Justification for the Death Penalty

Is the death penalty an acceptable punishment? Is it moral? Is it prudential? I will take a pragmatic position, arguing that the death penalty is an instrumental and symbolic act for maintaining order and harmony. Morality, that which appeals to a higher good, is typically codified by societal conventions and expectations. Arguing whether the death penalty is moral would require appealing to what is traditionally acceptable, or asking whether it benefits society in some way. In this case the question of the death penalty is a pragmatic one.

A society based on liberalism is characterized by the mutual collaboration of free and equal individuals working towards certain ends, with the most general end being the growth and flourishing of all of its constituent citizens. This is a feature of life more generally. Laws are created to preserve order and to ensure that this collaboration occurs justly, where liberty and equality are preserved for all. Why do we use the death penalty? This form of punishment is reserved for those who undermine the harmonious order, order that is instantiated to ensure the well-being of society, and is used for punishing the most heinous of crimes, most typically those committed by individuals who murder.

I argue that the death penalty is justifiable on moral and prudential grounds, that the authority established in the formation of the government, in which all citizens tacitly consent to, has ultimate power to exercise its interpretation of the law in order to justify punishments. Speaking broadly, this authority is derived not from its power to exercise rule, but because of the constitutional document which established it and the tacit consent of its citizens to exist under the rule of this document.

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Liberalism: Making Mankind into Cattle

Liberalism is the transformation of mankind into cattle.
-Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1878). I.67

What does this mean? Liberalism, in the philosophical sense that Nietzsche is using it, is an ethical framework in which man is free, equal, and autonomous. While this conception of man resonates with most as evidently true, I maintain that this is an illusory conception of man. Do we really believe that we are free? Equal? Autonomous? As with most comforting notions, we avow these ideals simply as a means of preserving the familiar, a mechanism of evasion that allows us to avoid the biting reality of our situation; namely, that we are not free, nor are we equal and autonomous.

What does Nietzsche mean when he says that liberalism is the transformation of mankind into cattle? It is the process in which individuality is smoothed over en masse, in which minds are watered down into a cloudy collective consciousness, where man is no longer a thinking spirit that possesses a unique soul but a mere facsimile. Being lead to believe that our thoughts are freely chosen, that we are as valuable as any man, that we can choose according to a unique volition, we cease to employ our internal reason, fail to reflect on our position, and assume that the ideals in which we derive our greatness are a right rather than a product.

I insist that freedom is a state of being that follows from mind, but my fellow man would hold that freedom is a state of existence that follows from body. Where these most evidently diverge, in my opinion, is when man finds himself in a state of perfect equilibrium.

When man has all his bodily needs satisfied, with every desire or whim or passion cared and provided for so that nothing is wanting, do we have a free man? Such a man would be no more free than a domesticated animal whose instincts have been muted and dulled, like an animal coddled and conditioned with pleasures generated by no necessity of its own. My fellow man, swept up in his allegiance toward the sensational, would insist that a man with all his desires satisfied is free, for what more could he want? But I would ask whether this standard– of having pleasure metted out in proportion to wants– is a good mark of freedom. Where does this standard leave man? In a perfect state of equilibrium. But is equilibrium man’s greatest achievement, his highest aim, the natural denouement of successful living?

I must ask myself more about equilibrium to discover whether this is a good measure for judging man. What is equilibrium? A state of rest or balance due to the equal action of opposing forces, an equality of balance, a calmness. From this definition I would ask whether we could equate equilibrium with man’s desire for self-preservation; is their aim one in the same?  Self-preservation is a process of maintenance of body and mind, so as to keep alive or conserve existence, or make lasting. In this light, equilibrium and self-preservation seem to be compatible states, achieving one in the same end, namely balance or preservation.

I must implore, however, as to whether this situation is reflective of nature, or a product of man’s mind? Is nature constantly seeking to retain equilibrium? Is life characterized by preservation?

Let’s observe the most obvious characteristics, in my mind, of natural experience: when my mind meets with the impressions afforded to me by my senses, there are two reigning features which traverse through all collective experience past and present. These being the continuity of consciousness and the constancy of change. The continuity of consciousness, I can conclude, is not a feature of experience, for even when I sleep I possess a consciousness, but a feature of mind alone. The constancy of change, however, is a guarantee endemic to nature, indelibly present throughout the physical world, that renders every moment of experience wholly unique and never the same.

Can we say that equilibrium and change are synonymous features? Certainly not. Does life stay the same, or is it in perpetual change? I would reply that life is in perpetual change, for I am not the boy of  my youth, neither is a frog still a tadpole or butterfly a caterpillar.

To exist occurs in the moment, to live occurs over moments. I hold then, that equilibrium is death, whereas disequilibrium is life. In this way existing is a mode of self-preservation, whereas living is a mode of thriving.

In summation, the satisfaction of desires, the end of want, places man in a state of equilibrium that is typified by the complacent tranquility which is characteristic of death. For man to be truly alive he must evolve, he must seek out disequilibrium, living in a state of anxiety and incertitude. To do this, man must not feign satisfaction, nor be satisfied with equilibrium.

Freedom, then, is disequilibrium, a form of living that transcends and expands consciousness. When change occurs, the man living in disequilibrium, having no complacent expectations, and always ready for change, does not flinch nor does he hesitate to move or act or think. His life is a fluid change.

This is freedom. Not all men possess it. Those who do act alone.

“Companions the creator seeks, not corpses, not herds and believers. Fellow creators the creator seeks—those who write new values on new tablets. Companions the creator seeks, and fellow harvesters; for everything about him is ripe for the harvest.”
—Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra