Seamless Arithmetic

March 5, 2010 § 5 Comments

There has been a lot of discussion over the years about how difficult it supposedly is to make the encyclical Evangelium Vitae cohere with the Tradition when it comes to the death penalty. See this recent discussion at Disputations, for example.
I don’t think it is all that difficult. Furthermore, I don’t think anti-abortion Catholics should be too quick to assert that it is difficult. While it is true that the Magisterium and Tradition are very clear on the grave immorality of abortion, the fact that all Catholics (including the ones at Vox Nova and Commonweal) have a grave duty to protest the legal right to abortion rests almost entirely on Evangelium Vitae, as far as I know. The garment may be somewhat more seamless than those on the Right are temperamentally inclined to concede, though that by no means makes it degenerate into the spandex whore’s costume proposed by the Left.
Anyway, I’ve cooked up an analogy which has the properties of transitivity and aggregation which appear to be assumed in some of the discourse on the death penalty. Here it is:

Suppose for the sake of argument that we can measure the proportionality of various criminal punishments (proportionality specifically in Thomistic terms of the extent to which the punishment opposes the will of the punished) in justice-units (JU).

Let’s further stipulate that the death penalty provides 95 JU in the case of a double-murderer, and that life imprisonment only provides 60 JU. Any punishment shy of 100 is just in itself, that is, the criminal deserves it. So there is nothing intrinsically wrong in carrying out the death penalty as long as we don’t exceed 100, that is, as long as our punishment doesn’t exceed what the criminal deserves. Once we exceed 100 the points count against us, not for us.

Furthermore, let’s suppose that it is a primary duty of the state, one among many, to (without punishing anyone more than he deserves) maximize average JU-per-crime as a factor in the common good.

Then along comes Evangelium Vitae. In it Pope John Paul II teaches, in addition to teaching that Catholics have a grave duty to protest the legal “right” to abortion, that while maximizing JU is indeed a duty of the state it is not the only duty of the state. Just punishment is not a goal of the state taken in itself, divorced from consideration of the common good more generally. The common good is more than merely meting out punishments which are deserved, full stop. This is consistent with the Tradition: St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that meting out the death penalty is only justified by reference to the common good, not as a thing in itself. Ultimate justice is for God, not the state. The state has responsibility for criminal justice – and therefore authority for carrying it out – only inasmuch as the state is steward of the common good.

In terms of the arithmetic analogy there is, say, some common good function CG in which the JU term is significant but is not the only term. The JU term is not valuable in itself from our standpoint as stewards of the common good, but rather is only valuable (and maximizing it is only justified) insofar as it doing so adds to the common good.

Suppose further that while the death penalty does have a positive effect on the JU term specifically, it also has negative effects on other terms. Systemically carrying out the death penalty is a mixed bag: properly done it does maximize JU, but it also necessarily subtracts from other important goods.

Therefore the state does not have a simplistic duty to maximize JU in itself, and cannot justify its actions based strictly on maximizing JU alone. The state has a duty to maximize CG, not JU, since JU is merely one factor in CG and its maximization is only justified to the extent doing so positively influences CG. In short, “he is getting what he deserves” is a necessary but not sufficient condition which must obtain in order for the state to have legitimate authority to carry out the death penalty. As in the case of a just war, other criteria in addition must be met.

Suppose, then, that carrying out the death penalty within the criteria of Evangelium Vitae does in fact have a net positive effect on CG. Applying it outside of the criteria of Evangelium Vitae has a net negative effect on CG.
Where is the incoherence?
It is one thing to question Evangelium Vitae piecemeal or in whole cloth on other grounds. But questioning it on the basis that it cannot be understood as coherent with the Tradition and prior Magisterium is I think clearly unfounded.

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§ 5 Responses to Seamless Arithmetic

  • William Luse says:

    “Suppose, then, that carrying out the death penalty within the criteria of Evangelium Vitae does in fact have a net positive effect on CG.”

    That's a big supposition.

    “Where is the incoherence?”

    There isn't any. It's a matter of emphasis, in which the amorphous concept of 'common good' is being emphasized at the expense of another very clear concept: just punishment.

  • zippy says:

    That's a big supposition.

    Well, it seems to me that it is either a supposition, one of some number of possible ones, if there is some other coherent interpretation of EV; or it is a teaching. If other suppositions lead to the conclusion that EV doesn't cohere with Tradition, those other suppositions are therefore suspect.

    There isn't any.

    Precisely the point. There isn't anything difficult about reading EV as coherent with the Tradition. Folks may want to reject or argue with it for other reasons, of course. I'm temperamentally hawkish on punishment myself, which is why I find it odd to always end up in these kinds of discussions.

    But the notion that it is impossible or even difficult to reconcile EV with the Tradition is a non-starter, and the truth is more important than my temperamental inclinations.

  • Tommy says:

    Suppose, then, that carrying out the death penalty within the criteria of Evangelium Vitae does in fact have a net positive effect on CG.

    Suppose, then that a good and just Catholic ruler carries out this careful judgment and finds that the death penalty within the criteria of Evangelium Vitae is appropriate more often than “rarely or never”. Some would read EV to say that he MUST be in error in his judgment. And many of these would support this claim by 2 points: (1) that the Pope said otherwise, and (2) in particular, it is manifest the DP is rarely or never needed to defend society from further depredations of this particular criminal, in today's penal systems.

    To which I would answer (1) that the Pope was not putting forward his thesis on this point as definitive teaching – he constrained it as applying with respect to a particular cultural environment, certain countries participate in the pertinent aspects of that culture more or less completely (itself a matter of degree and judgment), and his judgment on that issue is not protected from error. (And I would be supported in this position by at least one bishop.)

    And on (2), relying solely on the sheer mechanical aspect of physical restraint from other crimes by this particular criminal fails to account for the full range of effects on the common good, and to restrict attention to that one detail would be a reductionist approach that is contrary to the Pope's method.

  • zippy says:

    Some would read EV to say that he MUST be in error in his judgment.

    And they might even be right. Bringing that back around to the point of the post, if they are right – or if they are wrong for that matter – that doesn't in either case present a problem in seeing EV as coherent with the Tradition.

    … to restrict attention to that one detail would be a reductionist approach that is contrary to the Pope's method.

    I certainly agree, indeed it is the central point of the post, that there is no coherence problem unless we take a false reductionistic approach to the subject matter. Restricting attention to the one detail of whether or not the criminal deserves death would also be reductionistic and contrary to the Pope's method.

  • Tommy says:

    that there is no coherence problem unless we take a false reductionistic approach to the subject matter. Restricting attention to the one detail of whether or not the criminal deserves death would also be reductionistic and contrary to the Pope's method.

    To that I completely agree. On both sides, both reductions.

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