The Pro-Life Ethic, Part Two: The Death Penalty

In this second installment on my series on the pro-life ethic (PLE), I will attempt to argue the death penalty is contrary to maintaining a consistent PLE. As defined in part one (1), the PLE is an ethic which affirms the inherent moral worth of human beings. Further, this affirmation of the inherent moral worth must be foundational and the way in which this affirmation occurs most foundationally is in upholding a person’s right to life. As I will continue to argue in this post, the PLE must seek the morally superior alternative between two contrary affirmations of moral worth.

I should reiterate that I do not submit this PLE as a universal mandate which always determines how persons should relate to one another. The PLE plus its implications (which I spell out in these blogs) ought to be understood to its relative scenarios. Therefore, the PLE is not a moral absolute which makes the death penalty universally wrong; rather, I submit the death penalty as a general practice is inconsistent with the PLE within a society. Despite this general inconsistency, there could still exist notable exceptions; each case must be weighed relative to the scenario via reflective rationality rather than emotionalism.

The pertinent question for this topic is does the death penalty uphold the PLE by maintaining all human beings possess inherent moral worth? Some would say yes. A person could argue that the death penalty is retributive justice which affirms the moral worth of the victims by inflicting a fair punishment upon the perpetrator. Therefore, while the perpetrator may still possess some level of moral worth, the greater imperative lies upon affirming the moral worth of the victims by distributing fair and equal justice to the victims and perpetrator respective to their situation. Failure to distribute this justice results in negating the moral worth of the victims; therefore, the death penalty is justified as retributive justice and consistent with the PLE.

While a plausible case could be made for the rightness of this position, I shall argue it is inconsistent with the PLE on the grounds that it seeks for retribution before it seeks rehabilitation, a greater moral action. I define rehabilitation as the process of restoring a guilty party to their legal and moral status in society prior to their committed crime.

My argument is expressed deductively as follows:

  1. Rehabilitation is morally superior than retributive justice.
  2. The death penalty is retributive justice.
  3. Therefore, rehabilitation is morally superior than the death penalty (from 1, 2).
  4. Persons ought to enact that which is morally superior.
  5. Therefore, persons ought to enact rehabilitation over the death penalty (from 3, 4).

The only controversial premise should be premise 1) since premises 2)-5) are either definitional (2), a deduction from previous premises (3,5), or statements so obvious as to be uncontroversial (4). But, is premise 1) justified?

It certainly seems that way. For certain rights, they can be lost dependent upon the perpetrator’s actions. Liberty can be lost if a guilty party commits crimes such as robbery or tax evasion, and the loss of this right is just because liberty can be restored once taken. Further, a person can still contribute to a community and be rehabilitated even when there exists no liberty. The concept of liberty itself is a relatively new invention to humankind. So, can the moral worth of an individual (or the right to life) be lost as easily as liberty? I contend it cannot. The loss of life cannot be restored by a community, and even if one believes a guilty party’s moral worth vanishes by committing unjust actions, it is generally a morally superior option to seek for the restoration of that worth rather than removing any possibility for it to do so. A person’s worth exists prior to any just or unjust actions as does the right to liberty, but unlike the right to liberty, I submit the right to life persists in spite of unjust actions. This does not mean punishment of any kind is inappropriate; in fact, punishment may very well be a necessary compliment to rehabilitation. The main point to be conveyed is that rehabilitation should always be the desired outcome of a sentencing.

Therefore, while the death penalty may offer retributive justice, it does not offer the ability for redemption or rehabilitation even for the most heinous of crimes. Denying these things denies the moral worth of guilty persons, so while the death penalty may offer a sense of comfort to grieving victims, it ultimately cannot reform the individual because it precludes any repentance. By negating the opportunity for redemption and rehabilitation, it is a punishment which does not uphold the moral worth of the guilty party to the greatest extent possible (to say nothing of those who are wrongfully accused and executed). Therefore, in situations in which rehabilitation would be the morally superior option, it ought to be sought after before any contemplation of enacting the death penalty. This does not deny there could exist situations in which the morally superior option would be the death penalty, but these would be a minority of cases in which the death penalty is given. Further, the death penalty in these scenarios must only be given as an absolutely last resort.

Objection: So should persons not be punished for their crimes? Merely doing good things for a society will not communicate the severity of their offense.

I do not believe rehabilitation and punishment are mutually exclusive. In fact, my point in writing this post is to demonstrate that non-lethal punishment provides adequate grounds for rehabilitation while lethal punishment precludes any whatsoever. One can communicate the severity of an offense without taking the offender’s life. Even if the punishment of an offender lasts a lifetime, this does not mean he cannot contribute to society in a positive manner while serving a sentence.

