Posts Tagged ‘philosophes’

Voltaire, Troy Davis and the Death Penalty

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Rain, Bergen, Rain, Norway, Rain

I don’t know what Voltaire would have said about the execution of Troy Davis – whom many including William Sessions the former director of the FBI regarded as quite possibly innocent — by the people of the state of Georgia.

But the death penalty was something he and other Philosophes did think about in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I do know that in his commentary on Beccaria on Crimes and Punishment, Vol. 10

Voltaire did write:

It hath long since been observed, that a man after he is hanged is good for nothing, and that punishments invented for the good of society, ought to be useful to society.


Voltaire: pas de peine de mort!

On the other hand, J.S. Mill saw the death penalty as affirmation of the protection of life

When there has been brought home to any one, by conclusive evidence, the greatest crime known to the law; and when the attendant circumstances suggest no palliation of the guilt, no hope that the culprit may even yet not be unworthy to live among mankind, nothing to make it probable that the crime was an exception to his general character rather than a consequence of it, then I confess it appears to me that to deprive the criminal of the life of which he has proved himself to be unworthy–solemnly to blot him out from the fellowship of mankind and from the catalogue of the living–is the most appropriate as it is certainly the most impressive, mode in which society can attach to so great a crime the penal consequences which for the security of life it is indispensable to annex to it.

Rousseau and Kant, both champions of individual rights and the limitation of the powers of the state thought that the death penalty was a legitimate use of state power.

Diderot, Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine did not.

All of these men are not equally theorists of human rights, but their work is part of the historical context for contemporary human rights thinking.  This points to the fact that even through there is a broad consensus in the human rights community – a nebulous category at best, which includes human rights lawyers, groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – that the death penalty is a violation of human rights, it is still possible to argue that after an individual has denied life to a fellow human being and faced due process that that individual could be put to death in the name of his or her fellow citizens.  What human rights groups would argue is that that due process part is a big “if” and that the death penalty is an absolute and irreversible ending to an imperfect process.  The perfection or imperfection of the system becomes less of a problem when the person is merely sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The debates that swirled around Troy Davis’ execution resemble all of the historical debates about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty with the possible exception that the degree of doubt about his culpability would have given the philosophes pause. The circumstances of his case may not have met any of the supporters of the death penalty’s basic criteria.  Discussions of the death penalty in human rights classes, most notably in my genocide course, force students to confront some deep questions – should Eichmann have been hanged?

In Norway there is no death penalty, as it was abolished in 1902.  It was briefly revived in the post-World War II era to execute Nazi collaborators, most notably Vidkun Quisling.  So even when Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who murdered 77 of his fellow Norwegians last July faces punishment, it can only be a life term – which in practice is not even his entire life.

Voltaire is on point here.  What is the use of killing someone to society if they are imprisoned and removed physically?  On the other hand not killing could be of more use to society; in foregoing the killing of this monster, the Norwegians are making a powerful statement as a people about being humane, and affirming life as the absolute and most basic human right.

I am persuaded by the Norwegians.