When a 20-year-old male raped a seven-year-old girl recently in the men’s bathroom of a Dros restaurant, the outrage that followed suit was understandable and very much warranted. Numerous calls were made for the death penalty to make its reappearance in South Africa. This is a completely natural reaction to an atrocious act of child rape. Let’s not pretend that the vast majority of us don’t wish harm on the son of a bitch who did it. Most of us instinctively wish death upon such a piece of scum. Yet, this does not justify reinstating the death penalty, and it never will.
The state is not some altruistic entity that can be blindly entrusted with a vast array of powers. The state, when given a pinkie, tends to devour the whole arm without giving it an ounce of thought. The same goes for the mob or, in layman’s terms, “the democratic majority.” Most people don’t want the state to infringe too much on their own lives, but this is where the problems start; most people only care about individual liberty when it is their own which is under threat, and stop caring about it when it threatens the liberty of those they despise.
The right to life is a natural right that accrues to all humans by virtue of them just breathing. This makes total sense from a libertarian perspective of negative natural rights and limited state power. Of all the things the state may not interfere with, a person’s right to life is the most important, as it forms the basis of individual freedom. Without life, all other natural rights accruing to us as individuals on the sole basis that we are alive cease to exist by default.
It is therefore no logical short-circuit to reason that the state is under the obligation to protect the life of all of its citizens, without distinguishing between those who “deserve” it or don’t from a moral perspective. It is here, however, that proponents of the death penalty point to the situation where a person threatens an innocent person’s right to life. Does the guilty party still deserve protection of their right to life? Well, obviously not, which is why legitimate self defense is permissible when your own life is threatened. Someone else may even protect you by killing the guilty party. It is, however, very important to note that such a situation can be viewed from two different viewpoints: the guilty party’s right to life either completely ceases to exist, or it is the protection it deserves that ceases to exist. I’m of the opinion that it is the latter. As stated earlier, the right to life is a natural right and not a man-made right conferred upon individuals by the state. It can therefore never cease to exist when a person is still alive. It is just the protection which the state is obliged to provide which can cease to exist. That’s why you can shoot to kill when someone puts your life in imminent danger.On the basis of the aforementioned, it can be concluded that the right to life is always in existence and it is merely the protection that it demands that ceases to exist. But what’s important to note is when a person is not deserving of such protection anymore. Put simply, such protection is not deserved when you put someone else’s life in imminent danger. Any other limitation on the protection of the right to life is an extremely grey area and constitutes a slippery slope. It is therefore that an arraigned murderer (or rapist or whatever vile criminal who people think should be put to death) can still demand protection of their natural right to life by the state. Yes, the protection ceased when they endangered other people’s lives and were in the process of murdering them, but only for the time period when this threat was imminent. The moment a murderer was arraigned by the authorities and thrown in a cage, they no longer pose an imminent threat to innocent civilians. To put them to death would be an extremely crude aberration of the principles underlying the right to life and its protections and, as mentioned before, constitutes a slippery slope that we simply cannot afford. The state is not your friend. Imagine being comfortable with a society where we are okay with people being killed who aren’t an imminent threat to anybody at the point in time when they are put to death.
Another popular pro-death penalty argument is that it serves as a deterrent. But what precedent are we setting? On the one hand, one can argue that we are making it clear that we won’t tolerate murder, but at what costs? This argument implies by default that we are giving the state the power to kill off people in order to make an example of them. In what world is this not a road to serfdom? Going down such a road has never been, is not, and will never be worth any perceived social benefit. The deterrence argument is just another “ends are justified by the means” argument when that is simply not the case.
When we give the state the power to take a life in any situation other than the situation where a person constitutes an imminent threat to others, we forego any measure of protection against the abuse of state power. Where do we draw the line then? On what solid grounds do we then justify taking a life, seeing as there aren’t any left? You cannot be in favour of liberty and limited state power whilst favouring the implementation of the death penalty. This is no false dichotomy; it is a choice you have to make. Either you favour considerable limitations on state power, or you side with the hypocrites of society who favour unbridled authoritarianism when it suits them.