QUESTION 3:  Present and explain three objections to the death penalty that professor Pojman addresses.  How does Pojman respond to these objections?  Do you think he succeeds?  Explain and defend your answer.

Pojman’s Three Responses to Death Penalty Objections

In “The Case for Capital Punishment,” Pojman sets out to provide a brief argument in favor of Capital Punishment as morally permissible. Building upon Kantian grounds of the importance of an equal penalty for a crime, Pojman accepts the primary position that the availability of such punishment is necessary as a conclusion for the “argument of justice.” He proceeds to make this case by expanding on two important premises. The first is that an individual concedes their right to life upon maliciously robbing an innocent person of theirs. Given our society treats persons as autonomous and free agents, one must bear the responsibility of their actions, and the option of an equal punishment for an equal crime roots the responsibility of government and our nature as citizenry. For the reason that the government’s interest and goal is in establishing justice and protecting the dignity of innocent life, Pojman favors the option of capital punishment. However, his second major expansion involves his moderate stance, whereas he rejects the denial of judicial grace in certain circumstances. After building on these two premises, Pojman turns to three usual objections to the moral permissibility of capital punishment.

I. Three Objections to the Death Penalty

1. Objection 1: Thirst for Revenge

First among the objections is the claim that capital punishment promotes a thirst for revenge. Vengefulness is hardly a public virtue, and it is thus argued that acts promoting such an attitude should be restrained. This view is furthered by biblical citations throughout scripture that numerously denounce the vice of vengefulness. In addition, proponents of this view may usually quote the Sermon on the Mount, or some similar passage, to support the view that mercy and peacemaking are to be preferred.

2. Objection 2: Human Fallibility and Innocent Persons

The second objection brought against capital punishment is that of occurrences where innocent people were placed and executed on death row. With such evidence available, it is argued “the death penalty is to be rejected because of human fallibility in convicting innocent parties and sentencing them to death,” (368). There is no level of compensation that can be given to the person erred against, for no action of the state can undue the execution of innocent life. As such, individuals like John Maxton of the British Parliament suggest that this is perhaps worse than committing murder.[1]

3. Objection 3: Human Dignity

The third objection brought against capital punishment is that it “constitutes a denial of the wrongdoer’s essential dignity as a human being,” (369). This is usually built upon by biblical citation arguing for the imago dei and humanity’s uniqueness. In addition, proponents of this objection argue that if we are to treat people as moral agents with an aim of reflective responses over their errors, “death terminates the possibility of moral reform,” (369). For this reason, individuals such as Margaret Falls argue that the execution of criminals makes impossible the opportunity to reflect and repent, thus making capital punishment morally impermissible.

II. Pojman’s Three Responses

1. Response 1: Retributivism vs. Revenge

Pojman first responds to the objection that capital punishment promotes revenge by acknowledging a real difference between revenge and retribution. Revenge may be defined as “a personal response to someone for an injury,” whereas retribution is “an impartial and impersonal response to an offender for an offense done against someone,” (368). In addition, regardless of the degree of desired punishment someone may wish against another, this does not take away from the fact that one who criminally harms another deserves to be punished (368). We may desire not to have individuals seek vengeance against our children, but that does not mean we don’t believe our children deserve to be punished if they commit a crime. In addition to the retribution vs. revenge and deserves vs. desire dynamic, Pojman also argues that lex talionis is hardly an element promoting revenge, and instead should be seen as a progressive rule. In desiring a degree of punishment equal to the crime (in this case life for life), the penalty to the offender remains proportional to the inflicted harm, preventing someone from demanding a life for an eye.

2. Response 2: Murder vs. Wrongful Capital Punishment

In responding to the incident of innocents being victims of capital punishment, Pojman stands firm in rejecting the claim that it could possibly be any worse than murder, for the intention of capital punishment is not to execute innocents, whereas the intention of murder is. In addition to an intent that never desires to execute innocents, it cannot be said that the occurrence there-of provides a significant enough reason to reject the just and useful functions of execution. Surely, it is a tragedy, and for that an appeals process with the aim of preventing such occurrences must be available. To argue that capital punishment should be abolished on the grounds that it is imperfect seems quite unreasonable. Imagine if the same approach were taken to every law in existence. Surely there are innocent individuals facing extensive sentences in prison for crimes they did not commit. We would not argue that incarceration should then be nullified because it is imperfectly practiced.

