Regarding a Murderer’s Right to Life


In a recent post, I wrote about the fact that people in our society wouldn’t tolerate government agents torturing a convicted felon because we know that even convicted felons have a right not to be tortured. In other words, we all know there are certain punishments that are impermissible because they violate rights we believe cannot be violated by our government.

And yet we don’t put the right to life on this list. Many people in our society believe that the right to life is something a person can forfeit as a result of his actions, even as they hold to the position that the same person doesn’t forfeit his right not to be tortured.

Here’s an example from a reader:

I am a good example of someone who strongly believes in the limited use of the death penalty but also strongly supports our 8th Amendment. This is based on the notion that there are some things that we must not permit government to carry out. One of those things is the infliction of great pain. Torture is, when used instead of execution, far worse than a death carried out in a few seconds. For lesser crimes, I am against the use of beating, etc. for the same reason…a violation of human dignity by the government. Even if some criminals deserve torture, our govt. must not be given the terrible power to inflict it.

As a state official I could never torture Nikko Jenkins. I sure could “pull the switch.“

I’m not sure about you, but this position doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t wrap my head around the notion that some rights – like a right not to be tortured – are absolute while the right to life, without which all of the other rights don’t really amount to a whole lot, can be violated by agents of the government. How is it possible that beating Nikko Jenkins is “a violation of human dignity” but pumping Jenkins’ veins full of poison to stop his lungs and heart, thereby causing his immediate death, is not “a violation of human dignity”?

Interestingly, another reader suggests I’m probably in the minority on this one:

In a hypothetical world where humans could know with 100% certainty that someone, say, abducted, raped and slaughtered a series of children and they were mentally healthy and morally aware as they did it, and they’d be immediately executed upon conviction, then hell yea, go ahead kill them, beat them, whatever. Problem is we can never have such certainties and swiftness in the system because humanity is imperfect. If you really think someone we are 100% sure to have done it and been mentally healthy while doing it still has an impermeable right to life that’s fine but you’re in a very, very small minority, even amongst anti-death penalty people.

The first reader supports the death penalty and would himself execute a murderer like Nikko Jenkins; the second reader opposes the death penalty because “the system is imperfect and thus we ought not to execute people who may in fact have been innocent or crazy, and the process itself is so crazy that it causes a long drawn out financial and emotional mess with all the appeals.”

But neither one of these readers can explain why they believe the right to life is the sort of right the government can sometimes violate. The second reader – the one who actually opposes the death penalty – believes that a murderer literally has no rights; he believes not only that a murderer forfeits his right to life, but also that a murderer can be executed immediately upon conviction, can be beaten, “whatever.” This is at least a consistent position, though it’s a very disturbing one to me because it suggests the complete dehumanization of offenders.

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