The Worst Argument for the Death Penalty



by Marcus Otte


Last month, I wrote about the problem of “therapy culture.” I am sure that, for many readers, the influence of therapeutic thinking on the Left came readily to mind. But therapeutic priorities are far more pervasive than many would suspect. The Right is also affected. Perhaps the most disturbing evidence of this occurs in debates on capital punishment.


It is sometimes urged that a humane society needs the death penalty, because it is the only punishment that can give “closure” to the families of victims. “Closure” is a psychological benefit. After a traumatic event, the sense of closure is—supposedly—part of one’s mental recovery, and an indicator of mental health. The closure argument entails that the state must have the power to kill the guilty for the psychological benefit of the innocent. This is the utmost height of elevating the importance of good feelings.


Traditionally, there are three justifications for judicial punishment. First, and most importantly, a just punishment must be deserved. This is why we may not deliberately punish the innocent, even if good consequences (e.g., the placating of a riotous crowd) might come from it. It is also why we may not execute jaywalkers, or even fine them heavily. The punishment must fit the crime. Judicial penalties set the scales of justice right. They should not be too heavy. And while mercy ought to be offered in particular cases—especially through pardons—punishments should not be too light systematically. Rape and murder, for example, cannot be justly punished with a mere fine, or a light jail sentence.


If a punishment is deserved, it is also appropriate to favor penalties that might reform the wrongdoer or protect society, including through deterrence of crime. There are traditional justifications for the death penalty that appeal to all three of these reasons for punishment: retributive justice, reform of the wrongdoer, and the protection of society.


This underscores just how radical it is to justify the death penalty on the basis of the need for “closure.” Closure is an unprecedented, fourth reason for executing the guilty: the psychological well-being of the innocent. Nor is this the only case in which killing is now justified for therapeutic reasons. In Belgium, assisted suicide is legal for those who suffer from chronic “unbearable” physical or mental pain, including chronic depression (note: words like “unbearable” become actual legal terms in therapeutic cultures). In America, when abortion rights groups appeal to the health of the mother, they often include mental health.


Of all the perennial insights of Plato and Aristotle, one of the greatest is this: our souls, and our societies, are corrupted whenever we love any good thing immoderately. Pleasure, money, respect from others, friendship, intelligence: all of these are good, as far as they go. But none of them are The Good. None of them should prompt us to unconditional surrender, or to unwavering pursuit. If any of these goods are pursued unreasonably, they degrade and weaken us, instead of ennobling us.


The same deserves to be said of the goods to which late modernity calls our attention. Feeling good is a fine thing, a little confidence doesn’t hurt either, and mental health is certainly no less important than physical health. But a good life cannot be based on the pursuit of these things. They are not The Good.


The immoderate wish for a lesser good always amounts to vice. Any vice, pushed to its limit, forges a path to cruelty. In a therapeutic culture, killing oneself is justified, if you cannot get your psyche sorted out; killing your unborn child is justified, if you expect him or her to substantially upset your psyche; and killing the guilty is justified, if you expect this to soothe the psyche of the innocent. Life should be nice. And the not-nice life is not worth living.


Returning to the topic of capital punishment, it should be remarked that killing the guilty is a futile means of bringing about closure. It is not the real person, but an imaginary person—a two-dimensional caricature—who holds sway over the unforgiving mind. Killing the real person will not end the burden of obsession. Only forgiveness can do that. Or at the very least, forgiveness is the fastest, most complete, and most morally safe—and morally obligatory—means to become whole after an encounter with malevolence.

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