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October 23, 2004

Equivalence Between Certainty and Judgment

I realize I'm being a little unfair to David Morrison by not emphasizing his subsequent comments about the death penalty. However, the following paragraph, from a post decrying the uneven religiosity of political candidates, struck me as pretty typical of this sort of equivalence:

Kerry: I believe abortion is wrong but I will press a pro-abortion agenda as President. Bush: As a society we have obligations to our poorest citizens and our senior citizens but I am not going to oppose a federal law that forbids the Medicare program from negotiating with drug companies for more affordable drug prices.

The Kerry line is clear: abortion is wrong, but not only won't I fight against it, I'll fight for it. The Bush line, on the other hand, dives into the mire of healthcare policy. Allow me to rephrase it in accordance with my considered conclusion about that particular matter:

As a society we have obligations to our poorest citizens and our senior citizens, so I am not going to oppose a federal law that forbids the Medicare program from making the pharmaceutical industry an all-or-nothing business and/or driving the prices so low that companies will exit the market.

As I understand, the law to which David refers still allows regional subdivisions of Medicare to negotiate as desired — just not as a single, government-created behemoth in the market.

Catholics, in particular, seem to have an underlying desire to see their moral sense as transcending politics, and one relatively simple way to enable that self-impression is to split the difference between any two parties or candidates. Unfortunately for that strategy, it will sometimes happen that one side is overwhelmingly preferable to the other. When that's the case, we might find it easier to insist on the existence of substantial disagreement, rather than wonder whether isolated incidents of conflict mean we've misjudged specific issues.

An inclination to equate clear and dire contradictions with intricate policy judgments ought to give us reason for pause.

I didn't delve into the death penalty aspect, here, because it raises far more difficult questions, having to do with differences between various branches of Christianity as well as uncomfortable comparisons of magnitude and guilt with respect to death. Still, although I move further from support for the practice the more I consider it, some form of legalized death penalty still seems to me a matter of judgment — far more so than abortion, at any rate.

After all, when the second criminal rebukes the other that they had been "condemned justly, for the sentence [they] received corresponds to [their] crimes," Jesus did not contradict him.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 23, 2004 2:38 PM

Justin, sorry but just because Bush's failure to let his faith inform his political positions is worse than Kerry's, it doesn't give him a pass in my opinion.

Posted by: David Morrison at October 23, 2004 2:57 PM


Posted by: Justin Katz at October 23, 2004 3:00 PM

I don't understand why "As a society we have obligations to our poorest citizens and our senior citizens" translates into "the federal government has to provide health insurance for everyone" (or is required to intervene in the marketplace, or whatever policy prescription you want must be enacted, etc.). It seems to me that the first statement is largely inarguable - very few people think that society does not have obligations of various sorts. The questions hinge on the mechanisms by which we should meet those needs. And to what level we should meet those needs (i.e. nobody argues that the homeless should be put up in a 5-star hotel gratis). "Society" contains a large variety of institutions and groupings of people, and it does not always work through the federal government.

As to the death penalty issue, I do not know the full teaching of the Catholic Church on the issue. But the basic reason that I support it (with the caveat that we often do a very poor job of implementing it) is that for the crime of murder, you devalue the victim's life if you don't claim an equal measure of justice for the murderer. Life in prison for 1st degree murder necessarily says that the punishment is equal to the crime. But it manifestly is not. Thus over time, you inculcate the idea that the victim's life is worth less than it in fact is, because you're in effect saying that his life is worth less than the murderer's life.

It may be that for an individual Christian, the proper thing to do is forgive the offender, and pray for their conversion. But this is a different matter than the proper course of action for the state to take. And there is certainly lots of gray area in terms of determining what crimes should be eligible for the death penalty, whether there should be a higher level of evidence required, etc. But I think it is wrong to take the death penalty off the table completely.

Posted by: Mike S. at October 25, 2004 11:00 AM