Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another Argument Against the Death Penalty

In a recent pronouncement of The American Board of Anesthesiology, Inc., this organization has finally spoken against the use of their profession in a way that defies or ignores the Hippocratic Oath of preserving human life.

According to this document: "The majority of states in the United States authorize capital punishment, and nearly all states utilize lethal injection as the means of execution. However, this method of execution is not always straightforward (1), and, therefore, some states have sought the assistance of anesthesiologists (2). This puts anesthesiologists in an untenable position. They can assuredly provide effective anesthesia, but doing so in order to cause a patient’s death is a violation of their fundamental duty as physicians to do no harm."

Yes it IS! And to those that argue the rightfulness of the death penalty not-withstanding, this is the accurate and ethical reading of the Hippocratic oath. Yes it means that medical people should not participate in the death penalty, and yes it means that those involved in the medical professions should never consider dealing death as a part of their calling. While I strongly disagree with those that argue that it is the right of the state to take life, I also strongly disagree with those that would take life and couch it in terms that it is somehow "painless" or "humane." The problem is deeper than that. The argument that it is a reflection of biblical texts makes the issue a method in ethics in the christian west. That is, by the way, what we are.

We here in Texas have always enjoyed the strength of law and somehow pretend that the old Calvinist attitudes of the Anglo settlers here must prevail in the arguments of law and ethics. I am here to tell you that the old Spanish laws of anti-slavery could have prevailed in the old Texas, and the modern Catholic understanding of capital punishment deserve an audience. The old Spanish laws of preserving the right of women to own property were outside the common law of the United States and were a unique milestone in the US until much later. The modern view that the right of the state to take a human life is a throwback to an earlier and violent age when that was the only reserve of a state that had little alternative compared with the numbers of crimes committed in that day and age. We no longer live in that day or age and other considerations have to come to the forefront.

The death penalty has not proved to be a preventative measure to violent crimes, but it does provide the state with a lot of ethical problems. It appears that the best measure against violent crime is to have an armed and educated people that are trained to use their firearms and the willingness to only use them in times of severe distress. The result is what Robert Heinlein offered back in the 60's, in that an armed society tends to be a polite society. When the State is armed with this measure of taking human life, something else seems to happen. It happens this way because ethics is not a normal measure of the strength of a bureaucracy, but rather the small letter attitudes of what a bureaucracy does.

It happens the same way with the total and unrelenting stupidity of the so-called "Zero Tolerance" laws that have infected this great nation. What is more stupid than a zero tolerance law? It means that literally our judicial system is not able to cope, and when there are things that occur that NO PERSON could have possibly predicted, then what we have to do is abandon good sense. How can we say that a kid that had his hunting rifle in his truck when he went to school is in any way related to the wack-job that killed their parents before bringing their firearms to school and then opened fire?

I will tell you how. It happens when we, as parents and uncles and guardians and mothers, decide to abandon our own good sense and our own willingness to participate in society and leave it to the government to make these decisions on our own behalf. In other words, we decide that we cannot deal with these people but need to have someone else make these decisions.

The death penalty is the same abrogation of our right as a society to think. If we actually kept a murderer behind bars until he/she could clear their name, then we do not have to take on the abrogation of human life by killing them. It does not mean set them free until that happens, but rather that a life sentence have actual teeth. It does mean that when we find the state's evidence wanting, we can actually free the innocent that has been incarcerated. It also means that we can free the victims of a wrongful death the thing that makes them most afraid; namely, killing the wrong person in the name of justice.

This is the kinder and gentler Phelonius that some readers have asked for, and thus ye receive.


Joe said...

This is interesting stuff, and it's good to see these doctors taking their oath seriously.

I've always thought that, although they tend to occupy opposite sides of the aisle, people who oppose the death penalty are in the exact same position as those who oppose abortion: in both cases, their opposition is rooted in a strong moral sense, but they must come to terms with the undeniable fact that both are permitted by the law of the land.

It's a clear case of moral thinking versus political thinking: at least in this situation, morality and law are at odds. What, then, is an appropriate response? If we oppose the death penalty, should we amend the constitution to remove it, or should we tolerate its possibility?

