This article features in our crime special issue – Bournbrook Behind Bars. For your copy, subscribe here.

The death penalty, or capital punishment, is an issue with powerful gravity. Of that, no supporter or detractor of the death penalty alike can deny. Any supporter of the death penalty – or more accurately, one who does not ‘support’ it but sees it as necessary for a justice system to truly be just – who has not considered its true gravity, needs to do so before wholly committing to the debate.

It seems that this is at the heart of the moral conflict regarding the death penalty; it’s gravity. On the one hand, those who vehemently oppose the death penalty are filled with horror at the idea, and as such see it as something inhuman, devoid of compassion and something contrary to how we should treat our fellow man, regardless of his actions.

For myself and perhaps for you, as someone who does not in the end agree with the argument, I can strongly empathise with it. Indeed, for all of us, death produces that natural repulsion to the conscience, hence why we do well not to think about it, for if we paid it enough attention it would drive us to the point of insanity.

And yet, knowing this, there are those of us who support it, and it seems pertinent that we should defend why. The answer to the question also has to do with gravity.

The more callous and least empathetic of the death penalty’s opponents might see the impact of death, and their horrified reaction to it, as the instrumental reason to oppose capital punishment. Yet, for those who of us who are lead to support it, the thought that one might be compelled to die for the sake of his unjust action is central to understanding the force of the death penalty, and perhaps even its horror.

Its very gravity is precisely the thing that makes the death penalty necessary. Let us put it this way. Imagine if someone has betrayed us, or acted towards us in one of the worst possible ways, so much so that our automatic response is a fit of rage of such force that the only appropriate response to us in that moment is to kill the person who wronged us. Would we follow through with our impulse if, in our conscience, we knew we could die for our actions?

There is the rub; the death penalty when understood is not merely an instrument for the death of the wrongdoer, but the strongest motivator to do right and avoid evil.

It is probably an odd concept to consider that this country once had the death penalty and maintained it for many years, considering the way it is treated in elite and media circles today. One thinks, for instance, of the media coverage of Priti Patel’s once stated belief that she was in favour of capital punishment.

Capital punishment’s decline, in a way one might not have considered, has to partly be due to the fall of an actively Christian Britain. For if it is rejected that one must face an eternal justice beyond this life for what we have done on this mortal coil, then death can never be a part of justice but only a punishment. The reward given to each man according to that which he has done is replaced by the reward of emptiness and nothingness.

Under those circumstances, the death penalty seems to be a concept devoid of any justice, and certainly something we could not fathom facing ourselves, and I would be tempted to argue for the opposite position if such a reality were true.

More than that, though, the abandonment of Christian belief and the embracement of a Godless alternative means ultimately that anyone concerned with justice looks at this world and this world alone to reach a system that can in any way be called ‘justice’.

And where has this approach lead us? Quite simply, it has lead us to complete disorder and lawlessness. For with no eternal justice to turn for answers, we have been led to look inside human nature for a false and unjust alternative. Instead of having responsibility for one’s actions at its heart, and thus a need to punish those who choose to do evil, we instead have a justice system of excuses and determinism (that somehow criminals’ circumstances outside of themselves are the cause of their wrongdoing). The usual causes given being poverty, lack of education, and their relationships around them, for example.

If our crimes have causes that are not our consciences, then the death penalty seems completely out of the question. Why should one deserve death for something for which he is not responsible? The key, therefore, to the issue of the death penalty, then, is that the debate is about something much more than whether taking one’s life for certain actions is an appropriate response. It is about more than whether the incredible gravity of such a punishment is something that supports its role in the justice system or means we should flee from it. It inevitably, therefore, asks a question about our justice system. It is about whether we should hold personal responsibility in the highest regard in relation to justice, as we used to and did successfully for centuries.

If we recognise that conservative dispositions lead us to answer in favour of personal responsibility and morality outside of human nature, then the conservative, in truth, even when fully acknowledging the death penalty’s gravity, must come to accept it as a necessary part of a true justice system.


Photo by Alan Levine on Flickr.