To the Editor:
I did not expect—in Joseph W. Bishop, Jr.’s review of our book, The Death Penalty—to find a sympathetic response to my side of the debate with Ernest van den Haag [Books in Review, February]. However, I must put Mr. Bishop right on the hanging of pickpockets. I went to some trouble to discover the source of this anecdote and reported my finding on page 249 of our book. The original account is in Charles Phillips’s book, Vacation Thoughts on Capital Punishment, quoted at some length by Arthur Koestler in his Reflections on Hanging. But Mr. Bishop is correct; we don’t know how many pickpockets were hanged when it was legal to hang them. I hope his reservations about the ineffectiveness of capital punishment for thieves do not indicate a wish to return to 18th-century sanctions for this offense.
John P. Conrad
To the Editor:
Joseph W. Bishop, Jr. is certainly right when he suggests that those who want to abolish capital punishment are guided more by what they feel is the morality of the matter than by any other consideration. He dismisses out of hand, however, the moral arguments against the death penalty—or at least the only two moral arguments which he takes up—as “baloney” and “more baloney.” Surely this is a rather cavalier way of dispensing with some very serious issues.
What Mr. Bishop calls “baloney” is the abolitionists’ view that capital punishment prevents all possible “reconciliation between society and the offender,” thereby depriving the criminal of “his right to remorse and atonement.” Other than the fact that I think the term “right” is out of place in this context, the abolitionists’ argument here, it seems to me, has a good deal of moral and empirical force behind it. We know, for instance, that some of the most vicious and vile criminals who have ever lived have repented of their evil deeds and completely reordered their lives around a new moral center. Viktor Frankl tells us that one of the most brutal people he ever met was a certain doctor in a Nazi concentration camp. For some reason, however, which Frankl doesn’t know, the person in question underwent a complete moral change and became a most caring and loving human being. We read similar stories, of course, of people in our own country, including some of the most brutal rapists, murderers, and even members of organized crime, who completely changed their ways, very often in the wake of a religious conversion of some kind.
Even where the change in a person is not dramatic, with the majority of criminals who spend a very long time in jail, there is at the very least a mellowing which can be detected, particularly as the person begins to enter middle age. Man’s capacity for remorse and atonement, therefore, is quite real, and is not to be passed off as baloney. . . .
The most important moral argument against the death penalty, I believe, centers around the distinction between the criminal and his crime. In many of the higher religious and moral codes of the world . . ., a key distinction is drawn between a person and any evil actions which such a person may commit. There is a sin and there is a sinner, and while we are told that it is right and just to hate the sin, we are at the same time asked to learn to love the sinner, however difficult this may seem. The problem with capital punishment, abolitionists believe, is that it tends to blot out this distinction. In putting a murderer to death, vengeance and hatred are directed not just at the murderer’s crime, but at the murderer himself as a person, in the totality of his being. . . .
The unending dispute over whether capital punishment is or is not a greater deterrent to crime than very long prison sentences seems to me to have little to do with the actual reasons why most people support or oppose it. Opponents, as Mr. Bishop rightly says, are usually guided more by moral and emotional considerations than by statistics or common-sense intuition. The thought of a helpless person, even one who in the past has committed a terrible crime, being killed by state functionaries, evokes in many a sense of moral revulsion that tends to bias the objective consideration of whatever might be said in favor of capital punishment.
But abolitionists aren’t the only ones in whom emotion and non-instrumental factors are dominant. In observing the capital-punishment debate, I have come to believe that many of the most vocal and enthusiastic proponents of the death penalty are people who have not come to grips in an honest and contrite manner with the evil in themselves. They want to kill the murderer because the murderer makes them see a particularly vile aspect of their own being whose existence they don’t want to admit. It is not so much compassion for the murderer’s victim, or concern about the safety of society, which governs the views of such people—though this is frequently how they rationalize their support for the death penalty. Their real or “gut” support for capital punishment derives from the fact that by killing the person whose transparently evil deed has evoked in them an empathetic awareness of their own evil . . ., they hope to keep evil outside themselves. All such people are doing, of course, is deluding themselves into believing that they are of a purer nature than any of us human beings really are. Here, it seems to me, in this self-righteous delusion, lies the real baloney.
Cranbury, New Jersey
Joseph W. Bishop, Jr. writes:
I noticed John P. Conrad’s reference to Arthur Koestler’s reference to Charles Phillips’s 19th-century book, but since there was no indication of where Phillips got the story, I did not think that he had done much to clear up the origin of the tale or to make its truth seem more likely.
Mr. Conrad should have noticed that my observations applied only to aggravated murder. Debate on the appropriateness of capital punishment for other felonies has been mooted by the decisions of the Supreme Court.
I did not think that the moral arguments which Russell Nieli quotes deserved more than the rather summary dismissal I gave them. Although I am not aware of any statistics, I am very skeptical about the proposition that an appreciable number of murderers who are not reconciled to society or who do not feel remorse within, say, five years will be so or do so in twenty.
It seems to me that there are better reasons than “vengeance and hatred” for believing that capital punishment is appropriate for aggravated murder. These reasons are given at some length by Ernest van den Haag in The Death Penalty.
I cannot, of course, dispute Mr. Nieli’s argument that many of those who favor the death penalty “are people who have not come to grips in an honest and contrite manner with the evil in themselves.” Certainly the vast majority of us are full of original sin, but I doubt that many people have ever seriously wanted to murder anyone.