On Death Penalty Debates

Zoinks, we’ve had a ton of pieces on ‘polyamory/open marriage’ lately, with Damon Linker’s Week piece summing up the lot of them. I am reminded here of Stanley Hauerwas’ prescient rebuttal of the notion of ‘open marriage’, a kind of side note in his 1978 essay ‘Sex in Public.’ In true Hauerwasian fashion, he takes a virtue ethical approach, and wonders what sort of story the ‘open marriage’ ethic tells us about ourselves, and in so doing ,what sort of people it shapes us to be. Hauerwas cites a book by a couple in an ‘open marriage’, the O’Neills, writing:

“…the O’Neills do provide a word of caution: they suggest that to have an extramarital affair without first ‘developing yourself to the point where you are ready, and your mate is ready, for such a step could be detrimental to the possibility of developing a true open marriage.’ I have thought a lot about this very interesting suggestion, namely that we develop ourselves to be ready to engage in an extramarital affair. What could that possibly mean? Would it mean that we each ate and then come home and compare notes on our experience and see how it makes the other feel? And what would be the object of such a project? Surely it is nothing less than for us to learn to devalue sexual expression between ourselves in order to justify it with other people.”

I find Hauerwas’ supposition of what the O’Neills’ ‘development’ could look like fascinating on two counts: firstly, he imagines that particular strands of discourse can be immensely powerful as tools of ethical formation; secondly, he imagines a kind of habituation to vice as the role discourse could play in that shaping. In this case that means that by discussing infidelity — the oft praised ‘communication’ proposed as a central element of situations like these — couples can grow desensitized to the pain and shame of infidelity, and can therefore come to trivialize sex altogether. This means they  can then proceed without much sentiment toward whatever they were planning on doing anyhow. It’s a kind of moral de-evolution.

But that’s probably all pretty clear anyhow, though I think it does place an interesting twist on the often obsessive fixation on ‘honesty’ and ‘communication’ in circumstances like these. Still the really interesting application in my view concerned another contemporary debate we’ve been having, that is, the debate over the death penalty. It seems we have had in recent memory a few major issues with the death penalty relating to botched executions that came out torturous:

Those three executions in recent months have renewed the debate over lethal injection. In Arizona, the inmate gasped more than 600 times and took nearly two hours to die. In April, an Oklahoma inmate died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after his execution began. And in January, an Ohio inmate snorted and gasped for 26 minutes before dying. Most lethal injections take effect in a fraction of that time, often within 10 or 15 minutes.

Naturally when things like this happen, the question of whether or not we should be up to the business of executing people arises, and with good reason. In the ‘we should not be executing people’ corner, the narrative is straightforward, so much so that I probably do not need to reiterate it here. But in the ‘we should be executing people’ corner, the narrative is a little more interesting. Consider Erick Erickson:

“One person who will not weigh in on the merits of Clayton Lockett’s execution is Stephanie Neiman. Clayton Lockett tried to rob a house Miss Neiman was at. She tried to fight him off. He and his accomplices overwhelmed her. They beat her, bound her with duct tape, taped her mouth shut, shot her, then buried her alive.  Many of those outraged at how Mr. Lockett’s execution played out will, hopefully, pause to reflect on exactly why the state chose to execute him.”

And this Red State fellow:

“Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing that has made me pro-life, but more likely it is a sober understanding and some basic research that has led me to this position in life.  And I have morally resolved that Catholic conundrum regarding the sanctity of all life.  Not all life is sacrosanct.  You rape and kill a 12-year-old, you lose that protection of sanctity.  But one thing I am sure of is that an unborn child is innocent, precious and more than worthy of protection.”

And Andrew McCarthy:

“I agree with Eli Leher that it would be wise, after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma (see Jonah’s post, here), to rethink lethal injection as a method of carrying out capital punishment. But the assertion that “these errors cross the line into torture” is nonsense. It is not possible to torture someone in error. As I pointed out earlier this week, to constitute the singular evil of torture, severe pain and suffering must not only be inflicted but inflicted intentionally and maliciously. Yes, a civilized society does not engage in torture, but what makes torture uncivilized is the sadistic intention to subject a person to extreme physical or mental anguish. Without that, there is no torture.”

It isn’t any mistake that the three rationalizations all have something more in common than trying to justify the death penalty; they are also concerned with trying to draw distinctions between executions, even tortuously painful ones, and forms of killing the authors do not want to encourage. Therefore the first distinguishes between the killing the killer committed and the subsequent killer of that killer; the second one tries to distinguish between the killing of the unborn and the killing of killers; the last tries to distinguish between the torture of the intentionally tortured and the torture of the unintentionally tortured.

I sense these authors felt the need to move in the direction of distinguishing between good-killing and bad-killing because, like Hauerwas’ married couple moving toward infidelity, every time we enter into national conversations aimed at rationalizing and justifying executions in America, we’re going through the motions of habituating ourselves to killing. We are naturally upset by hearing of painful deaths that just didn’t have to happen; therefore our national discussions meant to secure the continuation of the death penalty must numb us somehow (through rationalization or other means) to those humane impulses. But, like Hauerwas’ couple, it seems our habituation to killing has the potential to numb revulsion to the taking of human life in general. At least, the practice of openly rationalizing and justifying the killing of people in especially painful ways seems ripe to shape us in such a way that we are less disgusted by killing overall. Is this who we want to be?

It isn’t who I want to be. And it reminds me of the eighth thesis Avery Cardinal Dulles cites in this excellent First Things piece on the death penalty:

“8) The sentence of death may be improper if it has serious negative effects on society, such as miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life.”

That repeated, public experiments in intellectualizing and explaining away our humane impulses in the face of killing could eventually guide us toward an overall numbness to killing at large seems pretty clear in the defenses themselves; it’s certainly something they appear to be concerned with, anyhow. And I agree that it’s a serious concern. But since these exposures will continue so long as we have the death penalty, I would rather argue that instead of relying on various distinction-drawing measures (which may themselves be dangerous lessons in self-justification) to shore up the practice, we should likely just phase it out. It’s only in the context of de-normalizing killing that we have a shot at shaping ourselves into the sort of people who tend toward a culture of life, by these Hauerwasian lights.