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Saturday Stub: The Enlightenment Effect on Capital Punishment

Posted by Ethan Clow on November 19, 2011

This Saturday Stub is a bit weightier than usual. Recently I’ve been reading Steven Pinker‘s book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined its proving to be a  fascinating read. His central thesis is that contrary to public perception, media, and political rhetoric, violence (across the board and world wide) has decreased and this is in fact the safest time to be alive.

I’ll probably write up a full review of the book once I’ve finished, but in the meantime there are a number of interesting facts and observations that I’ve read that I now find myself mulling over. Some of Pinker’s evidence actually runs counter to what I expected or even believed, which is to say I’m feeling challenged by some of the material, but also vindicated at other points when Pinker points at evidence I’ve pointed at in the past.

One particular area that has drawn my attention is his focus on the powerful effect The Enlightenment had on violence. For those unfamiliar with the Enlightenment, a quick summation could be that this era of history (about 1650–1700 in Western Europe) saw some pretty incredible changes in perceptions of philosophy, religion, ethics, government, and science. In many ways it was a movement of intellectualism and skepticism. Humans began to explore the world around them with a lens of rationality, ideas were treated with tolerance and curiosity was considered an acceptable even celebrated trait.

When looking at the effect the Enlightenment had on violence, we need only look at our own modern revulsion to the common place medieval fetishization of violence. Most of know that violence was common pre-Enlightenment, but what we often don’t realize is that violence was celebrated. Torture was a spectator sport. Cruelty was encouraged. And minor or even non-existent offences were met with obscene punishments.

We can see the effect of the Enlightenment on ourselves today by looking at the reactions to capital punishment. Mostly banned in the western world, only a small handful of nations still employ capital punishment (the death penalty) as a tool of justice. When there is a well publicized case of capital punishment, advocates of all stripes are out either condemning it or affirming it. It evokes strong emotions and deep debates on the nature of crime and punishment, retribution versus rehabilitation, and still more lobbying and advocacy.

When we consider how most executions are carried out, the prisoner is given a lethal injection, usually under anesthetic (although a small number of executions are done by other methods like electrocution, gas chamber or hanging. The majority are lethal injection.) The execution usually is private except to the family of the victim of the prisoner. Many of us consider this a horrible breech of human rights. This is the Enlightenment shining through in us.

Consider a pre-Enlightenment execution. In such a case the prisoner is tortured before the killing. The torture is often designed to inflict the most suffering possible while keeping the prisoner alive and conscious. Examples include being broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered, stocks and pillories, and of course crucifixion. The forms of torture were not only designed to be excruciatingly painful but also humiliating. Often times the punishments were administered while the prisoner was naked and especially when female, the punishments usually involved some grotesque form of torture to the genitals.

The punishments were often carried out in public to an enthusiastic audience, in some cases the mob were actually the ones to kill the prisoner, as in the case of pillories and stocks. To paraphrase from Pinker’s book, if capital punishment in the United States resembled capital punishment that existed pre-Enlightenment (or even concurrent with the Enlightenment) executions would involve sadistic levels of pre-torture and would be nationally broadcast on TV for everyone, including children to watch. The rate of execution would be so high that every year 10,000 prisoners would be killed in this fashion.

Remember when I said abhorrence to modern execution is the Enlightenment shining through? Well even execution proponents today have the Enlightenment shining through them, few would ever suggest a system of capital punishment like the one I described above.

Of course I’m not suggesting that those who seek to remove the death penalty should simply take stock of how far we’ve come and pack things in. Rather I think proponents of stopping the death penalty need to realize that the progress made has been incredible in changing the world wide perception of executions. The final process of removing the death penalty will come in baby steps rather than sweeping reform.


One Response to “Saturday Stub: The Enlightenment Effect on Capital Punishment”

  1. I think I would expand on one line “a movement of intellectualism and skepticism”. I can predict that a number of Christian apologists may point out that Western Culture was at this time VERY religious. This was the time that Puritanism, Quakers and a number of ‘fundamentalist’ (for the time) religious were founded. Apologist will argue that it was not skepticism that lead humanity away from its primitive barbarity but new Christian thought.

    Well, yes and no.

    As new ways of learning, the adoption of the scientific method and increases in social experimentation; people began to question the world around them in a more vigorous and independent way. Some, and more and more very day, understood the logical impossibility of Christianity; however most just simply became skeptical of the Catholic view. Their skepticism was strong enough to have them question religious dogma, however their knowledge was not yet sufficient to reject religion completely. However, there is a strong correlation between the decline of DOGMA and violence (yes, USSR was a atheist country however it followed communism dogmatically and let’s not forget the cult of personality of Stalin).

    So, Christian skepticism was part of the Enlightenment; however it seems (in my humble opinion) that skepticism was the new (and critical) ingredient that has done so much to make the world a better place.

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