Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tollefsen on capital punishment

My article “Punishment, Proportionality, and the Death Penalty,” a reply to Christopher Tollefsen’s latest piece on capital punishment, is now up over at Public Discourse.  (If you’re trying to keep track of the recent debate: Tollefsen’s earlier Public Discourse article on capital punishment can be found here, and I replied to it here, with a follow-up here.  Steven Long replied to Tollefsen’s earlier piece here.  I have also discussed Catholic teaching on capital punishment here and here.)


  1. It seems Tollefsen's position is that only instrumental goods, and not any of the "basic goods" can be intentionally taken away from anyone for whatever reason?

    Now I understand there are disagreements on this list of "self-evident" basic goods, but I have a hard time seeing how imprisonment and other punishments don't violate any of the other "basic goods" Tollefesen himself lists "life and health; knowledge and aesthetic experience; skilled work and play; friendship; marriage; harmony with God, and harmony among a person’s judgments, choices, feelings, and behavior"* Some of these I simply do not understand what they mean, but clearly choices and behavior are limited by any punishment and aesthetic experience? I am pretty sure that is taken away as well.

    I never understood how they, as Catholics, can hold a position that goes against revelation. Genesis 9:4 has God command that anyone who takes a life be killed. It is because of the dignity of life that such a punishment is proportionate. Not to mention the several dozen death penalty offenses ordered by God in the old law. It is one thing to say that mercy has a stronger note in the new law, but quite another to say that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong. Indeed, we have required reconciling heretics to affirm the justice of a principled use of the death penalty (the Waldensians). You would be seriously compromising the credibility of the magisterium by suggesting that the death penalty is in principle always wrong.


  2. Correct Joshua. Which is why the fact they contradict the magisterium on this is one short quick easy way to know that their explanation of natural law must be faulty (nb I'm not crazy about having the death penalty or anything but I do realise that as a Catholic one must affirm it is not intrinsically evil).

    Then we can move on from this sorry excuse for a "natural law theory" and get back to basics. But it will take a while to happen. And the neo natural lawyers will have to get retrained in basic Thomist ethics. I once showed a Thomist professor Grisez "argument" against the so called "neo scholastic" position with his ear plugs example. It was such a complete laugh. It's the sort of objection you expect from a slow undergraduate. The problem is they never really understood the issues.

  3. Aquinas3000

    Could you give a brief summary of Grisez ear plug example (or point me to a resource which discusses it). I have always been a bit mystified as to what he and other "new" natural law theorists find so objectionable in traditional natural law theory rooted in A-T epistemology and ontology.

    Thanks so much,


  4. Hi Ray,

    It is in "The Way of the Lord Jesus" volume 1 which you can find online actually. I think it is in a section regarding problems with other theories before setting out his own.

    His argument is basically that classical natural law means wearing ear plugs would be immoral. A sure sign he doesn't understand the theory of course. There is a very good answer to it actually in Steve Jensen's book "Good and Evil Actions."

  5. Joshua, I agree.

    Tollefsen's theory would necessarily entail that taking away liberty is taking away a basic good.

    In addition, that theory would completely overturn the old-time standard that a man may protect his hearth and home with lethal violence. That is: If a burglar enters his home to steal all the hot items, the man CANNOT use a gun on him, unless the burglar makes a move to kill someone. For, under Tollefsen's idea, the only possible basis for taking someone's life is protection of just as high a basic good, someone else's life. So, Harry homeowner is precluded from using the gun until the burglar threatens someone's life - not threatens just their health, mind you, but their life.

    I wonder what Tollefsen would say about someone who threatens your good name? That's another basic good, isn't it?

  6. I think major part of Tollefson's problem is that he does not understand the relationship between the individual person and the state in St. Thomas. There is something strange about NNL political philosophy from the standpoint of the traditional AT position. Lawrence Dewan has an excellent article rebutting John Finnis' view of the person and the common good in the writings of St. Thomas.

  7. Tollefsen has a response out, at The Public Discourse.