I think, was misdirected on this issue. She called the governor's office and pleaded with Governor Wilson for the life of Robert Alton Harris. Mother Teresa's argument was that Jesus would forgive him. Well, I agree with her on that. If he fulfilled the requirements for forgiveness, Jesus would forgive him. But I'm not sure what that has to do with the question of how the government ought to treat a criminal. If it is true that Jesus would forgive him and that is a good argument against capital punishment in his case, then what are we to do with Robert Alton Harris, or William Bonin, or anyone else in a similar situation? Mother Teresa's suggestion was to just let him stay in prison for the rest of his life. This is what many people suggest as an alternative. My response to that is going to be Mother Teresa's response. But Jesus would forgive him. Or the secular version, he had fetal alcohol syndrome so he wasn't really culpable. Maybe he should just do 10 years. But he wasn't culpable and Jesus would forgive. Maybe one year. Maybe one month. Even for one day. If the man is not culpable because there are extenuating circumstances, he ought not be in prison even for a day. If we release him from capital punishment because Jesus would forgive, then we can't justify, based on the same reasoning, any punishment whatsoever.

This is the problem with most of these arguments. They prove too much. They apply with equal force not just to capital punishment but to any punishment whatsoever. If those are good arguments, they require that we simply dismantle the legal system. If we are going to treat men as machines, or at best as sick animals who need to get better, then putting them in prison certainly is not the way to heal them. We would rather then commit ourselves to the kind of environment that would make them the most docile and most law-abiding. Maybe we should just put them in a resort and provide for all of their needs and make their lives wonderful and pay their way through college so that they are changed into law-abiding citizens. Then they are no longer even tempted to do bad if they are mere machines to be fixed, or non-moral, non-responsible animals to be rehabilitated. Why prison at all? Nobody wants to do that for the same reason they feel comfortable receiving praise. They understand deep within them that man is a moral animal who is responsible and who ought to be praised when he does good, but who ought to be punished when he does wrong.

Article | Christianity & Culture, Ethics, Theology
Feb 28, 2013
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