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Liberals advance many arguments against the use of the death penalty for heinous crimes. One of the more common is that if the state executes a murderer, it loses moral authority because it has stooped to the same level as the offender.
This type of argumentation is not just confined to the issue of the death penalty. The same reasoning is used by liberals who advocate a ban on spanking. Spanking a child because they hit their brother or sister brings the parent down to the same level as the child, and is rank hypocrisy, so the thinking goes. Well it might be, depending on how the parent administers it. If they lash out at the child in anger, then yes they descend to the same level as the child – or even well below – and they lose moral authority in so doing. Yet if the spanking is given in a biblical way – controlled, loving and with the aim of bringing the child to confess their sin and to be wholly restored – then moral authority is established, not diminished.
The death penalty can of course be used in such a way that the state ends up descending to the level of the offender or even below. For example, some of the methods used throughout history – such as hanging, drawing and quartering – were certainly not intended to swiftly execute the offender and restore justice, but were designed to inflict the maximum amount of gratuitous pain and humiliation in the process.
The liberal is not, however, arguing that some methods of execution sink those who advocate them to the level of the murderer. Rather, he is arguing that the death penalty per se is barbaric and always puts the state and society on the same level as the offender. This argument may sound convincing to some, but it is a fallacy and here is why.
A few days ago, America and indeed much of the rest of the world was shocked by the crimes which have come to light in Cleveland, Ohio. Three women appear to have been kidnapped and held against their will for around a decade. Had one of them not managed to escape, it seems likely that they would have been held indefinitely.
God's law tells us how to deal with a crime such as this: “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:6). But of course if the three men accused of this heinous crime are found guilty, they cannot – under Ohio law – be put to death. Under the state law, the death penalty only applies for aggravated murder with at least one of seven special circumstances.1So the highest penalty that they can receive would be incarceration for the rest of their lives.
Now, if someone were to argue that this crime is so heinous that those found guilty should be put to death, what arguments could a liberal use against them in this case? They can hardly use the “what if you execute an innocent man” argument. Whilst the three accused are innocent until proven guilty in a free and fair hearing, the evidence in a case like this is hardly likely to be controversial. There are three witnesses to the crime. The place of the crime is undisputable. There will also be much evidence collected from the scene of the crime. The evidence is likely to be so compelling that I firmly expect that their lawyers will not even bother to defend them against the charges, but will resort to the modern legal system’s usual culpability avoidance tactic of pleading insanity.
What of the deterrent argument? Well in a case such as this, the argument is really rather irrelevant. Would the execution of those found guilty of this crime deter others from committing it? Hard to say, since such crimes are extremely rare and so not really subject to comparison studies in the same way that homicides are. What we can say, though, is that Ohio’s current death penalty law certainly did not prevent this crime from taking place.
Which leaves really only two arguments: the first is that the act of kidnapping three women and incarcerating them indefinitely is not of sufficient magnitude to warrant the death penalty; the second is that the state has no right to put people to death, for to do so would be to stoop to the level of the offender.
Regarding the first argument, all I can say is that if you don’t think that kidnapping three women and holding them against their will indefinitely is worthy of the death penalty, firstly, you have no compassion for those poor women involved, and secondly you don’t have the remotest clue what justice is.
But my main concern here is with the second argument. Would it be stooping to the level of the accused to put them to death if found guilty after a free and fair trial? The liberal might well argue that it would actually be stooping beneath their level, since their crime was kidnap and not homicide. Yet what would the liberal himself call for in all this? Undoubtedly, he would say that the only appropriate sentence for the men, if found guilty, would be imprisonment.
You see the double standard? Liberals, who claim that executing murderers reduces the state and society to the level of the murderer, would advocate what for the crime of incarcerating three women? Why, incarceration! They may or may not complain about the length of sentence handed down for such a crime, but as far as I’m aware, there are no liberals out there that would object to men found guilty of such a crime receiving some sort of lengthy prison sentence.
In other words, the argument that executing a murderer stoops down to his level is a liberal red-herring. If you are going to employ this argument as a reason for not executing murderers, you need to explain how sentencing a kidnapper to imprisonment does not have the same effect of “stooping down to his level.”
The liberal doesn’t really believe his own argument. If in punishing someone for a crime you always had to make sure you didn’t “stoop down to their level,” you could never deprive a kidnapper of their liberty and you could never confiscate the possessions of a thief. Yet the liberal state is happy to use such punishments. The liberal’s problem is therefore nothing whatsoever to do with stooping to the level of the offender, nor in losing moral authority. If they had a philosophic problem with this and took it to its logical conclusion, they would end up calling for the abolition of all punishment. Rather, their problem is understanding what justice is.
So next time you hear the "losing moral authority" and "stooping to the level of the offender" arguments against the death penalty, ask your liberal friend this: "How do you think crimes like those committed in Cleveland should be dealt with?" And when they reply with the inevitable words "imprisonment" or "incarceration", just shake your head, smile politely and ask them gently whether they think that compromising a society's moral authority by stooping to the level of the kidnapper is really a good idea.