Objection: Doesn’t the Bible condone the death penalty and even prescribed it? How can you argue against something biblically supported?

Much could be said about this topic, but I will keep my answer brief. It does prescribe the death penalty as a rule of law, but only in a particular circumstance: to ancient Jews living thousands of years ago. Many of the Old Testament laws and mandates are meant for this specific audience as a way to function a just society in a world with deeply rooted immorality. Although, this does not mean the law is irrelevant to Christians. I plan to explore the relationship between Christians and the law more in the future, but for now no such mandate for capital punishment is given to Christians. Jesus Himself affirms the goodness of the law (Matthew 5:17), and Paul says the law is good (Romans 7:12). Despite this, Jesus states there are concessions to hardened hearts for the sake of those under the law (Matthews 19:8), and Paul says the law is limited by the flesh (Romans 8:3). So, the law does what it is supposed to do which is point out sin (Romans 7:7) and point to Christ (John 5:39), so in this sense it is good. But, the law was not meant to be a permanent and immutable rule of law for all persons at all times. Therefore, while the death penalty might have been useful for the Jewish people in establishing a society with an emphasis on the necessity of holiness and commitment to God, this does not mean the law was ideal in universally giving all humanity a standard to follow. After all, God prefers the repentance of individuals rather than their condemnation (see Ezekiel 33:11, 18:23, and James 2:13), so any attempts for forgiveness and rehabilitation should be sought after before the death penalty.

In fact, in reference to the segments of the law referring to capital punishment, Christ says, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also [(implying forgiveness)]… You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:38-40, 43-45). Therefore, in the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, Christ was pointing beyond a mandate for particular people towards a principle meant for all those who would call themselves sons and daughters of God. Therefore, in light of the redemption Christ offers to all persons, I find it difficult to justify the death penalty on biblical grounds. It is hypocritical for the Christian to accept the grace and mercy Christ offers while at the same time argue the death penalty ought to be legal to end the lives of those just as guilty of actions deserving of death (James 2:10-11). From the Christian perspective, such a penalty may preclude the repentance of an individual who might have otherwise accepted grace assuming such a person was guilty in the first place.

Objection: But does not God command the death of others in particular instances? What about His commands against the Canaanites or even the Jewish people themselves? Also, in the New Testament, Acts records the Holy Spirit striking down certain persons, and Christ in Revelation is described as a figure bringing violent justice and wrath upon evildoers. Do not these actions justify a moral community taking the lives of others in the right circumstances especially if God is doing them and He is morally perfect?

When I talk about a moral community, I am assuming they are composed entirely of human beings. God certainly has the ability and right to take life since He can restore it, and He knows the consequences of not taking a certain person’s life due to His middle knowledge (2). God is the Good who acts out against injustice, and this same wrath could have been applied to all persons had God not intervened to provide forgiveness. To argue that if God does something therefore human beings can do the same is to adhere to a rugged moral absolutism which applies to both human behavior and God’s actions. Such an absolutism needs an argument to justify it.

But, what does rehabilitation look like in a practical sense?

I have kept the term rehabilitation broad intentionally. The point of this article has not been to say what kinds of rehabilitation are appropriate to certain crimes; that is a separate conversation. My primary objective has been to argue there are morally superior alternatives to the death penalty.

Within a moral society, rehabilitation can occur in a number of ways, but it is often associated with committing moral actions and developing habits in order to demonstrate a change in the lifestyle of the perpetrator. These moral actions not only can benefit society but also help the perpetrator develop useful skills to build character and enact within society after serving their sentence. Therefore, the rehabilitation of a convicted person is best done through the development of habits which contribute toward the betterment of the self and society. Aristotle maintained that the best way to cultivate virtue is through intentional habit and practice the way any other skill (like archery or smithery) is learned. One commentator on Aristotle put it this way, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” (3). Therefore, rehabilitation can be best accomplished through endorsing disciplines within prisons which equip persons for life after their sentence is served. The death penalty prevents any possibility of this happening, so as it stands, the death penalty does not uphold the PLE in the greatest way possible.

“For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).


(1): https://theresidenttheologianblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/19/the-pro-life-ethic-part-one-introduction-and-on-abortion/

(2): https://theresidenttheologianblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/21/on-salvation-a-molinist-perspective/

(3): Durant, Will. The Story Of Philosophy. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

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