Fair vs Equal: Punishing and Protecting in a Values-Consistent Manner

Earlier this month the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, called upon all states to “take concrete steps towards abolishing or no longer practicing this form of punishment.” By “this form of punishment,” Ban Ki-moon was referring to the death penalty. He went on to call the practice “cruel and inhumane” and I could not help but nod my head in agreement.

I have asked myself many times: should laws be based in equality or fairness? After all, equality and fairness are considerably different.

Equality is making everyone use the stairs.
Equality is giving everyone the same size meal.
Equality is an eye for an eye.

Fairness is including ramps for the disabled.
Fairness is proportioning a different size meal for a child, compared to an adult.
Fairness is not blind retribution, not an eye for an eye, not taking matters into one’s own hands.

Fairness is doing right to make good by the wrongs.

I’m not the first to make this distinction:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).

This passage from Matthew does not justify retributive equality; instead, the passage limits retribution, going so far as to replace vengeance with love.

Christians are not called to treat others equally, but in fairness, compassion, and love.

The death penalty may be equal in its ability to exact brutal retribution for crimes, but the death penalty is certainly not fair. The death penalty as a punishment does much more for those living than it can possibly do for the deceased or for the future potential victims. To some, the death penalty “feels good” because it evokes our strong primal urges to seek revenge.

Though we may be primates, we are certainly not bound to these primal compulsions. We have the ability to think rationally, to go above the raw emotions, to look at the logic and the resulting harms of the death penalty. We don’t have to seek revenge and we should not seek revenge.

Our faith communities and our legal systems are not systematic processes of vengeance—our faith communities help us reach our Creator while we learn to love one another; our legal system helps us protect the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of American citizens.

Our conduct must coincide with our character: when the punishments we install put us further away from our goals, values, and beliefs it’s time to reexamine our penalties.

No one believes heinous crimes should go unpunished. But to quote the US Council of Catholic Bishops’ document  “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death” : “When Cain killed Abel, God did not end Cain’s life. Instead, he sent Cain into exile, not only sparing his life but protecting it by putting ‘a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight’ (Gn 4:15).”

Perhaps if the death penalty worked to deter or reduce crime we would be having a different discussion, but the truth is that the death penalty doesn’t even further those ends.

“The antidote to violence is love, not more violence” –Living the Gospel of Life

I don’t advocate freeing all of our inmates or giving a “break” to serial rapists and murderers. However, I do recognize the importance of looking past the sensationalism, and looking at the bigger picture. What is the role of our communities of faith? What is the role of our government? Is the role to foster growth, development, love, and faith? Is the role to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Or, is the role to throw out our calls, our logic, and our research? Should we act upon our emotions and seek revenge—eye for an eye—making sure equality trumps fairness each time?

There are ways to punish and protect that are fair and consistent with our values and further our goals—utilizing the death penalty is not one of those ways.

 

Lindsey Bergholz is an intern for Eleison Group, a consulting firm that seeks “to align what is right with what works politically and economically.” She is a graduate of the University of Miami, a law student at George Washington, and a bookworm who occasionally takes a break from geeking-out to volunteer with animals.


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