Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Execution of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes against humanity last night. Certainly Hussein is an example of the worst sort of criminal, but I cannot help but feel this was pitiful and unnecessary. None of the evil things he did are undone by his execution. He would have died eventually and answered to God for his sins without us taking his life.

In my job I see a lot of people die. I watched a man die at the hospital yesterday. My response to the news was the same as I felt in the hospital: Sorrow. Even with my political opposition to the death penalty, I had not expected to be saddened by the death of someone as horrible as Hussein. I suppose my eyes are too full of seeing death. I want no part in killing, even those who “deserve death.”


Mike Morrell said...

I agree, completely. I think that more and more people (Christians particularly) are seeing this "heart stance" as one of being consistently pro-life.

Chris McC said...

But was it just?

If more and more people are finding capital punnishment objectionable, might this have less to do with an increasing respect for human life, and more to do with the loss of any sense of retributive justice?

Our age cannot be characterized as one that is particularly respectful of human life. Our age can be characterized as one in which there is widespread skepticism of traditional morality (a great many people don't believe in things like retributive justice any more). On both these counts I think Christians should be critical of the spirit of the age.

I will agree with one thing: it is right to be saddened by death, even if justice requires it.

JD said...

To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.

- GK Chesterton

Christopher said...

How is that distinction relevant? Are you contending that govts have a moral right to execute those who commit very heinous crimes, but are not right in doing so?

JD said...

The quote, of course, uses two different meanings for RIGHT: 1) a moral or legal entitlement 2) that which is good or best.

Governments and individuals have all sorts of "rights" that may not be good to exercise. Individuals in our society certainly have a right to smoke, eat in excess, and avoid physical exertion, but we certainly don't think it is the right choice for them. Similarly, governments may have certain rights constitutionally (such as the right to jail people who break the law by driving 57 in a 55 mph zone) that we might argue are not good rights to exercise for any number of reasons.

Governments (such as ours) currently have the right by law to execute criminals, and Hussein certainly was a criminal of the worst sort, but this doesn't mean it is the best or most noble choice given the alternatives. Given that those we execute are no longer threats why would it be the best choice to kill them? Does a punishment of life imprisonment without parole somehow remove retributive justice? Not only do I think it is at least equally just to give a life imprisonment, but I believe it is morally better for us not to kill whenever possible.

More than I am concerned for the criminal, I am beginning to believe that killing another human being is morally and emotionally damaging to us when we participate, even if the killing is just. The realization that killing another can achieve things we desire or even some "good" (such as justice) opens us up individually and collectively to all sorts of killing that is not at all just (such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, wars of aggression, etc). I know this is a "slippery slope" argument and it is not at all what Chris would endorse, but I believe it is the way of our human nature once we begin killing. Even if you do believe the death penalty for heinous criminals is just, would it be bad for us to change our society to one that doesn't ever endorse killing of any kind? I think it would not be bad at all.

JD said...

Sorry for another quote. Wendell Berry, who has been quite influential in my thinking, stated some of these thoughts better than I could in his essay "Peaceableness":

"...Peaceableness toward enemies is an idea that will, of course, continue to be denounced as impractical. It has been too little tried by individuals, much less by nations. It will not readily or easily serve those who are greedy for power. It cannot be effectively used for bad ends. It could not be used as the basis of an empire. It does not afford opportunities for profit. It involves danger to practitioners. It requires sacrifice. And yet it seems to me that it is practical, for it offers the only escape from the logic of retribution. It is the only way by which we can cease to look to war for peace.

Let us hasten to the question that apologists for killing always ask: If somebody raped or murdered a member of my family, would I not want to kill him? Of course I would, and I daresay I would enjoy killing him, or her. If asked, however, if I think that it would do any good, I must reply that I do not..."

Christopher said...

So, you were simply pointing out that just because various human laws sanction the death penalty doesn't mean it is morally right.

Well, obviously.

