Clayton Lockett’s Botched Execution and the Moral Ambiguity of Capital Punishment

by Akim Reinhardt

Let me begin this essay by making one thing clear: I am opposed to capital punishment.

I agree with pretty much all of the arguments against it. It's clearly not a deterrent. The possibility, much less the reality, that innocent people are sometimes executed is beyond inexcusable. A variety of factors have contributed to capital punishment being disproportionately applied to minorities and the poor in the United States. And I don't believe the state should be in business of killing its own people, even its most reprehensible members.

And so for all of those reasons, and several others, I oppose capital punishment.

Stephanie Neiman 3However, I also believe there is an element of moral ambiguity inextricably woven into the issue, and I am not comfortable with the moral absolutism that sometimes accompanies opposition to the death penalty.

While I personally oppose the use of capital punishment, I acknowledge that there is a rational and reasonable moral framework around which some supporters advocate for it. In short, I reject the notion that opponents such as myself can claim some sort of moral monopoly on the issue.

For starters, I think it is perfectly normal for someone to wish death upon a person who has brutally murdered a loved one. Opponents of capital punishment often drift into language of “savagery” when rejecting appeals for capital punishment, and I find this very troubling.

I think it extremely heartless and sanctimonious to label as “savage” or even “immoral” the very understandable desire for revenge by the loved ones of brutal crime victims. To the contrary, those feelings are incredibly normal. Ask any grief counselor.

I know that if someone, say, raped and murdered a member of my family, I would want the rapist-murderer to die. The vast majority of people would. Those who wouldn't are not the norm. Rather, the loved ones living in the aftermath of horrific, murderous crimes, who find it within their hearts to forgive the criminal, or at the very least, not want them dead, are extraordinary and admirable people.

Thus, I reject outright the notion that wishing death upon those who have committed unspeakably immoral acts of murder is itself an immoral sentiment. Rather, I see it as a humane and even sensible one, though I myself do not support the subsequent act of capital punishment.

Beyond the morality of victim survivors' desires, however, I also recognize the morality of a more distanced stance in support of capital punishment, even if I do not support the act itself. This is because I also reject what I consider to be a sentimentalized view of humanity that casts all human life as sacred. Instead, I embrace our mortality and impermanence, I reject our supposed inherent moral superiority to other beings, and I recognize that morality itself is a human construct that no other beings conceive.

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