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Cesare Beccaria writes in An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (1764) E. D. Ingraham, trans. (Philadelphia: H. Nicklin, 1819), Chapter 28:

The punishment of death is pernicious to society, from the example of barbarity it affords. If the passions, or the necessity of war, have taught men to shed the blood of their fellow creatures, the laws, which are intended to moderate the ferocity of mankind, should not increase it by examples of barbarity, the more horrible as this punishment is usually attended with formal pageantry. Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?

Beccaria, in large part, takes a utilitarian stance against capital punishment but in passages like this it is clear he is motivated by some perfectionist or even moral educationist sentiments, for there is no reason to think that barbarians may not positively enjoy their barbarity.

Van den Haag misinterprets, we believe, the barbarization argument stemming from Beccaria’s classic outcry at the spectacle of public executions.1

Van den Haag agrees the public in “public execution” is indeed wrong, that executions should not be public. He seems to imply that this is what Beccaria’s chief point was. Public killing may perhaps inspire imitation. And only knowledge of execution, without witness, is all that is required to effect whatever deterring power inheres in the punishment. So while public execution may indeed be barbarous, execution itself cannot be the target of the charge.

Van den Haag attacks a bit of a straw man here. To the extent the barbarization argument has any force at all, it claims that execution barbarizes the executioners, both immediate and symbolic. What effect it may have on eye witnesses or those who just hear of it is beside the important non-utilitarian point. It makes the executioners and the authority they represent morally suspect (never mind what law may be on their side for that law is perforce implicated as well). It shows them capable of suspending the respect for human life it would feign instill in others. If murders come about through too little regard for the sacredness of life or too little self-control in the face of fear, anger or greed, any taking of life that displays those characteristics, including that flowing from the “righteous” outrage of an injured community, is tantamount to murder. (The taking of life even in self-defense is still wrong; it may be excused after the fact out of compassion for the would-be victim, put upon by circumstances, forced into being executioner, but the moral enormity of the killing is undiminished. A terrible thing happened in response to the imminent threat of another. Nothing truly good or just happened.) But the evil that impassioned individuals may do is magnified many times by the abstract corporate bodies that comprise communities, states, or the arms of their authority. If—and this is a big “if”—there is any moral justification for investing such corporate bodies with the power of punishment it is because there is the expectation such a body can and will exercise that authority with finer moral scruples than we can normally expect of individuals. The point is to elevate our best instincts not our worst. Otherwise, we merely institutionalize vigilantism and “respect for the law” devolves to fear of retribution—and nothing but.

1. Ernest van den Haag, “In defense of Capital Punishment” in Crime and Punishment: Philosophic Explorations, Michael J. Gorr and Sterling Harwood, eds., (Boston and London: Jones and Bartlett, 1995), pp. 494. [This version is expanded from a paper delivered in 1977.]

Posted by luno in capital punishment, Deontology, Utilitarianism, male criminality (Saturday August 13, 2005 at 3:14 pm)

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