arguments about the death penalty

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Pro-Life, Pro-War, Pro-Death Penalty? Hypocrite! -Consistently valuing human life

The image to the right has been making its rounds on the internet, and it reflects an argument with which many who are pro-life and pro-death penalty will have to contend. The picture sums the argument up pretty well, but I will draw it out:

1) You are pro-life

2) You are pro-war [it is not stated what is meant by pro-war, exactly]

3) You are pro-death penalty

4) 1-3 conjoined are inconsistent

The simplest way to show this argument fails is to show that 1-3 are not inconsistent, which I shall now endeavor to do. What I mean to sketch here is a consistent ethic for valuing human life.

Pro-Life

Clearly, this piece of the argument is meant to be the one that is inconsistent. The proponent of the argument could say, “If you are really pro-life, then you should value life in every other sphere.” I agree, but the person who argues in this way is often pro-choice, and so it is relevant to at least link to my other arguments for the pro-life position. Interested readers should view my pro-life page for a number of my articles on the topic.

Pro-War

This is perhaps the most confusing of the labels. I think very few people are pro-war in an undefined sense. I think that perhaps those spreading this image mean the Iraq war, but that is a political issue rather than an issue about the value of life. Why is it a political issue? Because almost everyone (except staunch pacifists) would agree with the notion of a Just War. What is meant by that term is that there are some sets of circumstances which justify using military force in order to prevent their continuance.

For example, what I consider one of the most infamous cases is the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. During that genocide, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, yet the UN pulled out their presence. The U.S. did not intervene, and Europe did very little. In my opinion, this was a truly deplorable example of international complacency, which allowed hundreds of thousands of people to be murdered wholesale. Should we have intervened with military force in that genocide? I say absolutely. When there are circumstances wherein human beings are being systematically destroyed by a national power, it seems like Just War against that national power is justified.

If someone wants to disagree with me on that, that is fine, but I don’t see how this notion that we should intervene to prevent genocide and other atrocities somehow means that I am not valuing human life. I would challenge someone to show how this is inconsistent with the pro-life stance.

Of course, the point that some have made is that the image is somehow linked to the Iraq War. But then the issue is whether the Iraq war is a Just War or not. I’m not  going to start that debate, so I’ll just point out what I said above: if one is pro-life and for waging war in a just fashion, there is no inconsistency.

Pro-Death Penalty

In my opinion, this is actually more difficult to defend from a pro-life position than ‘pro-[Just]-war.’ Why? Well, we’ll get to that. First, let me make the positive case for the death penalty. As a Christian, I could just reference the Bible and point out that the government doesn’t carry the sword for nothing and that the notion of the death penalty for murder is pretty consistent throughout. But! I think it is important to show a more integral part of the case: being for the death penalty is part of valuing human persons.

How is that possible? Well, consider this: one reason the death penalty seems to me to be justified is that what is being said by it is that the human life is so valuable that if you willingly destroy someone else’s life, then your own life is forfeit.

I find this reasoning to be fairly solid and certainly consistent with a pro-life stance. On this view, life is so extremely valuable that the murder of a fellow human being means your own life must be forfeit.

Several objections could be lodged here.

1) One could object that this seems like a wholly retributive system. In response, I would say that may indeed be the case, but the current debate is not over what kind of penal system should be in place but rather on the consistency of a pro-life stance with other positions.

2) One could argue that the justice system is imperfect and therefore someone who is innocent may be executed. This is a much more powerful argument, in my opinion, and must be taken into consideration. Of course, any system of justice is going to be imperfect, and that imperfection alone does not justify jettisoning everything. Furthermore, one could argue that the extreme burden of proof in order to convict someone of murder when the penalty is death almost ensures that the innocent will not be proven guilty. More on (2) later.

3) One could argue that the death penalty does nothing to decrease violent crime. Again, this is a side issue and actually isn’t the justification for the death penalty I offered above.

It therefore seems to me that (2) is a powerful response to the death penalty argument from a pro-life perspective. If we should err on the side of caution whenever it comes to human life, then perhaps it is more consistent to be against the death penalty. However, it seems that the argument to justify the death penalty above does give a powerful reason to maintain the death penalty in light of the vanishingly improbable likelihood of someone innocent being killed. I rate this as about a 50/50, and think that one can be consistently pro-death penalty and pro-life. I leave it to the opposition to show me otherwise.

Conclusion

I have shown that one can be pro-life and pro-[just]-war. I have furthermore shown that one can be pro-life and pro-death penalty, with one minor caveat. Regardless of where one stands on the second argument against the death penalty offered above, it seems that one can remain consistent as pro-life and pro-death penalty if they hold that the value of human life trumps the argument.

I have therefore shown that 1-3 are indeed consistent and therefore 4 is false.

I think the biggest problem I have is that images like this do not do anything to contribute to the conversation. They are merely jabs at the other side. I think that the only way to have serious discussion is to avoid these types of “meme” images altogether. If your goal is to convince the other side, then engage in honest dialog. Do not post pictures to mock them. I say this to everyone.

SDG.

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