3. Response 3: The Wrongdoer vs. Human Dignity

A third and final response Pojman offers to opponents of capital punishment is that it actually recognizes human dignity. Pojman argues “the use of capital punishment respects the worth of the victim in calling for an equal punishment to be exacted from the offender,” (369). To recognize individuals are free and responsible agents means we must commend behavior when it’s good, and punish behavior when it’s bad. Individuals must remain as autonomous free agents in order to contain such a measure of human dignity, for to treat them as not “responsible for his crime is to treat him as less than autonomous,” (369). In addition, Pojman offers two responses to Meg Fall’s objection that capital punishment prevents reflective response. First, Pojman claims this is false, as we do not immediately execute murderers upon judgment and they are indeed given time in which to reflect and repent. Second, we must recognize that some criminals, such as a serial murderer or a repeat rapist, may be incurable. Evidence already stands regarding the lack of success among rehabilitation programs. In addition to this, the heinousness of the deed still remains, and one is left asking whether the dignity of the innocent life executed is being recognized in the government’s attempt to enact justice.

III. Agreement & Biblical Contributions

It is the opinion of this essay that Pojman succeeds in responding to opponents’ objections to capital punishment. Fundamental to this discussion is a philosophy of government and its role. If one assumes that the government exists to punish vice and promote virtue, then Pojman’s responses carry greater weight. However, if one believes the government’s role is to provide services that install virtue directly into its citizenry, then a discussion of the necessity of carrying out justice for justice’s sake seems incomplete and lacking (focus would then be on rehabilitation). Although in agreement with Pojman’s position that no equal punishment can be given to a criminal who has committed first-degree murder, I would supplement the argument with evidence from scripture. Many opponents argue that executing the murderer is compounding evil with evil, however this assumes that the killing of life is evil in-and-of itself. Due to the existence of this presupposition, we will address a biblical observation on the role of government, and Scripture’s sanctioning of execution as within the morally permissible domain of government.

Jesus never calls for a radical anarchy or government take-over. The realities of His time were that Christians were in the minority (and would be for some time). Scripture does not reject government, but acknowledges its necessity. “4For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Rom 13:1-7). Here we see Paul explaining government. It contains within it the ability to punish (it “bears the sword” for some function, and provides “wrath” to wrongdoers). Scripture affirms (1) the existence and necessity of government, given the sinful nature of wrongdoers in the world, and (2) Its ability to provide order and control wrongdoers using force unto death (“sword”).

IV. Conclusion

As Christians, we must understand that a Christian’s walk with God is not equivalent to the functions of Government (Rom 13:1-7, and Matt 22:21). We can personally love our enemies, shower them with the ‘burning coals’ of compassion, yet still maintain order and justice on a societal/governmental level (Rom 12:20). Otherwise we would find a blatant contradiction in Romans 13. In reality, maintaining order allows us to love our enemies! They are separate but complimentary; personal issues of behavior, and overriding structural issues. Our Christian ethic can supplement governing, but there is a divide between the responsibilities of the church (charity, forgiveness, love), and the necessities of our government (law and order). It is still possible to Walk with God, care for the orphans, and provide for the widows, all within a setting of government that makes such punishment opportunities and existence possible (Romans 13).

In conclusion, we would be right to observe that Romans 13 provides a glimpse into the sanctioning of execution as a tool available to government to promote justice. Although we may prefer not to see it utilized, it remains that Scripture appears to allude to its moral permissibility. This evidence fits with Pojman’s counter arguments by placing the emphasis on government’s responsibility to promote justice by providing “wrath” to wrongdoers through its power of the “sword.”

[1] “If we allow one innocent person to be executed, morally we are committing the same, or, in some ways, a worse crime than the person who committed the murder.” (John Maxton, British Parliament, 368).


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