Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Life For A Life

I have never understood the proposition that if one commits a murder, one should then be killed. Note I don't call this an argument; it isn't, it's a mere assertion which, when prodded with a sharp question or two, deflates into being a T-shirt slogan.

This comes to mind whenever I briefly recall that a few months ago I found myself in a position of saving someone’s life. It has no great emotional impact, I don't see it as being a seminal point in my life. What I did took no effort, it was merely the obvious actions of any normal human being. It wasn't, from my perspective, a big deal.

In a broader moral context, this is perhaps the obverse situation to being executed for murder. And just as sterile. As execution doesn't ameliorate the fact of the original murder one iota, neither does my having saved a life lift so much as one microgram of my guilt or moral stain for having killed.

We may hope, we may search, for some equivalence in a painful attempt to find some meaning in murder. But the truth is, each life is unique. Once extinguished, no number of other saved lives repairs that hole in the human fabric; and no number of executions leads to resurrection.


  1. I've read this a few times now and it makes me feel sad. This is almost like the loss of two lives.

    1. The conclusion is surely right – that killing the murderer because he killed, helps no one (and certainly not his victim) ----except that sometimes it does help (the bereaved loved ones to accept their loss…. and the regulation of society by having the link between foul murder and judicial execution retained). The context I’m on about is what happens legally in places like Texas.

      For me, I simply cannot imagine that I would feel in any way better by the killing as quid pro quo of the killer of a loved one of mine. The thought is repugnant to me. The execution would increase not decrease my pain. Similarly, on the wider, whole-society level, I am quite sure that the existence of a death penalty subtracts from the life of everyone in that society, if only in a small way. It doesn’t help anything at all.

      But human nature being what it is, we have to accept that some folks are indeed consoled by their society’s retention of judicial execution.

      The murderer kills someone else quite deliberately …he causes that death.

      It is different when the death may be imminent and a third party happens along and halts it - e.g. by rescuing someone from the river/pushing someone out of the way of a speeding car/administering life-saving resuscitation to heart attack victim in the street.

      The act of halting a death and the act of causing a death are incommensurables and can’t be conflated together into one moral equation, which is what Ben’s set up here I think.

    2. Well as a convicted murderer, he would say that, wouldn't he? Personally, I find it highly hypocritical that someone would expect to be treated differently than they have chosen to treat others. The cost of prison places is horrendous, and long term sentences are both excessive and inhuman. Certain types of murder, premeditated and deliberate, would be better punished by the death penalty. How abhorrent! But then words and values cost nothing. Better to set up a two-tier tax system where one pays a higher rate in order to preserve the perverse notion of keeping people in prison for over, say, 25 years. Then the hand-wringing, bleeding-heart liberals could contribute more to the cost of our penal system. True conviction! I don't hear any takers?

  2. Allowing a murderer to live is a stronger repudiation of the act of killing than attempts at balancing the ledger.

    I will admit, though, that atonement through life-affirming deeds - like the famous advice to atone for killing a child by saving a child, attributed to Gandhi - has a certain appeal.

  3. So sad, yet so insightful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLbAt-E1wCU