Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Compassion and the Death Penalty

Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Compassion and the Death Penalty

Article excerpt

Support for the death penalty often contains and interesting contradiction. Normally, political conservatives support the death penalty, yet conservative political ideology emphasises individual freedom from state oppression, limited government, and fiscal conservativism. The death penalty contradicts each of these principles: it is the most brutal form of state power, requires massive state administrations and it costs significantly more than life imprisonment which is both more humane and equally effective. In the context of an international community that has been steadily abolishing the death penalty since the 1970's, capital punishment remains a defining characteristic of American political identity. Despite what David Garland refers to as the "institutional ambivalence"1 with which the legal system relates to the death penalty-only a small fraction of killers are executed-its support has remained relatively constant in the face of global abolitionism. Why?

Garland argues that America's maintenance of capital punishment reflects two broad cultural and political phenomena: the reticence of federal politicians to abolish the penalty in the face of strong localised state support and the persistence of profound and violent racism within those locale.2 Of course, these are related phenomena. The states that defend capital punishment the most are the ones with the most pervasive forms of racism. In practice, the death penalty officiates the severity of racialisation: all other things being equal, people of colour are more likely to be executed than white people, and people who kill black people are less likely to be executed than those who kill white people.3 Race is not the only factor external to the crime itself in determining whether an individual will receive a death sentence, but it does illustrate the powerful role that 'otherisation' plays in the sentencing process. By structuring the offender as the outside other it becomes easier to disregard his humanity.

Capital punishment solidifies and affirms divisive communal relations by institutionalising and acting upon an us-versus-them concept of social relations. Capital punishment also creates divisions within communities by reifying imaginary categories into which people can be placed, such as safe and dangerous, good and evil, and ultimately, human and non-human. It is possible that life imprisonment also reifies these divisions. But the finality of taking someone's life in a nation that claims to value individual life above all else places a particularly powerful stamp on the us-versus-them worldviews. While life imprisonment separates people from the social community, executions exclude them from the human community.

There exists an ontological tension between the thoughts and worldviews associated with pro- and anti-death penalty beliefs, with ontology understood narrowly to mean the nature or flavor of individual and collective human existence on a day-to-day level, i.e., our states of being. Put simply, the tension involves non-dualist and dualist experiences of human relations colloquially referred to as compassionate and callous regard for the suffering of others. Opposition to capital punishment on the grounds of the possibility of wrongful conviction offers an opportunity to transcend this tension.

How do our states of being and underlying beliefs about the world connect, and how do these tie in with attitudes about capital punishment? To answer these questions I would like to use both Buddhist philosophical concepts of ontology as well as a psychological theory called Cognitive Experiential Self Theory (CEST), which bifurcates thought into two interactive but distinct dimensions of logical/calculating and intuitive/experiential. These theories will work together by facilitating a connection between ways of being, ways of thinking, and attitudes about the death penalty.

The paper's first part will briefly survey ontologies associated with Marxist and Postmodern traditions in order to demonstrate a degree of continuity between them and Buddhist ontological understandings, which I will discuss in the following section along with CEST. …

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