How To Save A Life   Leave a comment

Last Friday, news broadcasters around the world reported that authorities in the American state of Virginia had executed Teresa Lewis for conspiring to murder her husband and step-son.  Most media reports focused on the controversial issue of her mental capabilities, which had arisen in the last weeks of her life.  She was described as having learning difficulties and had a recorded IQ of 72 – only 2 points higher than that judged to be “mentally retarded”: people who are considered to be mentally retarded cannot be executed in the USA as it contravenes the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.

However, I believe the larger concern here should be a moral one: do we have the right to take someone’s life?  I want to cover all bases, so below I have outlined several different approaches to the death penalty.

From a religious perspective, it is relatively easy to pick out the belief in life as a sacred gift from God.  If only God has the power to create life, then only he/she/it should be able to take it away.  There are of course passages in some of the Holy Scriptures referring to some believers taking God’s wrath into their own hands, but today the overpowering message from the majority of religions is the promotion of love for your fellow man.  We could also take the idea of God’s omnipotent and omniscient nature further and point out that any person who commits the heinous crime of taking a life would receive their punishment from God in the afterlife.

Ethically speaking, I feel that we can take it down to the basics: two wrongs don’t make a right.  If somebody steals your car and you steal their van, the police aren’t going to ‘let you off’; but, beyond that, you have been brought down to their level because you have done something that damages your own moral values.  You would have gone against your own principles by resorting to petty playground “if you do that, I’m going to…” taunting; this sort of behaviour would leave the world in chaos and no honest, decent person would know where they stood anymore.

Punishments should be about justice not revenge.  If we (as a society) are able to treat all people with respect – as everyone deserves equal rights, no matter what they have done – then we can keep a clear conscience.  New techniques at crime-solving and new evidence can (and does) come to light years later.  Can you imagine the outcry if a person who had been executed was later found to have been innocent?

I am also inclined to argue that if someone is put to death for their crime, then whilst their punishment might appear to equal what they had done, in reality it is really the ‘easy way out’.  That person should have to deal with the consequences of what they have done, just as the family of the victim have to.  The criminal in question would have to adjust to life inside prison, the effect their crime has on their own family, and also they would have to live with the guilt from their own conscience: that should be torturous enough.  There is always the problem that there are some people in this world who seem to be able to live guilt-free, but I would hope that the treatment they receive from others who do understand the magnitude of the crime would have a sufficient impact on their life.

Lastly, what about democracy?  One of the definitions of democracy is “the practice or principles of social equality” (from The OED), and I sincerely believe that showing compassion is an important part of that.  In the case of the death penalty, the equality of society should mean that every person should be safe from this type of ‘retaliation punishment’.  We need to show that we believe that people have the ability to change, to mend their ways.  We shouldn’t be defined by our mistakes and learning from our past is not just an individual thing: societies should be learning from their pasts too.  The ability to move forward, whilst never forgetting what went wrong in the past, is key to building a successful future.  Democratic societies should be able to show that they can rise above the death penalty and give all people – even the very worst of mankind – the same human rights as everyone else.


Posted 27/09/2010 by thinkmindy in conscience, ethics, Morality

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