Morality and Redemption: A Dialogue on the Death Penalty Inspired by Troy Davis

By Jaron Zanerhaft and M. Alexander

After years of appeals, Troy Davis was put to death last night for the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail.  This blog is not meant to speculate whether he was guilty or innocent, but to discuss the morality of capital punishment.  As two competent and intelligent young men, we began a dialogue from the perspective of getting a second chance at life.  We started with a single question:

Is execution a moral punishment?

Jaron: What’s the difference between life in prison and the death penalty?  The law regards the latter as more extreme, and any code of morals will tell you that above all else, life is what we should preserve.  But I believe that in some ways, the death penalty does more to preserve life than sentencing life in prison.  Also, for some, finishing out one’s days in prison is a fate worse than death, so a lethal punishment is, in some cases, less punitive than indefinite incarceration

Michael: Jaron, while this is an insightful commentary on the hideous nature of prison, it doesn’t really address the morality of such a punishment.  You say “for some…life in prison is a fate worse than death,” but the death penalty takes away the opportunity for redemption.  While “wasting” away in prison, you have the opportunity to make t’shuvah for your actions.  Tookie Williams wrote children’s books.  A lifer can take action and make amends, while somebody put to death does not have this opportunity.  Taking away the opportunity for life is the greatest punishment.  And it is immoral to take away this opportunity from anyone.  The only exception I can think of is if the prisoner still proves to be a threat to humanity while behind bars.

J: And you are giving that exception far too little weight.  How often do we hear of prison, not as a successful correctional facility, but as a breading pool for a more potent type of criminal?  Opportunities for individual improvement must always be judged with the drawback of the potential for an outbreak of educated derisiveness. I do believe in the chance, however, for redemption.  However, I think the death penalty and the state of our prison systems are inextricably tied.  Currently, I do not believe that these chances, these hopes for the treatment of the disease of criminality, are as available as you seem to think. It is certainly a mournful, barbaric practice, but it serves as a blaringly necessary reflection of an often-overlooked amoral system.

M: The question that we started with, “Is the death penalty moral?” isn’t really the question. You are saying that it is necessary in an already amoral system.  You are saying that it is ok because it highlights the barbarity of the rest of our system.  Life in prison is cruel and immoral, but it would not be noticed if there was no death penalty.  The utter immorality of it is what makes it moral?  I’m sorry Jaron, but I don’t think that a human life should be used as an example, as an impetus for possible future change.

J: Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe execution (murder, in far kinder words), is ever moral.  Perhaps, though, in our society, it is more humane than the alternative.

M: So, by an extension of your statement (if you permit me to make a reach) a “free man,” meaning a man who is not incarcerated, but a man who is a victim of a life sentence of socioeconomic and cultural persecution, a man destined to live miserable life — he should be put to death because it is better than our society’s immoral treatment of “the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.”

J: Misery of the prosecuted has nothing to do with it.  And I do not wish venture postulation on who is to blame for crime – that seems to be your realm.  I only wish to protect the marginalized, vulnerable fringe of our society who, despite tribulation, manage to maintain social decency.

M: Good for you.

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2 thoughts on “Morality and Redemption: A Dialogue on the Death Penalty Inspired by Troy Davis

  1. Interesting debate. I have always struggled with this issue. On the one hand I don’t believe it is our duty to punish someone by taking their life. Form my gut I am opposed to the death penalty. On the other hand, would I take that stance if that someone murdered someone I love?. It would be a tough call. This I know for sure, I admire people who find it in their hearts to forgive the murderer of their loved one.

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