The Weight of Morality: Analyzing the Death Penalty Debate

Image property of Troublemaker Studios/Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller.
(Troublemaker Studios/Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller.)

Convicted killer Clayton Lockett’s death sentence was carried out earlier this week and, due to a ruptured vein, it took more than thirty minutes before he expired. While left-leaning publications aim to titillate and disgust readers with gory depictions of Lockett clenching his teeth in pain and right-leaning publications posit that he who makes others suffer should suffer himself, we once again find our country embroiled in partisan bickering disguised as a moral argument. If you want to see a true moral discourse on the topic, you need look no further than Facebook.

When issues like this are taken to the floor in the national media, statistics of all kind are used as weapons. Precedents, anecdotal evidence, a slew of data and examples ranging from the topical to tangential are flung like pies. The truth of the matter is that this is all a thin veil for the moral issue at stake: either you believe, morally, that a just society has the authority (notice I didn’t say “right”) to take a life or you do not. Any other argument beyond that is superfluous drivel. While internet debates are usually the punchline of a joke, I was pleasantly surprised to see a clever, well thought-out, and highly emotional debate take place amongst my friends from all ends of the political spectrum. My beliefs notwithstanding, I think everyone is right.

As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time writing about all of the terrible things people do to one another, I ruminate on the topics of crime and punishment more frequently than is probably healthy. Not to be too high-minded, but the death penalty debate is an exercise in arguing the philosophy of morality and, more specifically, moral authority and moral equivalency. No one is “wrong” in this debate, because to call one side’s viewpoint incorrect would completely invalidate my argument that we, as people, do not have the moral authority to make the ultimate decision.

War is a different animal and the moral implications of killing during war is an entirely different topic. What I feel is too often left out of the debate regarding the death penalty is the aforementioned moral authority versus moral equivalency. The primary question that should always (and rarely does) enter the debate is: “By what authority do we, as human beings born of the same circumstances, exercise the right to determine that a person no longer has the right to live?” Who grants this authority? The courts, sadly, do not. The court systems is made of men and women, governed by the laws of men and women, and the courts are established to ensure justice is reached via due process.

Sentences are often determined by legal precedent, yet judges are expected to view each case exclusively, without bias, considering only the facts of that case. Does the magnitude of a crime have bearing on whether or not a person should be killed for their actions? Many would argue that yes, it does. A large number of people believe that certain crimes are so heinous that the only just recourse is death. But on what basis?

What may surprise readers (hopefully not) is that I too am a human being. I have very human reactions to things and when I learn about a man in Ohio who kidnapped and tortured three girls for years, my initial emotional response is that such a person should not walk the same earth as me. When I read about a child-murderer or a rapist, the conscious in me does want such people gone because it sickens me. Many people who argue against the death penalty would have you believe that violence should be met with compassion and I ardently disagree with that. Violence should be met with harsh, unwavering justice. Yet I stop short of saying “including death.”

Justice is a slippery term because it is very often confused with what is emotionally agreeable and satisfying to our instincts. It becomes a fancy way of saying “revenge” and a fancier way of saying “people should get what they deserve.” The subjective issue with this is, who can say, with an authority that is final, who deserves what, exactly? It becomes a slippery slope that often leads to “an eye-for-an-eye.” Frankly, that is not justice; it is moral equivalency. It is a draconian ideal that sets the precedent where self-interest is passed off as “the system,” much like the argument against the economic ramifications of housing prisoners for life.

Some might argue that life in prison is not “living,” that it’s cruel and unusual. Perhaps it is, but punishment should not be easily endured and some crimes are so severe that a criminal should be deprived of his freedom forever. The argument here is not to say that criminals should be met with compassion, it is simply that one man or one system of men does not hold dominion enough over another to declare his life forfeit.

We are not capable of fully understanding the magnitude of that choice.


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Matt Forster

Originally from Miami, FL, Matt graduated with a B.A. in History from Randolph-Macon College in 2004. He is the author of Perfect Dark, a musician, and an all-around strange person. He resides in Asheville, NC with his wife and two dogs. Follow him @Dalton_Forster

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