The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 15, 2018

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Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe (part 2)
Pierre Manent - 04/17/08
  1. “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition (Libreria Editrice Vaticana), art. 2267, 546.
  2. “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”Ibid.
  3. I presuppose here that abolition of the death penalty signifies a progress in “mildness” and “compassion.” These two dispositions or affects, and those connected with them, would require a much more careful analysis than I can provide here. In principle, we are distrustful of our “noble feelings,” but compassion seems to escape this rule of suspicion. Our compassion is revolted at the death penalty, but it seems to accept without any difficulty sufferings that occur in prison. Prison is that instrument of torment that we refuse to look at and name as such. What we really find intolerable is any visible assault on bodily integrity. Even in the United States one tries to reduce the visibility of this assault by means of death by lethal injection.
  4. See Peter Sloterdijk: “The function of fear in politics is a problem that Americans share with Arabs: neither has really known the Hobbesian ‘castration’—that is, the submission of the wild pride of the citizen to the sovereignty of the State.” Peter Sloterdijk and Alain Finkielkraut, Les Battements du monde (Paris: Pauvert, 2003), 99.
  5. This “general recognition” is far from being unanimous, I know. The past few years has seen a movement to moderate this punitive alacrity. But if democratic mildness continues to manifest itself, including at the level of the Supreme Court, it seems to me that, above all, what is at issue in the United States is less the principle of the death penalty than the conditions of its application. I could be wrong, of course.
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