New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, in explaining his state’s abolition of the death penalty, announced that he knew “from my heart and from my soul” that no murderer should be put to death.
As it happens, I know from my heart and from my soul that not putting any murderer to death is a cosmic injustice; it cheapens the worth of human life and greatly diminishes the revulsion society feels toward murder.
So, what does this mean? Does it mean two intelligent and decent people have very different hearts and souls? (This question assumes that pro-capital punishment readers will acknowledge Gov. Corzine’s decency and that anti-capital punishment readers will acknowledge my decency.)
Here are possible explanations:
One is that our hearts are either not the same or operate differently.
I am mystified by the hearts of those who wish to keep all murderers alive. While I disagree with those whose values (as opposed to hearts) argue against the death penalty for murder, I can at least understand them. But I have no clue as to what type of human heart wants to keep all murderers alive. What type of human heart knows the pain and horror of murder and doesn’t want the murderer to give up his life? It is a heart so different from mine that I admit a complete inability to relate to it.
Conversely, I presume that those whose hearts move them to spare all murderers’ lives can’t understand my heart. That is why I am convinced that regarding capital punishment for murder there is a gulf more unbridgeable than on almost any other issue. I understand the hearts of those who want the state to take over medical care, even though I oppose it — my heart feels the same as theirs for those who cannot afford health care. I understand the hearts of those who want race-based affirmative action — my heart feels the same pain over the historical injustices inflicted on black Americans.
But when it comes to murder, my heart is entirely preoccupied with the terror and loss experienced by the murdered and the endless pain of those who loved them. I therefore find incomprehensible the compassion for murderers, as expressed, for example, by anti-death penalty activists, when they have candlelight vigils at prisons but not at the homes of the families of those murdered.
A second explanation is that those who oppose and those who support the death penalty do indeed have similar hearts, but looking into one’s heart is obviously not a good way to determine one’s stance on moral issues. Hearts can lead us to any conclusion we want. If Gov. Corzine has a good heart and I have a good heart, the heart is not a particularly effective place to look for answers to moral questions. In fact, being guided by the heart may be one of the worst ways to live a good life. The heart is very easily moved in wrong directions.
A third possibility is that we have similar hearts but different minds. So while our hearts may feel similarly about murder and murderers, our thinking about them differs. The hearts of opponents of the death penalty may yearn for taking the life of at least some murderers — such as torturer-murderers whose guilt is confirmed by DNA — just as much as pro-death penalty hearts do. But the minds of the anti-death penalty people have concluded that the death penalty should never be applied — even to mass murderers whose atrocities are beyond doubt — for reasons that go against their feelings.
These people say they have rationally thought the issue through and concluded, for example, that the state has no right to take the life of anyone not immediately threatening innocent life. But this is not rational thought; it is an emotional statement disguised as rational moral declaration. The state is simply acting on behalf of the murdered. When people say “the state has no right,” they really mean no one has the right. On purely rational grounds, it is very difficult to justify allowing all murderers to keep their lives. By every accepted understanding of the word “justice,” it is unjust to be allowed to keep your life when you have deliberately deprived an innocent person of his life.
The fourth explanation is similar hearts but differing values. Some people’s value system holds that it is wrong to take anyone’s life, even that of a person or an army threatening the lives of innocent people. This is known as pacifism, a value system that denies good and evil and that actually increases murder and unjust suffering in the world. Others’ value systems maintain that it is moral to kill in self-defense or defense of another innocent person, but never otherwise, such as when a murderer has been subdued and no longer threatens innocent life.
I suspect that this belief that it is wrong to kill any murderer, even one who has mass murdered and tortured, is at bottom really a feeling — of revulsion at taking a human life. Pope John Paul II opposed capital punishment, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the horrific mass killings he saw as a young man in World War II Poland from his opposition to capital punishment. Likewise, the ancient rabbis of the Talmud essentially undid the Torah’s laws demanding the death of murderers because of all the barbaric executions they witnessed among the Romans.
Nevertheless, whatever the ultimate source of opposition among some opponents of capital punishment, in the case of Gov. Corzine and many other abolitionists, their hearts are the ultimate source of their opposition to taking the life of any murderer. And in such cases, it remains fair to say that such hearts are indeed different from the hearts of those of us who feel equally strongly that keeping all murderers alive is a cosmic injustice, an insult to the murdered and an ongoing nightmare to those who loved the murdered.