Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas

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  Perhaps one reason it was not clear to me at first is that they do not cite Aquinas’s clearest statement on the point:  “Vengeance is lawful and virtuous so far as it tends to the prevention of evil” (ST II-II 108.2).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”

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Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach

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”

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Three notes on the death penalty

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”

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