Human dignity and CP

Arguments against capital punishment (CP) need to be careful to still allow that even the existence of an individual can be wholly subordinated to the good of the state, since to rule this out makes heroism, soldiering and patriotic self-sacrifice immoral. The challenge isn’t a straw man: it’s just this sort of existential subordination that STA appeals to in his defense of CP.

One tempting easy distinction between heroism and CP is that the former is a voluntary self-giving while the latter isn’t, but the distinction is either accidental or false. The condemned might want to die for all sorts of reasons, and perhaps even out of justice. But Plato gives the better answer in Gorgias: what is voluntary isn’t decided by asking for a self-report from the one who choosing or suffering something in the moment but by the looking at the good of the one willing. Tyrants don’t do what they want any more than thirsty people who drink water that happens to be contaminated, or any more than Newton wanted a system that would fall with later developments. In the same way, figuring out whether the condemned man wants to be executed requires first figuring out whether it’s just. Asking his opinion on the matter only provides us information of the extent to which he knows what he wants.

The other tempting distinction between heroism and CP is that the first does not involve the state in deliberate killing. This distinction seems to miss the fact of existential subordination, since the whole point of describing something in this way is to carve out a sense in which existence can be justly terminated. If (as most people think) plant life is existentially subordinated to animal life there has to be some way in which animals can, in justice, deliberately terminate plant life; if persons are lower than God then there must be some way in which God can justly end their lives.

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5 Comments

  1. John B. said,

    July 26, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    From the OP:

    “The other tempting distinction between heroism and CP is that the first does not involve the state in deliberate killing. This distinction seems to miss the fact of existential subordination, since the whole point of describing something in this way is to carve out a sense in which existence can be justly terminated. If (as most people think) plant life is existentially subordinated to animal life there has to be some way in which animals can, in justice, deliberately terminate plant life; if persons are lower than God then there must be some way in which God can justly end their lives.”

    So you argue that a certain kind of existential subordination of the individual to the state entails by itself that, at least under some circumstances, the state can directly and deliberately kill an individual. Be that as it may, it’s much less clear that the existential subordination of the individual to the state is necessary to rescue heroism from being immoral. For example, it is not immoral for a person to sacrifice his life to save the life of a stranger (or friend or relative). What kind of “existential subordination” is at play there?

    Moreover,we all agree that there are circumstances in which heroic self-sacrifice is OK but deliberate killing is not. The state is not justified in deliberately killing its own innocent citizens as a means to the flourishing of the state (innocence–that’s not something that generally comes up when I decide whether to keep a trout or throw it back), but those same citizens may be justified in heroically offering their lives for the preservation of the state. Also, if the stranger (or friend or relative) from the paragraph above had deliberately killed the would-be hero to save his own life, that would be immoral.

    • July 27, 2017 at 12:21 am

      So you argue that a certain kind of existential subordination of the individual to the state entails by itself that, at least under some circumstances, the state can directly and deliberately kill an individual.

      Not quite. I argue that if there is an ES of P, some deliberate killing of P’s is moral. This is clear from the terms.

      For example, it is not immoral for a person to sacrifice his life to save the life of a stranger (or friend or relative). What kind of “existential subordination” is at play there?

      Maybe none. Are you objecting because my point doesn’t apply to every possible case of heroism? I’d would have just admitted it doesn’t do that.

      Moreover,we all agree that there are circumstances in which heroic self-sacrifice is OK but deliberate killing is not.

      Sure. Some killing is wrong.

      • John B. said,

        July 27, 2017 at 3:19 pm

        “Are you objecting because my point doesn’t apply to every possible case of heroism?”

        More or less. Since this existential subordination is not in general necessary to justify heroism, it’s not immediately clear why it’s necessary to justify heroism on behalf of one’s country.

        Your argument seems to hinge on the idea that if we rule out direct killing of P by Q then we are very close to ruling out self-sacrifice of P for Q, at least in the case of the individual and the state.

        The example of strangers is one where P may sacrifice itself for Q but but Q may not directly kill P, which means that this purported relationship between direct killing and self-sacrifice cannot be a general one.

        A better example might be a family: a member of a family may heroically sacrifice himself for the good of the family, but the family, or the head of the family, may not directly kill one of its members.

        What needs to be fleshed out is what it is about the relationship between the individual and the state that enables us to draw such a connection between the permissibility of self-sacrifice and of direct killing, when we cannot do so in other cases.

      • July 27, 2017 at 6:37 pm

        Since this existential subordination is not in general necessary to justify heroism, it’s not immediately clear why it’s necessary to justify heroism on behalf of one’s country.

        Because I’m not concluding anything from a general theory of heroism but precisely from that limited case. A general theory would, for starters, have to include both supererogatory acts and acts of duty when I’m simply interested in acts of duty. Soldiers don’t die for cities as though it were outside duty, nor do martyrs die this way for God when the choice is renouncing the faith. What I’m calling ES is a way the lives of lower are in the hands of the higher, as they are parts existing for the sake of the whole. This does not authorize every whole to do anything to any part, but to claim this sort of relation while entirely ruling out a way in which the life of the lower can be dispensed with by the higher is simply to deny the sort of subordination in question. You can have a legitimate dispute over who gets to exercise the power over life and to what extent it can be exercised, which is the significance of the problem you are raising here:

        a member of a family may heroically sacrifice himself for the good of the family, but the family, or the head of the family, may not directly kill one of its members.

        Look, I get the force of your argument: family member: family:: citizen : state, and since the former can’t kill the latter can’t either. But the argument I’m giving is a reason to take the analogy as false, since my claim is that your attempt to generalize from what is true about families confuses the question of who in the polity has power over life (which will include when it can be exercised) with whether there is such a power. Heads of families, private citizens, NGO’s etc. don’t have this power, and it is nevertheless true that one can sacrifice himself for any of these wholes.

        If you’re arguing that the direct killing involved in ES can only be exercised by a higher type or species on a lower species (animals on plants, higher animals on insects, God on man) then I’d want to hear the argument for it. But to my mind this simply does away with part-whole subordination of existence, which, as I’m going to keep saying, rules out the reasonableness of having certain persons bound by duty to die for others.

  2. John B. said,

    July 31, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    I’m not arguing that CP is immoral. I’m only arguing that the relationship between the permissibilty of CP and the permissibility of patriotic heroism is not so straightforward.


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