The death penalty: a threatening tone emanates from this phrase that brings around a mix of emotions. A term so downtrodden that it had to be neutralized to “capital punishment.” This faction of morality has superseded generations, and is still in and out of the political sphere today. Neither Left nor Right can collectively figure out the proper stance. Even libertarians are divided on this issue, but for us it comes down to one idea. Does the death penalty violate the non-aggression principle?
Initially, one would say yes, as the mere mention of ‘death’ implicitly represents the end all to violence, but I would encourage you to look closer. Libertarians who believe in the non-aggression principle are not pacifists. Non-aggression and pacifism are two separate ideologies. Pacifism is “the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means,” while non-aggression is the “absence of the desire or intention to be aggressive, especially on the part of nations or governments.” From simply analyzing the core beliefs associated with these two different philosophical approaches, it seems as if those who subscribe to the non-aggression principle are in fact not against matters of self-defense. Some may even go as far as retaliation or revenge. If there is one piece of crucial information that the reader needs to acknowledge, it is that non-aggression is not pacifism. This distinction is very important in evaluating a true stance on Libertarian views of the death penalty.
Let’s take a step back and look at the non-aggression principle from a more agreeable standpoint. An example seems to be the best method to explicate the core values associated with the non-aggression principle. If a criminal robs a bank for $50,000 and is caught, I would assert that they should be required to pay back that money. This is restitution, and restitution is eligible to any victim of a crime. Restitution can be a counterbalance for violation of the non-aggression principle. Restitution can even exceed the amount stolen if the victim had late payments because of the theft, lost their house or car, or even if they had court fees. Also, restitution can be paid back to another party, like a family member, in such cases as a fatal accident by a drunk driver. These payments might go to funeral expenses, the time family members had to take off from work, or debt from the deceased. Restitution is very flexible, and can vary depending on the certain case and the decision the court arrives at. Nevertheless, restitution is only one form of sentencing that can be applied by a court to address a violation of the non-aggression principle.
Judges, in addition to assigning restitution, have often employed strategic punishments that seek to provide justice in a tolerable, yet instructive, way. In a Utah Juvenile case, Judge Scott Johansen offered a reduction of a minor’s community service if the mother cut her daughter’s hair, which is what the assailant did to her victim in an ongoing bullying case. Community service was used in conjunction with other stipulations, including restitution. This proves that judges have at their disposal a wide variety of productive punishments that seek to reform criminals, rather than leave them to relish in their own mental faculties.
Judge Michael Cicconetti of Painsville, Lake County, Ohio, has very unorthodox tactics in sentencing people who have committed crimes. His sentencing directly correlates to the crime committed. To illustrate this judicial philosophy, we can look at one of his decisions. A teenage girl who skipped out on a 30 mile taxi fare had the choice of 30 days in jail or walk 30 miles in lieu of restitution. One lady who was convicted of animal cruelty for having a dog in a “horder-style house” had to pick up trash in the “stinkiest” part of a landfill. Judge Michael Cicconetti also had a man who solicited a prostitute dress up like a chicken with an embarrassing sign, let a man pepper spray his attacker, and had a man convicted of drunk driving view two bodies of people who were killed in a drunk driving accident. While this may sound like Judge Judy meets Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, MXC, Judge Michael Cicconetti swears that these tactics work, and by the non-aggression principle these sentences would not be out of line.
So, while these stories emanate a certain degree of hilarity, death penalty stories do not confer the same humor. The examples listed above show that there is a need for sentencing that is directly related to crime. This standard of judging is even a core principle in the reprimanding of children promoted by the National Parenting Center. These sentencing strategies are not just for minor crimes, but for major crimes as well. Granting amnesty, like soft sentencing murderers, is not sending the correct message. The death penalty, contrary to popular beliefs in our contemporary world, is not a cruel and unusual punishment, much to the dissatisfaction of the ACLU. Instead, in the case of murder, the death penalty is a viable consequence for horrific actions. I am not saying that we have a “Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” style court hearing, but moreover implement smarter legislation, like the two-trial system, that one must go through in order to prove absolute guilt and be sentenced, undoubtedly, to death.
To transfer my above iterations into a general idea, it can be concluded that the death penalty is not aggression being enacted on an innocent person. The death penalty is a last resort, used to sentence a person who has been tried and found guilty of aggression and the taking of another’s life. Holding someone accountable for their actions is not aggression, and when holding someone accountable, it is sometimes justifiable for the consequences to be just as extreme as the action.
Still ever-present is the notion that non-aggression is not pacifism. Pacifists would take no action against adversity, or criminals. Non-aggressors, however, will seek a punishment that matches the crime, and one that seeks to instruct rather than destroy. Despite the fact that the death penalty may be used in extreme circumstances to address criminals who have committed heinous acts, punishment, in general, should seek to reform, rather than condemn.
*This article was originally hosted on the Classy Libertarian but has since been removed.
You can read more from Rocky Ferrenburg on Think Liberty here.