But once again, how is that relevant? If someone were confusing the two, it would be relevant. But no one is. We are discussing whether the law is in fact morally right. No one is claiming that it is morally right just because it is the law.

As for your slippery slope argument: are you admitting that your argument is fallacious, or are you saying it's not actually fallacious even though it seems to commit the slippery-slope fallacy? If the former, why do you keep propounding it? If the latter, how does it escape the fallacy?

Your Wendell Berry quote illustrates my concern. The whole force of his comment is centered on his desire to escape the "logic of retribution". The reason he rejects the death penalty is that he rejects the moral principle of retributive justice. And if you accept his argument (which is not the same as accepting his conclusion) then you have also, perhaps without realizing it, allowed your mind to be seduced by an idea that is contrary to both traditional morality and the Christian faith.

In your other post you began to argue more from a Christian perspective (but only after I brought it up): you mentioned the fact that earthly governments are limmited in their mandate to execute justice.

But justice is still justice. Granted, no earthly nation can execute absolute justice. But there is such a thing as earthly justice. So the question we must ask is: How far does earthly justice extend? Do human governments have the moral authority to kill, justly, those who kill unjustly?

Traditional morality has an answer to this ethical question too: nearly all cultures throughout history agree that the civil governments have a transcendent mandate to execute justice, and that this extends as far as the death penalty for murderers: the punnishment should fit the crime. Scripture says the same: who sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed. You say no. Is it because, after careful study, you came to a different understanding of those passages in Scripture that the church has always understood to be supporting governments' use of the sword? Apparently not. Your only argument is one that you have almost admitted is fallacious.

While I grant that emotions should play a role in understanding truth, I hope you will agree that reason also has a role to play. If you say, "I believe something contrary to traditional morality, and to what the church has always understood scripture to teach, and my only reason is emotional: I have no good argument; the only argument I can come up with is fallacious," I suggest that there is something wrong with that.

Christopher said...

"It is hard for those who live near a Police Station
To believe in the triumph of violence.
Do you think that the Faith has conquered the World
And that lions no longer need keepers?"

--T.S. Eliot

JD said...

Excellent response, Chris. A lot for to think on. I have always appreciated how your discussion over the years has helped focus and develop my thought. I am excited that such discussions like the ones we have had over coffee or a hikes can be here on this site.

With so many important points you made I will probably respond over a couple posts...

JD said...

On the Gridbook Essays:

First of all, I might want to clarify that I am not setting forth precise, detailed arguments on most topics I discuss on this site. (For an example of an elegant persuasive argument on a difficult social see Chris' excellent argument on Abortion on his site.) While I hope these posts are thoughtful and insightful they are unfortunately not philosophically astute, and they are certainly could not be formalized in a logical proof.

Like most people my political beliefs are often based on a mix of personal experience, emotion, influence from others, and intuition. Even when one does develop water-proof arguments, it usually happens after one has already accepted the belief. In discussing my politics in these essays I point out the effects of emotion and experience as well as the weaknesses of certain points not to concede I am incorrect, but to show that while I do believe these things I am still developing my reasoning on the subject . If I waited until I had a perfect argument for each belief I could end up saying almost nothing at all and this site might be quite bare. However, thinking out in the open gives me the opportunity to sharpen my thinking with the excellent criticism from brilliant people such as Chris.

more to come...

JD said...

On Fallacy:

While I admit I am quite out of my league discussing fallacy with a philosophy professor, I may need to clarify my admitted use of a fallacy As I understand it a fallacy in formalized logic weakens my argument because it is a logical leap that points to something that is not necessarily the case. A fallacy doesn't belong in among logically certain arguments (such as “Jonathan Davis is a doctor.” “I am Jonathan Davis.” “Therefore I am a doctor.”)

