Please Don't Bury Me Down In the Cold Cold Ground / I'd Rather Have Them Cut Me Up and Pass Me All Around

Graeme Wood, meet Gil the A.R.M.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for pointing me to Graeme Wood’s piece.)

Seriously, folks: Larry Niven, being a science fiction writer, exaggerates for effect. But I think the effect he predicts is real. If we harvest the organs of condemned criminals, that will change our attitudes towards the death penalty at the margins. In particular, it will be a cogent argument for the death penalty and against life in prison. Alive, John Doe is a psychotic multiple-murderer who we cannot imagine redeeming himself. Dead, John Doe could save the lives of half a dozen people in desperate need of livers, lungs, kidneys, hearts.

When the prophet Samuel commanded King Saul to exterminate the Amalekites, he told him to wipe them out completely: leave no trace, living or material, of their existence on earth. Saul dutifully wiped out the Amalekite army, and slaughtered all the men, but he spared the Amalekite king, Agag, and took booty – cattle, jewels, furnishings, and slaves. Of course, he made a generous sacrifice to the Lord from the booty, but Samuel rebuked him, saying that the Lord does not want sacrifices: he wants obedience. And then the prophet slew Agag, hewing him into quarters before King Saul’s eyes.

For this disobedience, Samuel says, Saul will lose the crown; David, not Saul, will found the eternal dynasty ro rule the Israelite tribes. But what was Saul’s sin? It might seem that his sin was failing to kill Agag. But in fact, his sin was slaughtering the Amalekite nation. The only justification for that act of genocide was an explicit command from God. Without that justification, the murder of so many people would be a terrible crime. But because he spared Agag, and took booty, it was plain that Saul was not following the command. Hence the full weight of the sin of murder was on his head.

I have never found justifications for the death penalty on the basis of deterrence to be especially compelling, because I do not think that the utility to be derived (arguably) from execution is any kind of justification for taking the life of a defenseless person. The only justification for the death penalty is that the convicted person deserves to die – that the moral order demands death. I’m not endorsing that argument, but I respect it. I wouldn’t want to muddy the question by providing more arguments from utility.