Why is it that as we begin the 21st century, there still exist some states that possess the sanction to kill certain of its members? Apologists for capital punishment are moved by various arguments, some by the old adage, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." They see a penalty of murder for one who murders as a just punishment. Others see it as a way to protect society from further harm at the hands of the murderer, whether that be physical harm or the economic harm of having to house this individual perhaps for the rest of his or her life. Finally, the last major argument deals with the psychological nature of individuals in the society, that being that capital punishment is a deterrent against murder. Again, for the security of society, certain members of society need to be scared so as not to allow their worse natures to triumph and cause them to commit murder. Although none of these arguments are particularly compelling to the mindful man, they do seem to hold sway over a sizable portion of the population including more than a few intellectually gifted individuals. How then do we bring a state of mindfulness to those looking at the question of capital punishment?
It is very easy to demonize a stranger, see him as less that human, and consequently wish the demon dead. It is less easy to demonize a family member or friend since you know them too well, can see and understand the creativity and goodness, albeit sometimes still latent for the most part, that he or she can offer to society. Most of us do not have to ever deal with a murderer either from the point of view of a family member or as a member of the victim's family. Mr. Lewis E. Lawes was at one time the Warden of Sing Sing Prison. He dealt with murderers on death row on a daily basis. In a short article titled "Capital Punishment" he outlines how the courage of one prisoner in particular brought home to him how wrong Capital Punishment was. It is probably the case that some are born with a sense that Capital Punishment is wrong, others come to learn it by possibly having a family member put to death, and still others never come to possess this sensibility at all. How do we argue to those who do not share this sensibility the case against Capital Punishment?
The prominent American Lawyer, Clarence Darrow, wades into this debate with a look at the whole question of justice. In his address titled "Anti-Capital Punishment", he wrestles before his audience with the question of what is a just punishment for a given crime. As everyone's sense of justice is obviously different, and as we cannot possibly know the soul of another person, it would seem that it would be wise to err on the side of caution, especially if there is some Universal Law upon which our own sensibility is founded. After all, if we transgress Universal Law every time we kill, no matter what the seeming justification may be, then society may be digging itself into a deeper hole every time someone is executed in the name of justice. Some people claim to know these Universal Laws in whole or in part and point to this or that holy book as justification for their stance. How do we respond to this type of argument?
The pastor E. L. Rexford in an article printed in 1897 in Theosophy tries to tackle this type of argument. In his article, "Capital Punishment", Pastor Rexford argues for a type of spiritual evolution for Man and Society. There are many so-called laws found in the Bible that jar our moral sensibilities and no thoughtful individual would argue that we should return to them just because they are written in the Bible. It would seem then that there are some issues that as a society we are agreed upon and others that are still up for debate. Over time society learns its lessons and comes to have a body of knowledge about which it is fairly certain, while grappling with new issues.
Thus far we have been dealing with familiar world-views, but if our object is to find the Truth about Capital Punishment, perhaps for some it would be beneficial to look at other world views.
The Spiritual Scientist in 1874 printed an article that introduced a different angle by which to view the whole debate on Capital Punishment. In "Spiritualism and Capital Punishment", it is asked what happens to the criminal's soul that is violently ripped from its physical housing, and is it possible that this act may have measurable effects on the well-being of the society perpetrating this deed. The Theosophist, Dr. Franz Hartmann, along with making short work of arguments in favor of Capital Punishment, takes the observations of the Spiritualist and puts them into the context of a spiritual philosophy. By looking at the many principles that go together in making up a human being and by looking at certain universal laws, Franz Hartmann shows in his article, "Capital Punishment", how this murderous assault on the person of the criminal is at the same time an assault on society itself. Finally, William Q. Judge adds to Hartmann's argument by painting for us a picture of what we can plausibly expect from the still active astral soul of the executed criminal in his article, "Theosophy and Capital Punishment".
It may be that many of us do not believe in karma, astral and spiritual principles, or influences from the violently killed, but this does not make these things untrue. There are many truths that we are not aware of or choose not to believe and yet these truths continue working with or without that belief. If we are more motivated by fear than compassion, then if we are willing to put a man to death out of fear that he may murder again, despite there being no guarantee that he would, then perhaps despite the lack of a guarantee that an executed murderer might influence others to murder, we may out of fear decide to keep the man locked up for the rest of his days. It seems that with or without belief, we should possess enough compassion to look upon the murderer as we would a brother and allow that brother to live out his life so that he might be able to manifest some of that latent goodness that exists in all of us and make for himself a better soul and for the world a better citizen. This would seem to be the godly thing to do.