You Name It, I’ll Argue Against it

The Statement: Capital Punishment is Barbaric.

Argument against: Capital punishment barbaric? Nothing is more human than the desire to hurt people who hurt people. It is considered justice. What is not so clearly established is that justice may require the rewarding of goodness; we have no real system for that. But that it requires punishing an offender, who can deny?

I think of it as being like when I am writing with a pen and make a mistake and use the pen to scribble it out so that there is an ink blob in the middle of the page (or, likely, many). I do this to preserve the sense and style of the writing which would be otherwise threatened by the grammatical or spelling errors. I do this – use ink to blot out ink, or hurt hurt, imposition imposition – as if by mutual agreement it was understood as an erasure rather than a scribble-over, and that we agree that the understood logical sense of the writing is more important than the visual integrity of the page.

Thus, a few executions scattered throughout a society may be ugly, but are meant to preserve the logical clarity of the culture’s story and ideas, namely, that in the same way words that do not ‘belong’ in a paragraph are edited out, people who do not ‘belong’ in a society – or no longer deserve to live – should be blotted out, scribbled-over, edited out; that if punishment does not erase a hurt, it allows us to read the society more clearly. This is the best defence of punishment as response or solution I can offer and works, I think, if you assume that the original hurt offends against the sense or self-understanding of the culture and that the second does not.

If the hurt committed is seen as offending the victim or the victim’s family, it is simply this: when you hurt me I get angry, and I will feel better if I hurt you back, and making me feel better is a legitimate, if not the legitimate, goal of justice. If you hurt me you are exerting, it is an act of exerting, power over me. You, the criminal, are exerting power over me, the innocent. I, by hurting you back, re-establish the power of the innocent over the guilty – the way we think it should be. It is a question of timing. If you kill someone first, then we can kill you. That you started it grants us permission to do it to you. The two killings – the murder and the execution – standing alone would both be evils, but because they have this particular relationship to each other, only one is considered evil.

The strongest reason to have a death penalty is emotional. It makes us feel better. Not more secure, not less hurt, not less worried or less scared, but more satisfied. Satisfied the way we are when we hear that our soldiers have won a battle, even if thousands died in it. Satisfied the way we are when terrorists are killed in drone strikes. Most of us got real satisfaction out of Osama bin Ladan’s death. Why? Because the only way to control death is to kill. The way we stave off starvation is by killing plants and animals. We preserve our lives by killing those who threaten us (self-defence), or scare us (stand your ground laws in the US), people convicted of a certain crime (capital punishment in Texas), and, of course, killing masses of soldiers and civilians during wars.

People kill. It’s what we do, whether foetuses in abortions, pets through euthanasia or, in some places, assisted suicide for people. You see, we are in control. Giving birth does not control death; the baby is subject to the same threats and rules those of us already here are. Dying yourself does not control death, it is death controlling you. No, what establishes our primacy, our control, our supremacy, our power, over death is entirely and only when we kill.

Discipline, aggression, control, violence and power are essential, or at least unavoidable, in any functioning society (or any functioning society with men in it). Perhaps different cultures or countries develop (dare I say evolve?) differently, but one of the most basic, and bluntest, ways of dealing with this (if you even think it’s true) is to channel those forces in socially constructive ways. Some countries – say, a superpower – may face these pressures to a greater extent than some quiet, non-militarist (say Scandinavian?) country.

In a society built on revolution, steeped in war, where. movie heroes fight and kill, where an unarmed person is as good as a traitor, where men who are ‘ripped’ (look fit, strong, dramatic, powerful, active, physically dominant) are the sexy ones, it should be obvious that since power and might will be used, we should at least use it morally. No might makes right what is wrong, but might can put what is wrong right.

After all, a militarist nation can’t afford to have its population go soft – it needs them for war. Movies and TV that feature violence, sports that feature violence, high school hierarchies that reward physical power, sexuality revolving around power (powerful men are attractive and being attractive gives a woman a kind of power, that is, access to powerful men).

So capital punishment, which is ritualized violence without legal consequences, is not something we should have evolved out of, but something we have evolved to. We have evolved from a war of all against all, a riot of personal violence and brutish greed and aggression, to structured, moderated, consumerism, and limited, socially acceptable violence against legitimate targets. This is ethical progress. Instead of everyone hitting their neighbour over the head with a rock and taking their stuff, we barter and trade and work for our neighbour’s stuff and punish anyone who tries to get something by hitting their neighbour with rocks. That is what makes economics an ethical step foreword, and capital punishment, because it the farthest we can go ethically, is what defends that. A society is not civilized when its citizens are all individually civilized (like that will ever happen – criminals, like the poor, will always be with us), but when that society acts against its individuals, no matter who they may be, when those individuals behave as barbarians.

Why execution? Because civilized penalties are for civilized offenders, offenders who recognize and can be influenced by the loss of civilized privileges. But it is barbarians who kill (innocent) members of our society and taking civilized privileges away from a barbarian will not deter him. So take from the barbarous what the barbarous value more than money or freedom. Take from the barbarians their lives.

(If you send me any statement, whether I agree with it or not, I will construct the best argument I can against it and publish it here. You can contact me at or through the comments section)

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