Is Capital Punishment "Humane"?
Many arguments have been made against capital punishment. One argument of concern to Christians is whether or not the New Testament calls on us to abolish capital punishment. I deal with that question is this article. Another more general argument is whether or not capital punishment is humane. Here, “humane” means “compassionate." In this article, I make the argument that capital punishment is the most humane social response to the crime of murder. First, I want to raise the issue of whether “humaneness” is an appropriate criterion to evaluate society's response to murder. But, second, even if we grant that humaneness is an appropriate criterion to judge society’s response to murder, I maintain that capital punishment is the most humane response that society can offer.
Is "Humaneness" an Appropriate Criterion to Judge Society's Response to Murder?
First, if by “humane” we mean “compassionate”, then it may be that asking whether or not capital punishment is “humane” is a question that makes little sense when we’re discussing the social response to murder. It seems more fitting to ask, "What should be the appropriate response of society to murder" and not "Is capital punishment 'humane'"? After all, we sometimes set aside a 'humane' response given the circumstances. The police officer may not dispense with the most "humane" response when shooting an assailant, but shooting the assailant may be the most appropriate response given the situation the officer faces.
Social responses to murder may not necessarily be “humane” if we mean by humane “compassionate.” So, the criterion of humaneness would be more aptly applied, not in society’s response to murder, but in how society treats criminals if it must respond to them with force. When the officer uses force against an assailant, he does not just leave him in the street to bleed out and die alone. If the assailant lives, he seeks to get him medical assistance. He takes care of him until the EMTs arrive. The police contact the relatives of the assailant and exercise understanding in dealing with them. Most people would consider these actions "humane" if the officer had to use force against the assailant.
So, social responses may not be initially “humane” if we mean by "humane" “compassion.” The social response to murder is appropriately a forceful one, and how murderers are treated after society has decided the appropriate punishment is where the criterion of “humanness” properly belongs.
In the case of capital punishment, a murderer can be treated humanely, even if he is being put to death. The state can give him a compassionate means of ending his life, usually a much more compassionate end than the one he gave his victim. Furthermore, the murderer can be treated with dignity: not dragged or paraded through a mob, begging for his life in a public forum. Furthermore, a humane death would be one where he does not physically suffer, like in the case of lethal injection.
So, I don’t think that using “humaneness” (i.e. compassion) is an appropriate criterion when judging society’s response to murder. The most appropriate response to murder will likely be force. But society can still uphold the principle of humanity in how it treats murderers when it decides that murders should die for their crimes. Society can extend to the murderer compassion in the face of death, a much greater level of compassion than he extended to his victims.
Let's Assume "Humaneness" is an Appropriate Criterion to Judge Society's Response to Murder...
So, first, I don’t think “humaneness” is relevant as a standard to judge society's response to murder. But let’s say that it is; I would still say that capital punishment is the most humane response to murder.
First, we have to ask what our response to murder should be? What are our options? We can’t release the murderer. That's not a humane response to the family of his victims or to the rest of society. Those that berate the death penalty for its lack of “humanness” often only consider the humane treatment of the assailant without considering the humane treatment of society at large. Why should the application of “humaneness” only apply to the assailant and not to the whole of society?
Second, some may respond that the most humane treatment is to place the offender in prison for the rest of his life. But, prison is not a humane solution. How is it humane to put a person in a cage and take away his freedom? It does nothing to uphold the principles of humanity to treat a man like an animal. And what of the ongoing fear for him to stay in prison with the potential for brutality, especially forced sodomy? And how is it humane to the public that will now be called upon to feed, clothe, and medicate a man who had such a low regard for the life of others? Also if we imprison Jeffrey Dahmer, how is that an act of humanity to the other prisoners, many of whom are not as dangerous? How is placing such a person in prison a humane act if we consider the humane treatment of the other prisoners?
My conclusion is that, even if “humaneness” is an appropriate criterion to judge society's response to murder, capital punishment is still the most humane social response to murder when we consider the whole of society and the range of available solutions.
Is the Death Penalty Ever Moral?
© 2013 William R Bowen Jr