Moral Disengagement and the Death Penalty

Moral Disengagement and the Death Penalty October 29, 2014

One of the overlooked aspects of the death penalty is what it does to those who inflict it.  Combox executioners, who so easily thirst for the blood of others and whose overriding question is “When do we *get* to kill?” are, like warmongering chickenhawks and torture defenders, never the people who have to do the dirty work.  That’s for little people to do.  The Combox Death Eaters are the Big Picture Thinkers, the geniuses who are smarter than the Magisterium and who leave others to suffer the damages they rationalize.

But, in fact, killing people does something to the killer.  The killer has to break something in himself to find a way to morally disengage from the fact that he is taking a human life.  And very similar breakage goes on whether the killer is an abortionist, a soldier, an executioner, or somebody administering euthanasia.  Sometimes the killer may learn to *like* the damage killing does to himself (one thinks of a monster like Jack Kevorkian).  Most times, the killing creates a kind of interior void where the victim has to be turned into something other than a person in order to kill–a “blob”, “the enemy”, “a life unworthy of being lived”, “a criminal”.  But that distance is always a move in the opposite direction from the gospel which insists that  the person about to be killed is the image and likeness of God and one for whom Christ died.

This, ultimately is what governs the Church’s teaching, not only about the death penalty, but about all questions of life and death.  It’s why the Church’s approach, even with guilty human life, is always “How can we preserve human life, even guilty human life, unless it is absolutely necessary to harm or kill?”  I call this the “preferential option for life”.  And it’s why all reactionary dissent on war, torture, gun rights, and the death penalty is fundamentally tin-eared to that question since it, just as much as pro-abortion reasoning, always begins, not with “When might we tragically have to kill?” but with the question “When do we get kill?”. Reactionary dissent, like progressive dissent on abortion, spends its energies eagerly searching for a rationale to slake its thirst for human blood.  It, like proabortion reasoning, lacks the fundamental reluctance to kill a sought-after victim that marks Catholic thinking on all life issues.  And it gives no consideration at all to the effects on the people tasked with the job of doing the killing.

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  • Dave G.

    When I read arguments like this, I’m reminded there are other dangers to the Gospel beyond those we might imagine are obvious.

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      When I read comments like this I am reminded why I like plain, forthright speech.

      • Dave G.

        Read the post again. It should be obvious.

  • Irksome1

    What of these people? What does become of an executioner? Have there been any studies conducted? I’m not asking to be obtuse, I’d really like to bring some data to the discussion.

    • curious

      Soon we can just have robots do the execution, wouldn’t that be lovely

      • Irksome1

        Ah, a fan of James Cameron, I see.

      • chezami

        Someone has to operate the robots.

        • curious

          Just keeping adding layers and distance, much like how drone strikes handled today out of a bunker in Nevada. A little joystick action, push a button, and then drink some soda, onto the next mission…

  • Matthew

    Fantastic piece, Mark.

  • LorenzoCanuck

    Even though I support some form of death penalty (i.e. I only think it should be for serial murder or high treason), I don’t really object to Mark’s opposition because the Death Penalty Culture in the USA is sick and needs to be shaken up. So thanks for speaking up about this.

  • JM1001

    But, in fact, killing people does something to the killer. The killer has to break something in himself to find a way to morally disengage from the fact that he is taking a human life. And very similar breakage goes on whether the killer is an abortionist, a soldier, an executioner, or somebody administering euthanasia.

    Church teaching has upheld that there is a crucial moral difference between abortion and euthanasia on the one hand, and war and capital punishment on the other.

    The latter are at least, in principle, morally permissible under certain conditions; while the former are intrinsically evil, and therefore always wrong in all circumstances.

    But over the years I’ve often thought about what you’ve written above, and it makes me wonder whether the moral difference really amounts to much in practice. For example, I frequently wonder whether there can even be such a thing as a “just war” (especially in the modern age) given the very nature of war itself.

    Likewise, the death penalty may be “just” under certain conditions that fulfill the requirements of retribution, defense of society, deterrence, and rehabilitation. But given what killing does to the killer (as you say), and given the nature of capital punishment itself, like “just war,” can such a thing actually be just in practice, not only in principle?

    • Dave G.

      I think we’re heading that direction. I think Pope Francis is pushing even further, which is exciting if not a bit scary. For one of the points of Just War or Capital Punishment was that we live in a fallen world. We have to allow the bad in order to protect the good. As the Church has moved from that, to a much higher plane, there is still one residue of that ‘fallen world’ approach, and that is the post-Acts 2 concession that in this world, some will have billions and be good Catholics, and some will die starving in the mud and be dead Catholics.

      It’s one thing to say ‘be done with war and executions, and if the innocent be to die, then so be it, fallen world you know.’ while then maintaining that little ‘sorry I have a big screen TV while my brothers and sisters die in the mud around the world – fallen world you know.’ Sort of ‘by the degree to which I’m willing to let others die for my faith have I declared my righteousness.’

      But I see Pope Francis starting to rip that down as well. He’s starting to really push for a radical break with the past approach. And that’s a challenge. I think it’s entirely doable. But it goes beyond just saying ‘end war or the death penalty’, the results of which may never impact me anyway. It’s the same that calls for a radical break with the former approach to the Faith in a fallen world, up to and including rethinking the old ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor.’ Something about this is both frightening and exciting. At least to me.

  • Thank you for this, Mark. It is perfectly true that not all killing is guilty killing – not even all intentional killing. Nonetheless, even the person in front of whose car a child dashes and is killed is overwhelmed – must – surely! – be filled with feelings of guilt, even though he knows he has no actual personal guilt.

    A greater level of such feeling must be there for the person who kills in self-defence, or in warfare.

    And to be a hired state killer – to, without the emotional aid of the wrath that arises in the soul in, say, a fight, calmly pull the switch, open the trap, or insert the needle … the worst thing would be if it did not horrify you.

    New Zealand’s last hanging was in 1957. Capital punishment was abolished in 1961 for murder; in 1989 for all crimes, including treason. I have deep empathy for the survivors of some of the horrible murders that have happened, both before and since that date; I cannot bring myself to be sorry that capital punishment has been abolished here.


  • I think this must be behind why God told David that David could not build God’s temple because David was a bloody man. It wasn’t a condemnation of David, perhaps, but a way of saying that something in David made it impossible for him really to be the right person for it.

    Of course Solomon was fairly busy as well … 🙂