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A world too small for the two of us…

Bedau argues that opposition to the death penalty cannot be utterly unconditional.1 He asks us to imagine a world where the execution of a murderer would miraculously bring back to life the innocent victim. Could we still oppose the penalty on principle?

I don’t know, could we? I find it somehow easier to imagine a world where the birth of a child brought about the death of an otherwise healthy adult. In that world, could we still believe bringing life into the world a good thing on principle?

Consequences may have everything to do with what we in fact do, but they have nothing to do with morality.*

* Editor’s note: Luno explains elsewhere his view that utilitarianism is at best a first order theory of moral practice (as is virtue theory), it offers a schema for rules of thumb in the management of crowds, not individuals. It conserves essentially political resources. A true moral theory must be traceable to a source of normativity, which in his view can only stem from a natural kind of the beings in question. The ones we usually have in mind are women and men. Thus, only some version of Kantianism and communitarianism are true—that is, foundational—moral theories.

Bedau believes the morality of opposition to the death penalty as well as its defense must be based on contingent facts about its capacity to deter, prevent or incite the killing of innocents. Bedau’s opposition then is based on the punishment’s failure to meet a test of its utility.

We cannot share this basis for opposition. If the death penalty is fundamentally immoral, it is because of who is performing the execution and their limitations in the face of the enormity of the act. Utility is never the first moral basis for anything. It is, at best, a stopgap tool, a legitimate arbiter of cases only when more fundamental theory is stymied or indifferent as to outcome.


1. Hugo Adam Bedau, “A Matter of Life and Death” in Crime and Punishment: Philosophic Explorations, Michael J. Gorr and Sterling Harwood, eds., (Boston and London: Jones and Bartlett, 1995), p. 509. [From Death is Different: Studies in Morality, Law, and Politics of Capital Punishment, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987).]

Posted by luno in capital punishment, Utilitarianism (Monday August 22, 2005 at 12:32 pm)

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