vendredi, mars 18, 2005

Capital Punishment and its Nonsensical Premises

The oddest idea behind the institution of death penalty is that it presupposes (and encapsulates the belief in) the physical immortality of humans, a thesis that is denied in every culture.

The institution of death penalty has been discussed from several points of view. Here I would like to discuss this issue from a more Philosophical perspective, i.e., in a more abstract and slightly radical manner.

The philosophical discussion of death penalty has a broad spectrum and includes extreme questions of whether life or death is real. Here I shall not take such ample scope. On the contrary, I shall assume that both life and death are real, and take into account that all human cultures accept the following thesis as the Ultimate Truth:

(UT) Every human is mortal.

Variations of this thesis are sentences like death is the only certain fate of all, and they all entail that death is something both natural and inevitable. The explicit proposition that someone could probability live for ever is discarded as completely absurd.

On the other hand, in primitive stages almost all judicial systems and penal codes included death penalty among the array of possible punishments for crimes. (And even nowadays some judicial system still preserve this institution.) This presupposed two things: firstly that there are some acts such as their agents deserve to die, and secondly and most importantly that death is a form of punishment.

Now, the second presupposition is the most curious one: if death is something natural that befalls all humans without exception, why would it be a form of punishment?

Given (UT) above, every individual x is doomed to die someday. If x is a free man and if he commits no crime, he may remain free for all his life but he still will die according to (UT). Now if x commits a crime and is sentenced to a form of punishment what changes in his existence? If he is condemned to imprisonment, his freedom is removed for a number of years, and that is a change in the course of his existence. On the other hand, if x is condemned to be executed, he will die because of his crime. But this is no change in the course of his existence, because if he was not condemned to die, he would die anyway.

It does not suffice to say in such a case, that x is punished because he knows the day of his death. Firstly, by knowing the appointed day of his execution does not mean that he knows the actual day of his death, since he may die before the appointed day, or the execution may be postponed, suspended or cancelled[1]. Secondly, knowing one's day of death does not produce any considerable change, for (UT) is still fulfilled.

Methinks that what underlies death penalty is actually the unconfessed denial of (UT), i.e., the hidden belief that we all may be immortal and/or postpone death for ever. Accordingly, death is seen as a form of punishment because it excludes such possibility. In other words, death penalty is based on the belief that humans are physically immortal and the courts may punish them by removing their immortality. But this implies that both (UT) and its denial are spoused by human cultures, a real contradiction.

It is intriguing to constate that such contradiction is shared by virtually all cultures, and that, where death penalty is still accepted or discussed, humans do not even try manage to administer such contradiction somehow.

[1] Or he may even flee from the authorities.