Ends in Themselves: A Reflection on Capital Punishment

by Jack Quirk

Capital punishment is best discussed in the context of the most egregious of cases. While executing minors or those with an intellectual development disorder can offend a wide swathe of a decent minded citizenry, the presence of such individuals as Dylann Roof in the criminal justice system provides an argument for the retention of capital punishment that is superficially sound.

Mr. Roof is the white supremacist found guilty by a federal jury in December of last year of the June 17, 2015 Charleston church shooting, wherein nine people were killed, all African Americans, including the church’s senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. According to his own account, his motive was to start a race war. [1] He was formally sentenced to death on January 11th. [2]

If there is any justification at all for the death penalty, it is hard to imagine someone who has asked for it more. Mr. Roof’s actions were atrocious, and it cannot be doubted that criminal justice systems arose as a means of preventing the private vengeance that would ensue from actions so heinous. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it in his 19th century work, The Common Law,

“It certainly may be argued, with some force, that it has never ceased to be one object of punishment to satisfy the desire for vengeance. The argument will be made plain by considering those instances in which, for one reason or another, compensation for a wrong is out of the question….

“Thus an act may be of such a kind as to make indemnity impossible by putting an end to the principal sufferer, as in the case of murder or manslaughter….

“In all these cases punishment remains as an alternative. A pain can be inflicted upon the wrong-doer, of a sort which does not restore the injured party to his former situation, or to another equally good, but which is inflicted for the very purpose of causing pain. And so far as this punishment takes the place of compensation, whether on account of the death of the person to whom the wrong was done, the indefinite number of persons affected, the impossibility of estimating the worth of the suffering in money, or the poverty of the criminal, it may be said that one of its objects is to gratify the desire for vengeance. The prisoner pays with his body.

“The statement may be made stronger still, and it may be said, not only that the law does, but that it ought to, make the gratification of revenge an object. This is the opinion, at any rate, of two authorities so great, and so opposed in other views, as Bishop Butler and Jeremy Bentham. Sir James Stephen says, ‘The criminal law stands to the passion of revenge in much the same relation as marriage to the sexual appetite.’” [3]

Whether or not one recoils at such an analysis as this, it cannot be doubted that support for capital punishment largely resolves to such sentiment. The criminal offender committed a horrific act, and must, therefore, suffer a horrific penalty.

And in the case of Dylann Roof, the standard arguments against the death penalty don’t quite pass muster. The danger of executing an innocent person is non-existent in this case. There is no doubt at all that he committed this crime. Moreover, a person like Dylann Roof could easily continue to be a threat to the lives of others even while he is confined. A self-avowed white supremacist willing to kill in order to advance his agenda can be expected to seek means to commit similar actions against some of his fellow prisoners, and extraordinary measures would have to be taken in order to ensure that it didn’t happen.

Thus, all purely pragmatic considerations seem to lead to the conclusion that the death penalty for Dylann Roof is both necessary and proper. What grounds, then, can be offered for saying that his life should be spared?

The only answer is the principle that every human being is an end in himself, and that every human life is an end in itself. To many this will seem overly romantic and starry-eyed. But it is really the only suitable foundation for human society.

If the principle holds, then every life is protected. If it does not, then every human life is thereby made subject to conditions, and those conditions are necessarily arbitrary. Even if we say that we restrict the taking of human life to the circumstance where the person to be killed has himself taken the life of another human being, the value of a human life has still been relativized, and the conditions deemed acceptable for taking a human life can alter with public sentiment. But the primary purpose of any human society is to protect the human lives within that society.

Some will argue that this would exclude taking the life of another in order to defend one’s own life, but that doesn’t follow. First of all, a person defending his own life is defending a life that is also an end in itself. The view that every human life is an end itself applies not only to the lives of others but to one’s self as well. Thus, suicide is prohibited according to the principle. Secondly, when it comes to actions that are to be prohibited by law, it does no good to require what is beyond ordinary human capacity, and there would be a certain deficiency in humanity involved in punishing actions born of instinctual self-preservation.

But doesn’t the fact that Dylann Roof might well continue to be a threat to the lives of others even in prison warrant taking his life now in order to prevent danger to other human lives that are also ends in themselves? Not at all. It may well be that extra measures would need to be taken to protect his fellow prisoners from him, but the fact that his life also is an end itself requires that such measures be taken. If he had been sentenced to life in prison, and thereafter contracted a life-threatening disease, no decent minded person would argue that he should be denied medical attention. But that, in itself, would be an extraordinary remedy, one not required for other prisoners without a life threatening disease. Accommodating the particular needs of prisoners is simply what an advanced, just, and humane society does. It is what a society that understands that every human life is an end in itself does to uphold the principle. And it is what we should do if we are to be such a society, rather than one that holds that a human life is subject to arbitrary conditions.