Feser and Bessette structure their argument for capital punishment carefully. Their fourth general premise is that some wrongdoers deserve death, but they spell out as a fifth and separate premise the notion that someone has the authority to inflict that death upon the wrongdoer:
Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.
As I noted in my original post on the death penalty, the fact that someone deserves death does not of itself imply that any human being has the authority to impose it. Accordingly, F&B devote an entire subsection of their argument to showing that the government in particular does have that authority.
However, I think there is a small gap in their case. Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The authority of government”
Feser and Bessette take on this moral question: Is it ever OK to kill a human being, supposing the person is guilty? And as we have seen, Feser and Bessette’s general approach to morality is that one must observe the teleology built into the natures of things—what a given thing is ordered toward—and then act in accordance with that teleology. So it comes as a complete surprise that their moral argument never—not once—speaks about what a human being is ordered toward. What would seem to be the key, namely the telos of the human person, is absent from their book. Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1”
As Feser and Bessete wind up their argument about punishment as such, they note that punishment has traditionally been considered to have several purposes: in addition to retribution, it can also serve to deter future crime or rehabilitate the criminal. “But,” they go on, “as our discussion indicates, for the natural law theorist, retribution is not only a legitimate end of punishment: it is the fundamental end” (page 40). Further down they make explicit what they mean: “For, all things being equal, we may punish even if we will thereby achieve no end other than retribution; but we may not punish if retribution is not at least one of the ends aimed at.”
However, still further in, F&B allow that “some traditional natural law theorists think” that we can’t “inflict a punishment merely to secure retributive justice,” and they go on to offer some citations from Aquinas (57). It was only on my second read that I realized F&B are saying that Aquinas disagrees with them about punishment. Perhaps one reason it was not clear to me at first is that they do not cite Aquinas’s clearest statement on the point: “Vengeance is lawful and virtuous so far as it tends to the prevention of evil” (ST II-II 108.2). Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas”
To support the first and second premises of their general argument, Feser and Bessette must argue that punishment is a good thing. Their case can be set out in four steps:
- We observe in the world that, for the most part and when things are working properly, people who act in accordance with the in-built teleology of things end up with pleasure and happiness while people who act against the in-built teleology of things end up with pain and misery.
- We reason that what happens for the most part and when things are working well reflects the natural teleology built into the world.
- We conclude that actions in accord with natural teleology have an ordering to pleasure and happiness while actions against natural teleology have an ordering to pain and misery.
- When someone acts badly but ends up without pain or misery, we see this as a violation of step 3 and so we inflict pain on him in order to bring things back into line with the natural teleology whereby bad actions are ordered to pain and misery.
Let me offer the argument in F&B’s own words. It’s a lengthy text, but the argument seems so odd to me that I want the reader to see it spelled out—unless you’re in a hurry, in which case skip to the critique after these long quotations: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Case for Punishment”
In Feser and Bessette’s philosophical case for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, the first thing to notice is their general approach to moral reasoning. They claim to represent traditional natural law theory, which they put forward as the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas and advocated by Pope St. John Paul II (page 21), and they devote a few pages to explaining what this approach is.
The approach set out, however, does not appear to me to be what Aquinas and JPII had in mind. Let me explain with a couple of examples from F&B’s principles: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach”
No matter what criticism one brings against their book or its argument, one must admit that Feser and Bessette make their argument clear. On page 52, they offer an overview of their philosophical argument for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty. Notice that steps 4, 5, and 6 form a syllogism:
- Wrongdoers deserve punishment.
- The graver the wrongdoing, the severer is the punishment deserved.
- Some crimes are so grave that no punishment less than death would be proportionate in its severity.
- Therefore, wrongdoers guilty of such crimes deserve death.
- Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.
- Therefore, public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict the death penalty on those guilty of the gravest offenses.
Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Philosophical Argument, overview”
After my recent post about the death penalty, I bought the new book by Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed. They offer a veritable encyclopedia on the issue, taking up all manner of objections and citing all manner of sources. Over the next few posts, I would like to offer my reactions to at least the first part of their work.
To start with, their strongest point: the theological argument of chapter 2 is imposing. Citing not only sources but even critics of the death penalty, Feser and Bessette bring out the following: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Theological Argument”
The Solemnity of All Saints stands out for me as—well, solemn. By celebrating the communion of saints as such, the day seems to offer thanksgiving for the fact that we celebrate the saints, for the very existence of the sanctoral cycle. So every November 1st, I find myself reflecting on the fact of sacred days and times.
Charles Taylor argues that a loss of the sense of sacred time was key in the transition to modernity. Medieval man experienced times as defined by content and as ordered not only by chronology alone, so that “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” But modern man experiences time as homogeneous and empty, ordered simply by one time’s replacing another in sequence. Modern man can believe in eternity, says Taylor, but he can’t experience eternity’s penetration into time in a naïve, unreflective way.
Taylor is surely right that this was one strand in the transition to secularity. But how absolute a doom is modernity? Can a man today experience sacred time in an immediate way, or will it always be mediated to him through some kind of abstract consideration? Or will it—even worse—always be constituted by a wistful recollection of a bygone era when Christians really experienced the seasons, like those nostalgic Christmas cards depicting horses and sleighs and Victorian houses?
In this post, I want to describe my own experience of sacred time. I don’t know whether it would count for Taylor as “immediate” or “naïve,” but there is something immediate and unreflective about it to me. The experience is complex, because time is complex. Continue reading “Experiencing Sacred Time”
Over the past year, I have made slow progress toward deepening my grasp of moral philosophy. As a philosopher, I am still not ready to join all the discussions that swirl around the Internet.
But when people began to wrangle about Pope Francis’s comments on the death penalty, I noticed a few points that I could contribute as a theologian. Here are some key lines from the Holy Father’s remarks:
It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.
This is a strong argument, to be sure. I hope to do some justice to the strength of the argument below. But as a Catholic biblical scholar, I see three points that might deserve consideration: Continue reading “Three notes on the death penalty”
As a college teacher, I often have to reflect on what a college education really aims at. What should we be doing?
Jesus was asked a similar question once: “What is the greatest of the commandments?” The question was very broad, of course: it meant something like, “What should we be doing with the whole of our lives?” But the answer he gave, because it applies to every part of life, applies to a college as well. He cited Deuteronomy 6:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord and you shall love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
One could spend a life unpacking that one sentence. But what I want to focus on now is the fact that Jesus didn’t quote it the way it is found in Deuteronomy—the way I just wrote it out. What he said was this: Continue reading “To love the Lord with all your mind”