It seems to me that the "Slippery Slope" fallacy is so commonly and continually used by intelligent people because while it is not necessarily true it is so very often the case. All around us everyday we see people who started out with innocent or limited actions sliding into all sorts of unintended and disastrous consequences. While it is not certain that a casual drug user will become an addict or someone who is cruel to animals will extend the cruelty towards people, these things happen often enough that warnings about their possible consequences should not be ignored. The concern that killing even those who deserve to die might make us more comfortable with other sorts of killing while not logically certain, is something that requires serious consideration, because it seems quite consistent with observed human nature.

more to come...

Christopher said...

The Role of Reason

It looks like you are saying that we come to beliefs on grounds that don't involve reasoning or arguments, which only come in later as justifications for positions we really hold on purely non-rational grounds. If this is the case then reason isn't really playing a role in our discovery of truth. But if we don't actually listen to reason, if we are not willing to change our beliefs on rational grounds, then reasoning seems to be a bit of a farce, seems a bit dishonest, even.

But maybe you meant to say something a bit different. Perhaps reason did play a role in your coming to your new belief, but you are not yet able to give a full articulation of the reasons for your change of mind. I think it is normal for us to be convinced by reason (or by a mix of things, reason included) before being able to express our reasoning by argumentation. Reason doesn't have to be articulated in order to play a genuine role in the discovery of truth.

Still, I wouldn't be so hasty as to say definitively: "This is my position, and I will henceforth actively promote it politically," while I am "still developing my reasoning on the subject," especially when the position I am leaning towards contradicts both the general consensus of humanity and the ecumenical Christian tradition, including the teaching of my own church. Perfection is not required. Formal logic is not required. But if you are aware that your only argument seems to commit an informal fallacy, it is too early for a definitive, public endorsement.

Christopher said...

On Fallacy:

To say that an argument is fallacious doesn't just mean that it is not deductively certain. It means it is entirely without value as an argument. There are cogent arguments that are not deductively certain. But fallacies are not even cogent. They are completely worthless. That's what the word "fallacy" means. And that's why it doesn't make sense to propound an argument that you believe is fallacious. But are slippery-slope arguments generally fallacious in this sense?

Yes they are. A slippery slope argument begins by noting that there is a spectrum of possible views on a given subject. It then points out that something at one end of the spectrum is very wrong. From this it concludes that anything closer to that end of the spectrum than you happen to be is also wrong. For instance, the view that we can kill anyone as long as doing so would make the world a better place is clearly wrong. You therefore conclude that the only kind of killing that is morally justified is when someone is so immanent a threat to the life of your family as to be in your home brandishing a weapon. But why make this exception? The slippery slope argument, if cogent, would undermine your exception just as much as the traditional, broader exceptions. Once we open the door to such killing, there's a danger of sliding down the slope to allowing all sorts of unjust killing. Why not say that killing a human is always wrong, period? And why stop even there? Why limit it to human life? After all, killing animals might make us more comfortable with killing human beings. Perhaps we should even refrain from killing cancer cells. It may seem easy to say that killing cancer acheives some "good" such as saving the life of a person, but once you start down the slippery slope of saying that killing is sometimes OK, it might lead you to disasterous consequences.

Clearly, to take the argument this far is to take it too far. Therefore the whole idea that life is somehow "sacred" should be thrown out. Once you start saying that it is somehow "wrong" to kill someone in order to achieve some good, you've started down a slippery slope that can only end in letting cancer patients die on the pretence that it's the "moral" thing to do. My tounge is in my cheek, of course. The point is that a slippery slope argument can be deployed by anyone in defense of any position. It doesn't distinguish the true position from all the false ones. All it tells you is that there is a spectrum.

Now, you are right to say that people often do go down slippery slopes. That's true. We do. In all sorts of directions. And it is something to be concerned about. But when you try to use that as an argument for one particular position, you've commited a fallacy. The fact that people sometimes go down slippery slopes doesn't tell us where, on the spectrum of views, we ought to take our stand.

There is an important difference between killing animals and killing humans. Similarly, there is an important difference between just and unjust killing of humans. You yourself admit that it is sometimes morally right to kill a human being. So the question is: when? A slippery slope argument cannot help us answer that question.