Wednesday 3 June 2009

Death and Dilemma

This is an answer I gave to a question centering on certain moral dilemmas.

But you already know my views on the first dimension of your question-or dilemma-so no need to travel again down beaten paths. I will just add one small caveat. For me it’s not a question of being pro-life or pro-choice. When it comes to questions of pregnancy and abortion I do not take an abstract position. I know what I would do in the circumstances I alluded to in our past discussion. I will not be dictated to, and I will not dictate to others.

The second element is pitched, I think, more at your fellow Americans, or to people that still live under a system of justice where death is the ultimate penalty. We haven’t had the death penalty in England for almost fifty years now, and I simply cannot envisage it ever returning. To me it seems positively barbaric, no matter the method. Albert Pierrepoint, the last official hangman in England, wrote an autobiography, in which he said that the death penalty was not about justice; it was about vengeance. These are his exact words;

I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people...The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off.

Now, I do not want to misjudge you but you seem comfortable with the notion of vengeance. I am not, because I feel that it uncovers even baser emotions. But I’m talking in the abstract, am I not? That’s the very thing I said I would not do over the issue of abortion. I can’t honestly say how I would feel if someone close to me was the victim of some awful crime. I may very reach deep into notions of revenge, of a need for satisfaction in revenge.

But I note that one of your respondents has taken that final step, arguing even for drawing and quartering, even using the vilest of imagery to express her enthusiasm. I suppose it might even be a spectator sport, in the same fashion as the Middle Ages; to watch a man hung and then cut down still choking; to then have his penis and testicles cut off, his chest opened and his bowels removed, all this while alive and screaming-screams that would echo in one’s mind for as long as one was alive-, with the executioner, covered in blood, right up to his elbows, looking like a butcher. Women avoided this: they were simply burned alive. In killing monsters are we to become monsters? One Hannibal is destroyed; a dozen more arise in his shadows. Yes, it’s true: if you stare into the abyss long enough the abyss stares back into you.

As far as thinning out the herd is concerned, yes, there are some people I think should never have been placed upon this planet, but I’m mindful of the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present to Scrooge;

If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost,”will find him here. What then. If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief. “Man,” said the Ghost,”if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die. It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God. to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.

Can I pose a moral dilemma for you? It’s a bit of a trap, fashioned around your personal convictions, so please avoid it if you wish. Anyway, I’m going to give you a time-machine, to take you back to Europe over a hundred and twenty years ago, to Austria, to be precise.

It’s the autumn of 1888. Twenty-eight year old Klara Pölzl is pregnant. She is delighted; this will be her fourth and, although she does not yet know it, the baby is a boy. Yes, she is delighted…and she is afraid; for, you see, she lost her previous children-two boys and a girl-in infancy. This little one, who is destined to survive, will be truly special, given all the love and devotion of which Klara is capable.

Now, your task is to persuade Klara-force her, perhaps- to have an abortion. Why? What reason would you have for so wicked an act? Well, you see, Pölzl is Klara’s maiden name: her married name is Hitler. You have the power to save millions of lives, the lives of so many children not yet born and not yet conceived; children who might very well have grown to be great people, to have discovered a cure for one or other of the dreadful diseases that still haunt the human race, or to be a great writers or artists. Could you do it; would you do it?


  1. Capital punishment is a difficult subject to consider dispassionately. I find that the protagonists tend to set out by defining their position in terms of more or less inflexible, and mutually irreconcilable, first principles, and the debate, if it can be so called, quickly degenerates into a series of emotionally-charged skirmishes, with neither side prepared to risk decisive intellectual engagement. This may have something to do with the large numbers of stupid people who hold strong views on the subject. But I believe that there is also a more general reluctance, where the emotional stakes are so high, to look behind one's emotions, to try and understand why one believes what one does, and discover whether those beliefs are actually justified.

    I find your argument here interesting. Opponents of capital punishment usually define their position around a core belief in what they call the "sanctity of human life". Given your views on abortion and eugenics, expressed here and elsewhere, this is not an option available to you. It would appear from the arguments in this post that your objection to capital punishment rests chiefly on the observation that at least some of its supporters are motivated by a desire for vengeance, and it is wrong to indulge such a desire. Before moving on to consider the merits of this observation as an objection to capital punishment, it will be useful to examine this desire for vengeance more closely.

    A desire for vengeance in a victim of a crime, or in their family or close friends, is readily understandable; and since you yourself appear ready to entertain the idea of personal vengeance, here and elsewhere on your blog, I shan't let it detain us further here. But there is often a wider manifestation of the desire for vengeance, one that it is more difficult to understand, and I presume that it is this to which you object. For want of a better term, I shall call this a desire for "vicarious vengeance" - "vicarious" both in the sense that it arises from a wrong suffered by another, and that it may only be satisfied through the agency of another. It manifests itself in those - the ignorant, the impotent and the feeble-minded - who, unable to recognise, understand or come to terms with their own negative emotions, follow the age-old custom of the scapegoat and project them onto others, typically those perceived by society as outcasts. When society becomes enlightened as to the wickedness or folly of persecuting one group, another one simply takes its place. Nietzsche would have recognised vicarious vengeance as a manifestation of ressentiment, an outlet for the repressed aggression of the herd.

    An irrational desire is hardly a compelling argument for capital punishment; but neither is it an insuperable objection to it. Indeed, this could only be so if there were a clear causal link between a society's carrying out the death penalty and the intensity of the desire for vicarious vengeance, or indeed of any other negative or violent emotion, in that society. But there appears to be no such link. There certainly doesn't appear to have been a significant falling off of this phenomenon in the UK since the abolition of the death penalty; quite the opposite in fact. Nor is it possible to demonstrate a link between the comparatively higher levels of violent crime in the US and the very small numbers of executions that still take place there. It is just as easy, easier in fact, to argue that continued and unrelieved repression of a desire is likely to result in its becoming potentially dangerous. If some unimportant people were occasionally allowed to enjoy the illusion that their desire for vicarious vengeance had helped bring about the execution of some superfluous individual, would this really be such a bad thing? Surely not. Who knows, it might even perform a cathartic function. All that matters is that the punishment is morally deserved and that it serves the public interest.

    Continued to post 2 ...

  2. ... continued from post 1

    I have never been impressed by the sort of argument implied by "it may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit ...", not only because it invokes the kind of superstition and sentimentality which has already been allowed to obscure the debate on this subject for far too long, but because it could serve equally well as an argument against the use of punishment in any circumstances. This argument can, moreover, also serve against your views on abortion and eugenics, which also imply, correctly in my view, that one human life can possess a higher value than another.

    Abandoning the trammelling and superstitious belief in the "sanctity of human life", and embracing the reality that our lives are finite, contingent and of unequal value, is a necessary first step away from our moribund and guilt-ridden society, obssessed with the bottom ten or twenty percent of its members, towards one with a more healthy and positive focus on those at the other end of the ability range. Of course, it will involve leaving behind a lot of comforting old certainties and facing up to a host of awkward questions, not an attractive proposition for a society which has long preferred a culture of hypocrisy, self-deception and misplaced guilt to one of self-confidence, self-realisation and the pursuit of excellence. But I believe we'll find our way, eventually.


  3. Your contributions never fail to impress me, dear Allectus.