Death penalty or revenge killing?

By Andrew L. Urban

With the death penalty hanging over two Australians (and a number of others) in Indonesia convicted of heroin smuggling as I write (12/3/2015), the state sanctioned killing of criminals has generated much debate and vitriol – but little rational debate about why the death penalty should be abolished globally. 

There are those who grant countries like Indonesia their sovereign right to invoke the death penalty, as if national sovereignty is a morally defensible construct devoid of moral imperatives. Nazi Germany was a sovereign state, as was the Soviet (so called) Republic, Kampuchia and as is North Korea – and every other country (rogue state?) where atrocities and crimes against humanity have been and are committed. We really need to get rid of that concept and apply moral parameters to states – but that’s another story.

The death penalty is nothing more than revenge killing, its nomenclature (‘death penalty’) a transparent and hypocritical cover. If it is wrong to avenge your friend’s killing by killing his or her killer, why is it morally acceptable for the state to do it in your place? If we can make out a moral case  – as distinct a law and order case – for one, then we can make one for both.

The adage that if we live with the old, primitive values of an eye for an eye, soon the whole world will be blind, is equally apt here, despite the argument that it is why the state can kill where individuals cannot: it takes revenge out of the hands of the individual. That argument flounders on the fundamental moral question: if it is wrong to kill, it is wrong to kill. If there are exceptions that lift that moral imperative, individuals can also find exceptions to do so.

A man whose brother is executed by the state for murder, may seek revenge on the state through his own morally sanctioned murder. How do you rationally condemn him if the excuse is that the State has some authority above its own professed morality of life as sacrosanct?

Selective morality leads us down ever darker lanes. If killing another human is the most immoral act we humans can perform, it remains so under all circumstances, without exception.


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