Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Goldberg File: Being Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty

Being Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty

I recently wrote about the death penalty and I've been getting annoying feedback ever since. I'm in favor of the death penalty for people who deserve to be put to death. I very much oppose the death penalty for people who do not deserve to be put to death. I phrase it this way because so many opponents of the death penalty love to point to innocent men who were sentenced to die as if proof of error in the system invalidates capital punishment in principle. I don't know if an innocent person has ever been executed, but even if one were that outrage (and it would be an outrage) no more invalidates the death penalty than an instance of friendly fire invalidates the need for a military.

Look at it this way: If in, say, Illinois they wrongly sent a man to death row does that make the Aurora killer any less deserving of the chair? Where is the transitive property here?

But that's not even why I'm talking about the death penalty. One of the more annoying rejoinders to any discussion of the death penalty is, as one e-mailer puts it: "You f***ing wingnuts are such hypocrites, you talk about being pro-life but you have no problem killing minorities when it suits you."

I find this category error mind-boggling. Now while I'm functionally pro-life for the most part, I am not conventionally so. But that's irrelevant given the charge of plenary incompatibility of the pro-life and pro-capital-punishment positions. 

First off, when a fetus shoots up a movie theater or rapes and kills a little girl or throws political dissidents into a wood chipper please be sure to shoot me an e-mail or tweet about it, because that sounds like an interesting story.

On that point, the argument against abortion hinges on the fact that it is the taking of an innocent life, often for selfish purposes. If you don't think it's a life worthy of respect that's something we can argue another day. The point here is that pro-lifers do think it is a life, an innocent life. And as I said at the outset, I'm in favor of the death penalty for people who deserve to be put to death. What has an eight-and-a-half-month-old fetus done that it deserves to be put to death? The abortion-rights position holds that the uterine-occupant's crime is that, if allowed to be born, it will potentially inconvenience or harm the mother. Obviously, the issue of harming the mother is morally significant, but the inconvenience issue is much less so.

However you want to think about all of that, what's very clear is that the moral contexts of abortion and capital punishment are very, very different.

This is a good time to invoke William F. Buckley's old line about moral equivalence. If you have one man who pushes an old lady out of the way of an oncoming bus and you have another man who pushes an old lady in front of an oncoming bus, it will simply not do to describe them both as the sorts of men who push old ladies around. Abortion renders a whole class of humans, non-human. Capital punishment says that a specific human being, one who has been proven to have taken another human life, is fit for execution. The death penalty may or may not be wrong, but to my mind it has as much in common with abortion as indexing capital gains or the infield fly rule. 

What I find fascinating is the way pro-abortion, anti-death-penalty types find this so hard to understand. Here's my theory: They think that pro-lifers suffer from magical thinking. A burning bush, or a guy in a white robe, or some mystical book told them to oppose abortion. The incantations surrounding this belief involve phrases like "sanctity of life" and "every life is sacred." And so they conclude that pro-lifers are being inconsistent by not extending the magic cloak of protection to serial killers, mass murderers, and child rapists.

Now, for some pro-lifers who also oppose the death penalty that actually is part of their argument. The "seamless garment" argument holds that all life is sacred. But it's worth noting that official Church doctrine still allows for both just wars and capital punishment.

Regardless, I'm not a seamless-garment guy. I believe that if you wantonly and brutally, with evil in your heart, tear that garment you deserve to pay for what you've done.

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