Truth or consequences

Garvey, John

Of several minds: John Garvey TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES COMMITTING A MORAL ABSOLUTE Toward THE beginning of the Iranian crisis I was talking to a man who believed strongly that immediate...

...to be safe, and free...
...This came home to me during a hearing of the Illinois house, which was debating the reinstitution of capital punishment...
...JOHN garvey 18 January 1980: 9...
...Wimp, do you mean to tell me that this animal should be allowed to live, and we should pay his room and board for the rest of his life...
...This realiCommonweal: 8 zation would preserve more lives in the long run than would be lost because of our show of strength...
...that capital punishment was inflicted disproportionately on poor people and members of racial minorities...
...The same deficiency shows up in a number of other places, for instance in the way we talk about Vietnam, or capital punishment, or abortion...
...What if it isn't, our opponents ask...
...Our ideas of good and evil are the legacies of people who believed in absolutes...
...Our country may be weaker, and is certainly perceived as a weaker country, because of our defeat in Vietnam...
...This declaration leads to the sensible question, why not, to which there is finally one answer: because human life is holy...
...Any time we are in danger of committing a moral absolute we scramble wildly in every other direction let's see, where's the evidence, hand me those statistics because it seems so damned unenlightened and even stuffy to say "I am against capital punishment because a decent society does not kill people, even it if works...
...All sound reasons...
...It can even come to this: in a situation where we can play one of two roles, victim and victimizer, the right thing is to be the victim...
...We can't discuss such issues as nuclear disarmament, captal punishment, abortion, the use of force, or the obligations of rich nations to poor ones, in any significant way if our strongest argument is that the right course of action is necessarily the most practical one...
...Our streets may be less safe because our system of justice tries to be fair...
...it is the cross...
...Wimp a very good question: if the deterrent value of capital punishment were proven, and if it were more evenly distributed across class and color lines, would he then support it...
...that it might even cause crime, since if you know that for one murder you will be fried, why not commit another...
...That's inconceivable...
...George Will has defended this line of thinking as well as it can be defended...
...But it leaves a hole which needs filling...
...it isn't allowed to point in any uncomfortable direction...
...And if we do not try to build up our weapons systems, we may in fact wind up weaker than our enemies...
...Virtue will succeed, vice will fail...
...you will lose, and suffer for it...
...What I am suggesting is this: it may be that there are instances where doing what is right means that you will not succeed...
...If the lives of the hostages were lost in the process, too bad...
...People who believe power can be used compassionately often make an assumption which is a hybrid of Christian puritanism and the rationalism of the enlightenment...
...Then another legislator, not at all a John Wayne sort, asked Mr...
...What if our opponents are right...
...I am not arguing that practical arguments for doing what is right should be' discarded...
...but it haunts me too, since most liberal and left-wing answers to it are deficient...
...But what if the evidence goes the other way...
...The assumption, loosely stated, is that what is right will be socially valuable...
...The ancient Greeks, Jews, and Christians were able to consider the possibility that virtue might mean dying, and that there might be instances under which survival and safety could only be had through treacherous means...
...A lawyer from the ACLU (we will call him Mr...
...The negative side of this assumption is that what we know to be bad (violence, coercion, threats, deception) will not work well in the practical realm...
...The answer wasn't an answer just a stammer of sorts, a repetition of belief that there was no such evidence and no real way of gathering it and as I listened I realized that what had happened was typical of a lot of liberal thought...
...But that rubs us up against an absolute again...
...Our society is not allowed to admit them...
...This was the triumph of the mother of the seven brothers whose story is told in Maccabees...
...It will have a practical application which will work out to the political advantage of everyone...
...to be good, and powerful...
...Insofar as this prevents us from living under a theocracy or any unquestionable orthodoxy, it is a good thing...
...In the only reading our culture allows, it doesn't get you anywhere...
...We seem to want it both ways to be as strong and respected as Rome, but not pagan...
...their lives are less important than an international realization that America can't be taken on so cheaply...
...Wimp probably hates words like "holy," but knows in some gloomy recess of his soul (he probably hates words like soul, too) that even if capital punishment were a proven deterrent, he would still oppose it, but he isn't sure why...
...Of several minds: John Garvey TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES COMMITTING A MORAL ABSOLUTE Toward THE beginning of the Iranian crisis I was talking to a man who believed strongly that immediate punitive action was necessary: unless we made Iran hurt and this hurting had to be obvious we would be sitting ducks in a world full of reasonable grudges against America...
...Wimp) was being interrogated by a thick-necked, red-faced legislator from a Chicago suburb, who described a particularly brutal rape and then leaned forward to ask, "Mr...
...Since there can be no absolutes this is an article of his faith he must find sensible reasons, reasons which can be backed up with evidence, for his belief that capital punishment is wrong, that we should not have done what we did in Vietnam, that we should not drop bombs on Iran...
...In a society with no feeling for absolutes we are tongue-tied...
...He exaggerated his incredulity, of course, because he knows that this is exactly what Wimp meant to tell him, pointing out along the way that capital punishment was riot a deterrent, or at least that its deterrent value had not been proven...
...It appalls me in just about every way...
...What if capital punishment does deter crime, abortion does relieve some burdens, and strong military action does prevent the rise of certain forms of tyranny...

Vol. 107 • January 1980 • No. 1


 
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