Have you seen the CW's new series “The 100”? I have been enjoying it and it furnishes an interesting backdrop for a discussion of Justice and Capital Punishment. I hope you find this discussion as interesting to listen to as I did to write.
- The 100
- Western Theories of Justice
- Justice as a Virtue
- John Rawls
- Chamber Decompression sound effect by Mike Koenig
Worth picking up
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The Ark Space Station has a strict capital punishment policy for even minor fractions by adults, is this just? We will look at that idea on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
I've been enjoying the new CW series the 100 about a group of humans who have survived for 97 years since a nuclear war on earth because they were on a collection of orbiting habitats. They are part of a society that is constantly on the edge of extinction and the due to a predicted long term failure of the life support systems they are forced to get serious about a return to earth and send 100 young criminals in their midst down to see if they can survive, to see if the earth is habitable again. One of the interesting aspects of the series that got me thinking was the way the inhabitants of the Ark maintain order by a very strict set of laws that include extremely harsh, usually capital, punishments for apparently minor infractions. Using too much blood during a medical procedure or going for an unauthorized space walk is a crime punishable by death and the usual means of execution is a forced space walk without a suit. Is this reasonable?
At first glance it seems impossible that such a harsh system of punishment could ever be just but i'm not sure that is the case. There is much debate among philosophers about what the nature of justice is, this could be a series in its own right. The modern political Philosopher John Rawl's said “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”. The problem comes when you try to nail down exactly what it means to be just. A communist may regard the expropriation of “capital” and execution of the exploiters as “revolutionary justice” for their crimes, while a Political Libertarian would regard much of justice as summarized in the “Non-Aggression Principle”, which says, in summary, “That is is wrong to initiate force against another person” and would tend to regard any behavior short of this as morally permissible. Even as far back as Plato they argued over various definition of Justice and Plato has his characters Glaucon and Adeimantus offer ,”Doing good to your friends and evil to you enemies” and “Paying back what is owed” as possible definitions of justice.
So what are we to do? The traditional figure of Lady Justice has a figure with a sword, a scale and a blindfold, which is meant to represent the coercive power to punish, the ability to weigh competing claims and a willingness to be impartial and decide claims on merit and desert. I think these are probably the most important aspects of justice although the idea that justice should be blind, that the law should apply equally to all parties is an idea that has come under criticism in recent years with some notions of “social justice” that seek to privilege some claims over other on grounds other than the merit of the claim itself.
But back to punishment. On the Ark we have a society that enacts the harshest possible punishments for seemingly minor infractions. How could that ever be reasonable? The law is applied with reasonable impartiality, we learn in the first couple of episodes that the leader of the Ark's own son is in detention on the ark and so ends up among the 100 young offenders sent to earth to determine if it is inhabitable. So that requirement for justice seems to be in effect even if the punishments seems wildly out of proportion to the crime. But are they?
One very ancient judicial principle is called Lex Talionis by the ancient Romans and is known more commonly by the ancient Israelite version, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Sometimes this formulation is mocked, as it was by the Minbari ambassador Delenn in Babylon 5 by noting, “So you support a system that would leave everyone blind and toothless?”. This is not particularly reasonable though because Lex Talionis, or “The Law of the Claw”, is intended as a limiting judicial principle that seeks to make sure the punishment fits the crime. Thieves should make restitution for their crimes, murderers should be executed and so on, but you cannot kill a thieves whole family to pay them back for the theft of some bread.
So where does this leave the citizens of the Ark? How could execution be warranted for something as seemingly trivial as an unauthorized space walk or using too much blood during an operation? Could this possibly meet the standard of a judicial principle like “an eye for an eye”? Actually I think it can.
SO wht is capital punishment? It means execution, it can take a variety of forms, hanging, shooting, lethal injection, boiling in oil, crucifixion, burning at the stake and throwing someone out an airlock to name a few. It seems humans are frighteningly inventive in the ways they capitally punish someone. The reasons for capital punishment over history have been similarly varied and I don't think all of those have been justified, but lets consider the sorts of things we today might consider worthy of capital punishment.
