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A Matter of Life & Death

by Rick Lewis

If, like many, you think that 2000 is the last year of the 20th century rather than the first of the 21st, then this issue of Philosophy Now will straddle two millennia! It is our thirtieth issue, which is also a landmark as any 29 year old will tell you.

Despite the growing wave of public interest in philosophy, there are still plenty of people about who regard it as a highly rarefied intellectual pass-time with no connection to the ‘real world’, whatever that might be. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many cases doing some philosophy – ie sitting down and thinking things through in a rational, structured way – is the only way to get clear about the problems which confront us as individuals and as a society. There are questions where the passions aroused, or the vested interests involved, or even the natural conservatism of sensibly cautious people when it comes to altering their opinions, can get in the way of a cool assessment of the merits of the case.

So how can philosophy help to untangle vexed social and political issues such as human rights, animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, social welfare, press freedom and responsibility, gun control, how to alleviate poverty, and when to go to war? Surely these are questions for practical people, not for ivorytower academics?

Practical experience of the problems is often invaluable. But philosophy here doesn’t mean anything fancy – it just means thinking as clearly as possible about the problem. Philosophers – by which I mean not just paid academics but anyone trying to apply reason to tackle difficult problems – can help by identifying precisely what the question is and what all the possible answers might be, by spotting where the protagonists in a dispute are talking at cross purposes or using the same words for slightly different ideas (that happens a lot!) by spotting and correcting logical fallacies, by identifying the underlying values and conflicting aims of the people involved. Of course, those who know something about the history of philosophy may also find it useful to bring to bear the ideas they have read about – what might Bentham have said about genetic engineering? What did Hobbes write about just wars? In all these ways, clear thinking by practical people can at least clarify problems even when it can’t solve them.

Philosophers have accordingly spent a great deal of time discussing animal rights, euthanasia and genetic engineering, but there has been remarkably little philosophical discussion recently about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty, given that it is a life or death issue if ever there was one. It isn’t due to any lack of contemporary relevance. George W. Bush’s 150 executions as Governor of Texas have been the subject of much recent attention for obvious reasons, and a deeply tasteless plastic death-row doll, which comes complete with its own electric chair, is being snapped up by loving parents for their kiddies this Christmas. (I wonder if it is sold in the educational toys department?)

Nor is the issue so clear-cut that the answer is obvious to all intelligent people. The American Philosophical Association weighed into the debate a year about with a public letter from a dozen top philosophers calling for abolition of the death penalty. By contrast, the great political philosopher John Stuart Mill gave a speech to the British House of Commons in 1868 supporting capital punishment, partly on the grounds that it was more humane to those convicted than a lifetime of penal servitude.

In this issue we take a look at criminal justice in general and at the death penalty in particular. Jane Forsey asks what it is we wish to achieve when dealing with convicted criminals, and critically considers each of the different ways in which punishment of criminals has been justified. Terri Murray identifies the various reasons one might give for supporting capital punishment – and finds fault with all of them. This isn’t an issue where it is morally possible for anyone to sit on the fence. In a democracy the treatment of criminals is decided by the voters and the conscientious officials who electrocute, garrote, poison or shoot convicted murderers (plus the occasional unlucky innocent) do so not out of some twisted sadism but because the voters have asked them to, or at least, haven’t asked them to stop doing so. So if you disagree with Terri Murray, do please write to our letters page and say why. Let’s get the debate going!

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