Thursday, January 5, 2012

Reconsidering the Death Penalty In Ohio

Two of the major reasons often given for abolishing the death penalty are a respect for human dignity and a rejection of such an elective use of violence. Such ideas and ideals are often as important in foreign affairs as military and economic power.

In 2007, 88% of the executions worldwide occurred in China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. This is the company that we keep…
The most powerful psychological tool of tyrannical or totalitarian governments is the use of the death penalty. This does not even have to be pervasive to be persuasive as a threat. In 2007, 88% of the executions worldwide occurred in China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. This is the company that we keep, and they are quick to point to the United States to justify their use of coercive power and the death penalty.

Sixteen states and Washington D.C. have now abolished the death penalty. Internationally 136 out of 195 countries have abolished the death penalty. A country cannot belong to the European Union if it allows the death penalty. New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. Illinois has just abolished the death penalty in 2011 primarily as a result of a series of revelations that 20 people since 1977 in their state had been sent to Death Row who were later exonerated. In the period from 1973 to 2007 there was one Death Row prisoner in the United States who was exonerated for every nine Death Row prisoners who were executed.

There are many reasons to consider abolishing the death penalty in Ohio, but one should keep in mind a global perspective and the importance of ideas and the values behind those ideas. We now live in a pluralistic global community with relatively easy access to weapons of mass destruction. Eliminating the death penalty in Ohio and then eventually in the nation would be a good place to start in addressing the issues related to violence and terrorism in our time.

A major unacknowledged but obvious important conflict in international affairs, for example, is between moderate and radical Muslims, with the radical Muslims being defined as those who are willing to use lethal force based on religion as a means to their ends. This has included stoning women to death for infidelity, honor killings, assassinations for “blasphemy”, executions by the Taliban and al-Qaeda of farmers and journalists for political control, suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. As usual, the ends are used to justify the means. The means, however, define any group as much as the ends, and the means often come to distort the ends. We should do everything we can to focus world opinion on such issues. Abolishing the death penalty in Ohio and then our nation would help to do so. It would also help us understand and convey that the primary moral values in our constitutional democracy include equality understood as a respect for human dignity and our common humanity in addition to freedom.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What Medical Ethics has to Offer the Larger Field of Moral and Political Philosophy

Jobs, the economy,The debt crisis, foreign affairs in the Middle East, and immigration will all be significant issues in 2012 and in the next presidential election. My initial blogs, however, have addressed more fundamental problems about our ability to understand and convey to others our values and the nature of our government. Our primary moral concept is not freedom and our government is not just a democracy.

Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, and Lincoln all considered the primary moral concept of our government to be equality.
Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, and Lincoln all considered the primary moral concept of our government to be equality. The great reformers such as the women suffragettes and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not throw out the moral assertion that “all men are created equal,” but argued based on that principle that we should do a better job of living up to it. Our government is also a constitutional democracy and as such it incorporates both a quantitative procedural aspect of equality by voting on most issues with “one person — one vote.” Our Constitution with the Bill of Rights, however, also contains “higher law” substantive concepts of equality which limit the powers of government and protect individual freedoms and human rights against the possible abuses of simple majority rule. These were also ratified as part of our Constitution. Yet, for the last thirty years there has been almost no mention by academics, the media, or our government of equality understood as a respect for human dignity and our government has been almost always described as a democracy rather than as a constitutional democracy. In both domestic politics and foreign affairs language counts for it helps to shape the climate of opinion. In The Moral Foundations of United States Constitutional Democracy: An Analytical and Historical Inquiry into the Primary Moral Concept of Equality this position is explained and supported.

Medical ethics are also based on a moral assertion of a respect for life understood as a respect for human dignity and our common humanity. Medical ethics also understand human nature to be multi-dimensional with four principles which include autonomy, justice, non-malevolence, and beneficence. The four principle thus include individual (human rights), social (communitarian), logical (utilitarian), and metaphysical (deontological) perspectives.

Not only do medical ethics help us to better understand the primary moral assertion of the “self-evident” concept of equality as both a self-affirmation and an affirmation of our common humanity, but they also provide a very good explanation of the balance of powers in our constitution and our government. This position is explained in the essay What Medical Ethics has to Offer the Larger Fields of Moral and Political Philosophy.

Thomas Jefferson’s wrote the Declaration of Independence in the manner of Euclidian geometry. It’s first moral assertion that “all men are created equal” thus put everything that followed including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in that moral context. A universal moral sense or conscience was for Jefferson a basis of our common humanity and natural equality. Like a muscle of the body, this moral sense has to be developed by exercise, but for Jefferson it was a basis for our common humanity and this included women, American Indians, and blacks. It was what made persons capable of government by consent.

Slavery was the tragic flaw in the founding of our government. Jefferson was a slaveholder and this cannot be dismissed as only a concession to the society in which he lived. It was in his own self-interest and it allowed him to live an aristocratic lifestyle. He thus contributed to this tragedy. Yet, he understood the moral bankruptcy of slavery, its moral incompatibility with democratic government, and the need for its eventual abolition.

Jefferson wrote, “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” Fisher Ames, an early congressman from Massachusetts, wrote on the other hand that “I have heard it remarked that men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion they have not reasoned themselves into” The introduction to Moral and Political Philosophy is helpful for understanding many of the nuances and defining ideas of practical moral and political philosophy. A multi-dimensional understanding of human nature brings some coherence to moral and political philosophy. What is important is that the moral concept of equality understood as a respect for human dignity and our common humanity has at least the capacity for accommodation in a pluralistic global community.

Those who approach moral issues from the perspective of human rights, justice, a utilitarian greatest good for the greatest number, or from a metaphysical perspective such as the Golden Rule should all recognize that the underlying principle for each perspectives is that of equality and a respect for human dignity. Those who view politics only from the perspective of power should understand that to place oneself outside of a moral system logically implies that others can do so as well. We should have learned something from the tragedies of the Twentieth Century.

A relevant article from the far center: We grow weary of politics, but politics keeps the planet alive. by Charles Krauthammer