Before we get to that we should address one item. There is an argument made against capital punishment that goes something like, “But what happens if you execute the wrong person”, and this is a legitimate concern and is certainly an excellent argument for restraint in the use of capital punishment and perhaps even a strong enough argument to mean that capital punishment should not be used at all. However, it is worth noting this is not actually an argument that capital punishment is wrong. I could easily hold the position that capital punishment is morally justified on the grounds of justice and fairness while conceding that in practice the price of making a mistake is so high that we should not routinely or ever employ it. The person who says “capital punishment is morally unjustified” however can not offer this as a reason because they don't think it is ever morally justified.
But back to the question, “What sorts of things might reasonably justify capital punishment?”. Traditionally the crime of premeditated murder has always been a justification for capital punishment. It is an “eye for an eye” style punishment. It is certainly proportional to the crime. Another crime that has traditionally resulted in execution is a crime like treason, selling your country or tribe out to an enemy. Now there are various reasons why this is punished but the most basic reason for such a punishment is that such an act will very probably get a large number of people, typically your countrymen or fellow tribesman killed. It certainly puts them in mortal jeopardy. Perhaps this is the insight we need to make sense of why using to much blood in surgery should be a capital crime on the ark.
One thing that struck me about the situation of the people on the Ark was how similar it was to the situations faced by more ancient civilizations than our own. There are numerous examples but, being a Christian, the example of Ancient Israel is one I am reasonably familiar with. I have seen people regularly critical of the harshness of the Old Testament law, with its numerous forms of capital punishment even for seemingly trivial infraction like moving a property boundary marker. This is normally held up as an example of cruel and unjustified punishment but perhaps it isn't.
In many ways Ancient Israel and the Ark have a lot in common. The specific situations are as different as could be imagined but the broad situation is quite similar. Both societies are constantly on the edge of extinction. Ancient Israel had to contend with crop failures, war like raiders from surrounding nations and other problems. The Ark has to deal with oxygen and other supply shortages and all of the myriad problems of living in a small pressurized tin can in orbit. Both groups very survival will be imperiled by members of the society who are not disciplined and who are frivolous with resources. If your actions have the ability to kill many people and perhaps even wipe out your whole tribe, then surely such actions do warrant extreme sanctions for engaging in them. We may be surprised as the minor nature of the crimes that are capitally punished but I think that fails to take into account the price of allowing those transgressions. We punish a crime like treason, a crime that in a sense directly harms no one, extremely harshly, either long prison terms or even execution in some cases. Of course, especially in wartime, treason, such as giving information to the enemy about soldiers positions and generals plans will certainly endanger and likely get large numbers of people killed. The endangering of so many, even if the deaths aren't realized is grounds for the harsh punishment.
Interestingly there is room for rehabilitation on the Ark, not for adults they should know better, but for minors who break the law they are given a second chance through incarceration and a possible reprieve at 18. It was from this set of minors that the 100 were selected and that is basically a suicide mission, but perhaps that is better than the alternative. It doesn't sound like the review usually goes well.
So do you think capital punishment is justified? There is the concern of making a mistake but if we removed that possibly but only keeping it for cases we are sure of, is it still usable then? It needs to be applied proportionally, after premeditated murder it seems that there need to be more considerations than simple proportionality involved. There is the issue of endangering many others and those cases would also seem to make sense but is there also another side of the question. You capitally punish a criminal who will re-offend and re-offend in some horrendous manner, even though their initial crime may not directly or indirectly result in the death of a victim. A classic example here is someone who molests children. The crime may well ruin the victims life even if it doesn't actually kill them. Although there is also the consideration of something like that being such a grievous transgression against civilization that a person committing such a crime needs to be permanently removed from the society, in effect if you wish to put yourself outside civilized society then the society will oblige you in doing do.
There is also the final question of deterrence. Any criminal justice system whether or not it employs capital punishment needs to consider the question of deterring would be criminals or discouraging already convicted criminals from engaging in worse crimes. IF you know an unauthorized space walk will get you a second space walk without a suit you would need to be very desperate to risk doing it in the first place. So the existence of the punishment should be enough to stop may people from committing the crime in the first place. I suppose the logical conclusion of that though is that even littering should be a capital crime, so clearly deterrence can not be the only consideration.
Do you think the capital punishment of criminals on the Ark is justified? It certain;y seems harsh but what is the alternative? Would it be better to simply perish rather than go to these extremes to survive? That is the choice they face after all.
You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. Check out the 100 if you haven't see it. You can find links to purchase it from Amazon in the show notes. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If you do enjoy the show please go over to our facebook page and click like. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask. And don't forget, it's Phi with a P H.
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