03 January 2007

Poor Hussein

In the wake of the execution of Saddam Hussein, there are some who have claimed that putting him to death makes us – somehow – just like him. (Robert Scheer calls the hanging of Hussein “an act of barbarism” – as if only barbarians, but not civilized peoples, have ever practiced capital punishment.)

You can see that it’s true, can’t you? Killing someone who is a convicted murderer, makes you a murderer.

See what you think of this test of that logic. Here’s a thought experiment:

You invite people over to your house. During the course of the evening, nature calls upon two of your guests. One guest responds to nature’s call in the room provided for such activity. The other guest responds to nature’s call on your carpet. To your mind, is the moral value of responding to nature’s call identical in both cases? I suspect not.

What makes the two cases different such that the same act committed by two different people is wrong (or at least objectionable) in one instance but not in another? What we want to say is something like, that while the act of answering nature’s call is not in and of itself wrong, there are times and places in which the act is wrong, not because of the act, but precisely because of the time and place.

In other words, the moral value of answering nature’s call is not absolute; it’s relative. To generalize from that: the moral value of an act may depend not upon the act qua act, but upon the circumstances surrounding the commission of the act.

Only someone who holds that, unlike answering nature’s call, all killing is wrong, can hold that putting Saddam Hussein, or any murderer, to death makes the executioners just like him. In other words, unlike answering nature’s call, the moral value of killing qua killing is absolutized: all killing is murder (and murder, virtually by definition, is wrong). And I am not one of those who holds this view of the death penalty.

By the way, if you think in my thought experiment that I equate answering nature's call with murdering people, you may have missed my point.


About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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