Stephen Nathanson’s “An Eye for an Eye”

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According to Stephen Nathanson’s “An Eye for an Eye?”, he believes that capital punishment should be immediately abolished and that the principle of punishment, “lex talionis” which correlates to the classic saying “an eye for an eye” is not a valid reason for issuing the death penalty in any country, thus, abolishment of Capital Punishment should follow. Throughout the excerpt from his book, Nathanson argues against this principle believing that one, it forces us to “commit highly immoral actions”raping a racist, for instance, or torturing a torturer” and two, it is not applicable for all crimes”what punishment should we give for drunk drivers or embezzlers? (Nathanson 380).

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Though I disagree with Nathanson’s notions to abolish capital punishment, let me be extremely clear: if and only if a homicide or any intentional killing was the case, should the last resort of capital punishment ever be used. I agree with his reasons for the fact that the principle ‘an eye for an eye’ is not a justifiable argument for anti-abolisher to use as it does not hold accountable for all the different crimes. And for this principle to be used as one of the reasons to retain the death penalty, it must be bulletproof, without anyone criticizing and arguing against it.

That being said, a concrete reason to retain the death penalty can be constructed from the arguments against the death penalty itself. Many of the abolitionists believe that “capital punishment violates a murderer’s right to live” and that “criminal law system which includes this punishment [capital punishment] is contradictory, in that it prohibits murder and at the same time provides for it perpetration”. Firstly, how do we regard someone human, giving them the same rights as other non-murdering citizens, when they have forcibly taken other people’s rights to life and humanity themselves? If for some reason, abolitionists regard the right of living as absolute, they too, will have to dismiss the actions of “war, revolution, and self-defense”. Furthermore, contradictions to the state’s law of death penalty will allow the same thing to be said for other crimes such as time in prison being “contradictory to the legal protection of liberty” (Primoratz 370, 373).

Abolitionist can easily say that Death Penalty is immoral and injustice and should be abolished immediately because the hard truth is that they have never been in a situation in which their loved ones are brutally killed without any reason to by someone who has no regard of a human life and, thus, is undeserving of it. Knock on wood but if that does happen, I am almost certain that those abolitionists’ opinion on the death penalty will change.

Capital Punishment has always been regarded as a sinful and immoral justification to avenge one’s death, forcing us to focus on the evil and wrongful taking of a human life but what about the mercy we are handing to these undeserved criminals? Isn’t it mercy to kill someone instead of prolonging his and his families’  suffering, knowing that at the end of the day, he will die in prison alone? Many criminals that have given the penalty of life imprisonment, go mentally mad before they die. Isn’t that mercy letting them die in their natural healthy state?

Death Penalty is not only a means to an end. Yes, it ultimately stops the same criminals from doing any more destruction to humanity but doesn’t life imprisonment achieve the same result? It does, but just like there is a minute chance that the person put on a death row is innocent, there is also that tiny chance that the criminal might escape from prison. We can’t take even a small chance on losing another invaluable life by the same hands.

Death Penalty is also about having justice. Immanuel Kent, a German philosopher, once said “What kind and what degree of punishment does legal justice adopt as its principle and standard? None other than the principle of equality…the principle of not treating one side more favorably than other” (Nathanson 381). With philosopher Kent’s words in mind, one human life has the same value as another. Hence, if you do not take a murderer’s life, you are implicitly saying that his life is more valuable, more important than the life of his victim. Capital Punishment is equaling the balance of life, showing that no one human life is more valuable than another.

That brings me to my last point on retaining the death penalty. Abolitionist has insisted on the idea of “Proportional Retributivism” as an alternative to the death penalty. If punishment should be proportional to the crime meaning that “the more serious the crime was, the higher on the punishment scale was the punishment administered”, then the crime of murder would be life imprisonment (Nathanson 384). One might ask: Isn’t life imprisonment just as good as the death penalty as it strips the criminal of any rights and life he could ever have? It might seem that way but in today’s prison system, prisoners are allowed the chance to learn and teach something that the victim of a murder would never get the ability to do. A huge drug trafficking case Bali Nine happened in 2005 in my country, Indonesia, that involved 8 Australians transporting drugs from Bali to Australia. Two of the men were sentenced to death (though I did not agree with their punishment as they did not kill anyone), most of them got a lighter sentence of life imprisonment. During their prison sentence, most of them got to get a degree, start a company and even become Christians (Wikipedia). Therefore, any other punishment other than the death penalty is not proportionate of the act of murder, since “as long as the murderer is alive, no matter how bad the conditions of his life may be, there are always at least some values he can experience and realize” (Primoratz 372).

For the reasons of justice for the innocence, not allowing murderers to have the same right as us, looking at death penalty as mercy and removing all chance of more deaths, I believe that death penalty should still be retained and even reinstated in every country, but only for the sole purpose of punishing murderers.

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Stephen Nathanson's "An Eye for an Eye". (2019, Oct 12). Retrieved from