Some might argue that a change of law is required, but, as you mention, is that merely an abrogation of our social duty, i.e. are we letting the law take on our personal moral responsibility?

You could also argue that a moral position becomes immoral when we force it upon others- if so, what is the ethical position that we should take when the law clearly disagrees with our moral thought?

Phelonius said...

Sorry about being away, but have been rather busy.

The laws and constitution of any republic are rarely going to make everybody happy all at once. To make me happy in specific, the State of Texas should end using the death penalty and instead reform the penal codes to increase the strength of life imprisonment. I support the movement to end the death penalty, but that is rather as far as a human can go. Hopefully the movement will continue to grow.

When laws are bad or morally corrupt, it can be a very difficult and painful thing to oppose them, but that is what courageous souls do. I admire the way that the staunch "Jim Crow" democrats were opposed by a smaller but very vocal opposition to the point that gradually their viewpoints were acceptable and expected. In most cases, acceptability did not occur for many decades, but slowly the ideas of "different but equal" and "segregated services" lost their acceptance. I believe that war by "ballot box" to be vastly superior to armed struggles, but sometimes the passive resistance methods can step in and help change minds and hearts.

To take the law into our own hands is in most cases exactly an abrogation of our social duties, I would argue, except in those extreme cases where the law has become clearly the enemy morality and social good.

Phelonius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

There's no question that some laws are going to make people unhappy, but that's an equivocation, isn't it? If you're talking about moral questions, whether someone is happy is irrelevant: right or wrong, bearable or unbearable, justified or unjustified— these are the only questions that matter in morals.

I agree that a "bad" law is not a sound basis for violence or revolution; so long as the system provides remedies, they should be used.

However, the next question is about responsibility and duty: if you find yourself in a situation where a law offends your morality, aren't you compelled to work for change? "Support" can mean a lot of things— I, unfortunately, support the Detroit Tigers— but moral action is not "supported" in the same way.

Doesn't a moral position require some form of action?

Phelonius said...

Joe commented:

"If you're talking about moral questions, whether someone is happy is irrelevant: right or wrong, bearable or unbearable, justified or unjustified— these are the only questions that matter in morals."

Christ said that "you are with me or against me." In that sense you are very correct. If I see moral wrong I an bound to act against it, as we all are.

In a republic, you can act against moral transgression in one of two ways: 1. inside the law or 2. outside the law. The people that oppose abortion, for example, by targeting and killing doctors that perform abortion are following the second choice, but unfortunately they are also doing that by their own moral transgression. Opposing killing by killing is a very questionable stance.

Changing the law of the land is the position that I must maintain, because by doing so you can keep the moral high ground.

At what lengths? Does the average citizen of Germany in 1941 necessarily oppose the death camps by forcing attention to themselves and thereby endanger themselves and their families to the same fate? The citizen of Thailand today should necessarily oppose the dictatorship and expose their bodies to bullets?

Some will, and some can and some are doing so now. Can I claim the same conviction of spirit that the rebels in Nazi Germany can claim? No. I cannot, in good conscience, because I have not been in that crucible so far, and I sincerely hope that I never am.

I would like to think that I will have that when push comes to shove. However, I AM compelled to work for change, and have done so. I vote, I talk to others about voting, and I do my best to vote for those that are opposed to both the death penalty AND are anti-abortion. Try THAT in this day and age and I am impressed. That does not stop me from continuing forward and trying, but it is a lesson in how republics work.

Kelly said...

There have been a few instances where I have felt that the death penalty has been a deterent...a deterent for the one who was put to death.

But for the most part I think it is over used. Right now the state of Utah is considering whether to charge a mother and her new husband with capital murder in the death of her 4 year old son. His death was a result of child abuse in a very brutal manner. Yet I do not think that these two people are necessarily a continued threat to society.

Capital punishment should, if used, be reserved for those who have demonstrated a real threat to society..serial killers come to mind--and with overwhelming evidence as proof.

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