O’Donnell on Religion and Capital Punishment

I enjoy looking through Patrick O’Donnell’s bibliographies on various subjects, and this post — with some thoughts (generally negative) about the relationship between capital punishment and certain religious ideas — as well as the link to an instructive list of references, is both interesting and useful.

Koritansky’s “Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment”

I am very excited to read this new book by Peter Karl Koritansky (University of Prince Edward Island), Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment (CUA Press 2011).  My own view is that punishment theory and punishment policy might greatly benefit from a historical turn, rediscovering (or, often enough, discovering for the first time) the richness and depth of perspectives on punishment which have, for one reason or another, been forgotten in the historical firmament or perhaps even ignored altogether.  Thomas Aquinas is neither forgotten nor ignored, but this is one of the only full-length book treatments of his thought about punishment of which I am aware, and it is certainly the only one which connects directly to the present debate about punishment theory and punishment practice today.  Cool.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment explores how Aquinas’s understandings of natural law and the common good apply to the contemporary philosophical discussion of punitive justice. It is the first book-length study to consider this question in decades, and the only book that confronts modern views of the topic.

Peter Karl Koritansky presents Thomas Aquinas’s theory of punishment as an alternative to the leading schools of thought that have dominated the philosophical landscape in recent times, namely, utilitarianism and retributivism. After carefully examining each one and tracing its roots back to Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, Koritansky concludes that neither approach to punitive justice is able to provide a philosophically compelling justification for the institution of punishment. He explains how St. Thomas approaches the same philosophical questions from a markedly different set of assumptions rooted in his theory of natural law and his understanding of the common good.

Not without its own difficulties, Aquinas’s approach offers a rationale and justification of punishment that is, Koritansky argues, much more humane, realistic, and compelling than either contemporary school is able to provide. Koritansky distinguishes his reading of the Angelic Doctor from that of other interpreters who tend to conflate Aquinas’s teaching with various aspects of recent thought. A final chapter considers the death penalty in John Paul II’s Gospel of Life and debates whether current Catholic teaching about the death penalty conflicts with Aquinas’s arguments in favor of the death penalty.

Religion and (Capital) Punishment

Here’s a post by David Gibson which links to a piece by Christopher Hitchens, which in turn claims (in his usual free-wheeling style) that the reason that the United States continues to permit capital punishment is because of the country’s religiosity.  Gibson disputes the assertion by citing some numbers from other countries that aren’t particularly religious, but his point seems to be that whether religion and capital punishment are linked will depend on which religion one is talking about.

I suppose that’s true, but I think it may miss something much larger.  The most fundamental reason (historically, at least, though not only that) to punish people is retributivist — that those who commit crimes are morally culpable and so deserve punishment.  The contemporary rarification of punishment theory tends to obscure the fact that ideas of retribution are ancient and have at least a large part of their historical root in religious traditions and concepts — especially the monotheistic religious traditions which, again historically, have been most prominent.  So it should not be surprising that there is a connection between religious traditions and capital punishment, since there is a much broader and deeper connection between religion and the prototypical justification of punishment.   — MOD

Ledewitz on The Morality of Capital Punishment

Bruce Ledewitz (Duquesne University – School of Law) has posted The Morality of Capital Punishment: An Exchange. The abstract follows. – ARH

During the month of December, I participated in a debate about the death penalty with Dr. Ernest van den Haag. The debate was sponsored by the newly-formed Duquesne Law School chapter of the Federalist Society. During this debate, I expressed the view that secular society lacks “permission” to impose the death penalty. Dr. van den Haag responded at the time that “we give ourselves permission.” Later, Dr. van den Haag agreed to a brief, further exploration of this theme in the pages of the Duquesne Law Review. What began for me as an exploration of God’s permission for the death penalty in a secular state, has evolved into a consideration of the religious assumptions underlying the death penalty in a secular state. In order to identify these assumptions, it is first necessary to examine the secular justifications for the death penalty given by Dr. van den Haag.