I often find that my students, like seemingly most Americans, tend to think in terms of individuals. It’s often nearly impossible for them to think in collective terms; their whole conceptualization of reality involves mental examples of individuals in particular circumstances rather than the circumstances’ effects on people collectively.
This can have some serious consequences. An example: it’s easy enough to argue for the death penalty if you only think of it in terms of a murderer and how he should be punished. (I happen to think this is still morally wrong, but the argument is easier to make.) But the problem with this line of thinking is that laws, such as the death penalty, are not made to apply to individuals; they are policy, to be applied to all people who fit a particular circumstance. Who defines whether a particular person fits that circumstance? Courts, judges, juries, etc.
Are courts and judges, the legal system generally, the humans who ultimately make the decisions that make that system run, all entirely infallible? Of course they’re not – which means that a policy that allows state execution of people convicted of certain crimes needs to face this fact: such a policy will, inevitably, require the state to kill innocent people. In other words, if you are in favor of the death penalty, you believe it’s okay for the state to kill innocent people.
And if you do believe this – say, because you think the death penalty has deterrent value – just how different are you from a murderer…who, of course, usually has a “reason” for his crimes…even if we sensible, ethical people would never accept it. But if it’s okay to kill innocent people for some particular reason – if the state endorses and enacts this position – then on what grounds are we to deny a murderer (an actual one – not merely an accused one) his interpretation of right and wrong and that his victim didn’t deserve killing? Only on the grounds that the state reserves to itself the power of life and death. But should we support a state whose claim to justice rests ultimately only in power, only in its claims to be beyond the ethical principles it compels the rest of us to live under? Isn’t such a state merely masking brute force under a rather flimsy veil of reasoning?
As an aside: it’s curious to me that people who back the death penalty most often call themselves “conservatives,” and regarding other political questions tend to believe that “that government governs best which governs least,” or even that government usually messes up whatever it touches. Except, apparently, in its deliberations over guilt or innocence when the accused’s life is at stake: then, suddenly, the state can do no wrong and can be relied upon, trusted, and expected to impose its power over the people. How’s that “conservative” again?
But then, your everyday conservatives are hardly philosophically consistent. Take another issue, abortion. A typical definition of the “moderate” anti-abortion position allows exceptions in cases of rape. (By the way: the usual phrasing is “except in cases of rape or incest,” which – given that we’re usually talking about father/daughter or other adult male relative/minor female incest – is utterly redundant.) In fact, the absolutist position is more consistent. Why – if you truly believe life is sacred and begins at conception – would you even consider an exception in cases of rape? Terrible, tragic, horrible for the woman…but if you truly believe we’re talking about a life here, of course you can’t countenance an exception.
Your so-called moderately conservative anti-abortionists, though, will. Why? In most cases you’re going to hear something along the lines that a pregnancy resulting from rape isn’t the woman’s “fault” (they may even actually say “and so she shouldn’t be punished for it”). And that, of course, gives the game away: the position of such “moderates” position is not based on sacred life beginning at conception, but on making sure women don’t misbehave – and, in fact, on forcing them to “keep their child” as punishment for their sexual transgressions. I can see no other possible line of reasoning by which the “rape” exception makes any sense when it’s coupled with an otherwise thoroughgoing prohibition on abortion. (It should be obvious that if you’re in favor of choice, there’s no such dilemma.)
So how’s that conservative again? The state is supposed to compel a woman to give birth, both as punishment for her failure to toe the line sexually and as discouragement to others (as in the idea that, say, sexual education or available birth control – or, indeed, the availability of abortion – will encourage “sexual misbehavior” on the part of women. Who, of course, become pregnant in consensual sex all by themselves…since the force of this moral fervor rarely is directed at any men).
And of course, the screaming discord between “life is sacred” and “let the state occasionally kill innocent people” is hardly worth talking about. Nearly as obvious as the rather prominent role of selfish convenience and moral intolerance in the conservative viewpoint.