Against Capital Punishment

A Summary of Arguments Presented at a Meeting of the Men's International Theosophical League of Humanity, March 31, 1914
[Included in To Abolish Capital Punishment: A Plea to the Citizens of every Country, Point Loma, California, 1914.]

Capital punishment is a barbarous survival from a less enlightened and refined age; it is incongruous and incompatible with our present standard of civilization and humanity. It has been abolished by many states and countries, and we must look forward to the day when the other governments will follow suit.

The arguments against capital punishment are many and cogent, but the pleas advanced in its favor are few and specious.

Punishment is supposed to be for the protection of society, and for the reformation of the wrongdoer. It purports to protect society by preventing the same criminals from repeating their crimes, and by acting as a deterrent to other prospective criminals. Capital punishment is a notorious failure in these respects. It does indeed remove the particular culprit from the possibility of repeating his crime; but this is of very small account in view of the fact that murder is seldom a career of repeated acts, but consists of single acts perpetrated by different individuals. The man whom we remove from the scene, therefore, is not the man who, if suffered to live, would have been likely to endanger our safety.

As a deterrent to other murderers, likewise, the death penalty has proved a signal failure, as may be seen by comparing the criminal statistics of those countries where the punishment is in force with those of countries where it has been abolished. Nor is the reason of this failure far to seek. Murders are nearly always committed in sudden fits of passion or temporary insanity, when no consideration of reason or self-interest can appeal to the doer. Further, such uncertainty attends the consummation of the death sentence — due to the natural hesitation and inclination to mercy of judge and jury, to the chances of reprieve and commutation — that this penalty is far less deterrent than are those penalties which, though less severe, are also more certain. Finally, we have not answered the question whether there are not other and more effective deterrents; and, there are such deterrents, in comparison with which capital punishment is seen to be clumsy and ineffectual in the extreme.

As to the reformative character of punishment, it is scarcely necessary to point out that capital punishment effectually removes all possibility of this by cutting short the life of the wrongdoer and thus taking away both his chance of reform and our opportunity of discharging the duty of reforming him.

Capital punishment is irrevocable, and the errors of justice cannot be rectified. All possibility of reconsideration is taken away. Innocent persons have been hanged, and judge, jury, and the whole legal machinery involved have thereby been made privy to the very crime they sought to punish. In view of the very uncertain and unequal character of our merely human endeavors to mete out justice, no proceedings of ours should be of this irrevocable character. So complex and uncertain is the process of sifting whereby finally a few individuals are sorted out from the mass and consigned to punishment, that the selection seems largely arbitrary, and we find that the actual convicts are no worse, and some perhaps even better, than many whom the hand of the law never reaches. What principle of equity or reason can justify us in singling out for our harshest treatment, by so haphazard a method, a few individuals who for the most part manifest no particular reasons why they, and they alone, should be so treated?

Capital punishment sins most by depriving the culprit of his chances of reformation. As a weaker brother, who has fallen through causes that are inherent in our social structure, and for which we are all more or less responsible, he should claim our care and protection. Our duty to society is fulfilled by isolating the dangerous man for so long as he may continue to be dangerous. As for deterrent action, this should be compassed, not by fear, but by reformative and protective measures in our social policy. The only way to destroy a criminal is by reforming the man who is a criminal. To destroy his bodily life is nothing but a stupid blunder.

When the physical life of a criminal is cut short by this summary and unnatural means, we do not bring to an end thereby the evil passions which prompted the crime. They are not slain; they continue to exist. And, having no longer a bodily tenement, they must wander abroad to prey upon the community and inspire fresh deeds of horror in weak and unbalanced natures whom they obsess. Thus are accounted for those mysterious outbursts of crime which are distinguished by the frequent confession, "I do not know why I did it, but something came over me." In view of this fact, the folly of capital punishment is more glaring than ever.

Capital punishment is tantamount to a repudiation of the divine nature of man. On what principles of religion or philosophy can we justify the policy of depriving a human being like ourselves of all possibility of reform? If we profess to revere a God of mercy and justice, and if we ourselves supplicate and rely on that divine mercy and justice, how can we reconcile it with our duty, as men created in the divine image, to dismiss thus roughly a fellow human being from our midst and send him into the presence of the Deity whom we have outraged? Surely it is our duty and our privilege to be the agents of divine justice and mercy, and to exert to the utmost our god-given powers in the endeavor to assist our fallen brother to his feet.

It is well within the power of existing governments to provide means whereby murderers, as well as other criminals, can be isolated in institutions where they can be humanely treated as patients or people of unsound mind. And this must be made part of a general campaign of educative and remedial treatment of crime outside prison walls. Otherwise prisons will be — what they too often are — places for disposing of the materials which we manufacture outside. This process of first carefully manufacturing criminals and then killing them is an insult to our intelligence and culture. We must stop making them; and, if made, we must reform them.

Katherine Tingley and party with Arizona Governor George P. Hunt, who abolished capital punishment in his state. Hunt subsequently sent his photograph to "Madam Katherine Tingley, my distinguished friend and co-worker." (1914)

Members of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society have had large experience in prison work, and this experience has shown them that the most apparently hopeless cases will respond to the right treatment. The only reason why such cases have not responded before is that they have never met with the right treatment. All too frequently their self-respect, already so diminished, has been altogether taken away by the reiterated assurance that they are wicked and hopeless. Sinfulness has been preached to them, and thus prison has become a place for the destruction of character. Theosophy begins by insisting upon the fact that all men are divine, and that no case is hopeless. The culprit is told that he possesses within himself a divine power of self-reform, and is shown how to invoke it. His lost self-respect is restored, and from that time on he is encouraged to pull himself together and overcome his weaknesses. Many are the tales which Katherine Tingley, and those who have worked with her in the prisons, can tell of reconstituted characters which, from being the worst of the worst, have become sources of wonder to their keepers, and powers of help to their fellow prisoners. It is the earnest desire of these prison workers to demonstrate to as many people as possible the efficacy of this way of handling prisoners, so that there may no longer be any excuse for resorting to barbarous punishments, and so that civilization at large may have a criminal policy worthy of the present status of culture.

The world is passing through a crucial stage and the newborn spirit of a kindly intelligence is struggling for manifestation. A new law of human life has been impressed upon us and is superseding the old ideas that served us provisionally in the past. The essence of this law is mercy, brotherhood. But humanity needs help and light in its endeavors to readjust its practices to its new and broader principles, its finer feelings. This help theosophy can give. By abolishing capital punishment in those places where it still prevails, society at large can register in telling form its protest against all that is unbrotherly, craven in spirit, ruthless, unintelligent. The new law which we all recognize allows no scope for punishment at all — except in the reformative sense.

Anger and fear are passions, and retribution may be left to the eternal justice. Why then should we continue to justify by legal sanction a procedure which, if committed privately, would be murder pure and simple? Why should the State, which represents the people, continue to do in cold calculation deeds which the mere criminal only perpetrates in the heat of passion and madness? In truth no reason can be urged in justification except such reasons as rest on a repudiation of our divinity and our responsibility as divine beings to our fellowman. Theosophists therefore appeal to humanity to lay aside its fears, its prejudices, and its anger, and to replace them by a large-hearted intelligence; and to gain new confidence in the irresistible power of a strong and pure motive. Instead of resorting to clumsy and inefficacious methods of obviating the evils which we permit to grow, let us grapple with the whole question patiently and manfully, assisting our fallen brother in every way instead of heaping fresh woes and disabilities upon him.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

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