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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