Perennially, in the West Virginia Legislature, a bill is introduced to reinstate the death penalty. For years the bill has never gotten out of committee. But I suspect that if a vote on it happened it would be reinstated. Thus, to help those who are opposed to the death penalty to argue against it, I introduce them to Albert Camus.
Born in Algeria to French parents, he became a novelist, dramatist, philosopher and journalist. He studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. Between 1937 and l941 he wrote the works that made him famous: the novel "The Stranger," the essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," and the play "Caligula."
After the occupation of France by the Germans in 1941, Camus became one of the intellectual leaders of the Resistance movement. He helped to found the underground newspaper "Combat" in 1943, was its chief editor during the war, and continued to write for it until 1946, when it began open publication after the liberation of France. Any veteran of World War II can relate emotionally and intellectually to those essays.
I felt opposed to the death penalty long before I had articulated arguments against it. I read much of the thinking of the opponents and proponents. But it was not until I read Camus' essay "Reflections on the Guillotine" that I became satisfied that I was on the side of truth about the death penalty. The essay is one of nine in a book titled "Resistance, Rebellion, and Death" published in 1974 after the death of Camus, who died in a car accident in 1960.
Here is the core of Camus' reflections on capital punishment:
"The number of bad or morbid predispositions our antecedents have been able to transmit to us is, thus incalculable. We come into the world laden with the weight of an infinite necessity. One would have to grant us, therefore, a general irresponsibility. Logic would demand that neither punishment nor reward should ever be meted out, and, by the same token, all society would become impossible. The instinct of the preservation of societies, and hence individuals, requires instead that individual responsibility be postulated and accepted without dreaming of an absolute indulgence that would amount to the death of all society. But the same reason must lead us to conclude that there never exists any total responsibility or, consequently, any absolute punishment or reward. No one can be rewarded completely, not even the winners of Nobel Prizes. But no one should be punished absolutely if he is thought guilty, and certainly not if there is a chance of his being innocent. The death penalty, which really neither provides an example nor assures distributive justice, simply usurps an exorbitant privilege by claiming to punish an always relative culpability by a definitive and irreparable punishment."
For the reader who has not read much Camus, this paragraph needs a good deal of clarification. What does Camus have in mind when he writes " ... the world laden with the weight of an infinite necessity?" It is the sea of determined causes and effects from the beginning of the history of life until this moment. That is, Camus did not believe in free will. He did believe in a determined existence.
The result of the weight of necessity is that Homo sapiens do not have a will that is free. If the will is not free then the acts of one is determined and thus no one should be blamed or rewarded. But then, says Camus, "society would become impossible." Therefore, it requires that society postulate individual responsibility. That is, even though human species have no free will society must declare that it does and function on the basis of free will and individual responsibility.
"But the same reason must lead us to conclude that there never exists a total responsibility or, consequently, any absolute punishment or reward. No one can be rewarded completely, not even the winners of Nobel Prizes. But no one should be punished absolutely if he is thought guilty, and certainly not if there is a chance of his being innocent."
Since one hasn't free will, he should not be rewarded for that which he cannot really be responsible or punished for that which he cannot really be accountable. But society must postulate individual responsibility in order to exist. Yet, as a result capital punishment should be abolished.
"The death penalty, which really neither provides an example nor assures distributive justice, simply usurps an exorbitant privilege by claiming to punish an always relative culpability by a definitive and irreparable punishment."
That is, the death penalty does not provide an example because it is exacted in the dark of night in a dungeon so to speak. No spectators. And it is not distributive because it is absolute. But it "usurps an exorbitant privilege: to wit, it takes over without right a costly privilege by claiming to punish an always relative, not absolute, culpability by a definitive and irreparable punishment.
Mann, a lawyer in Hinton, is a World War II veteran who was stationed in North Africa.