Feser and Bessette: The Philosophical Argument, overview

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:

  1. Wrongdoers deserve punishment.
  2. The graver the wrongdoing, the severer is the punishment deserved.
  3. Some crimes are so grave that no punishment less than death would be proportionate in its severity.
  4. Therefore, wrongdoers guilty of such crimes deserve death.
  5. Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.
  6. Therefore, public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict the death penalty on those guilty of the gravest offenses.

There is the argument, for anyone to love or hate.  One of the strengths of their case is that they force attention onto the individual parts of the issue:  before you can argue about the death penalty, you have to think about “penalty” or “punishment” in itself; you have to ask why and how punishments are proportioned to crimes; you have to examine the nature of the public authority, asking how such an authority could do things morally that private citizens cannot.  Feser and Bessette bring a patience and care to their case that one can only admire.

Over the next few posts, I will offer a few criticisms of their case.  While I agree with each of the premises listed above, at least as I understand them, at several points I disagree with how they argue for the premises.  And I think that they omit discussion of at least one important topic.

My intention is not to undermine their case, but to work toward a better one.  When it comes to important issues, we should not support an argument just because it reaches the conclusion we favor.  If someone discovers that the argument is flawed, they are liable to conclude further that its conclusion is wrong.  I am not the best person to discover and offer the best argument in this case, but perhaps if I record my criticisms of the case put forward by Feser and Bessette then later I will have a better view of how to replace it.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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