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Title:Camus and his critics on capital punishment.
Subject:CAMUS, Albert -- Criticism & interpretation; CAPITAL punishment
Source:Modern Age, Fall96, Vol. 38 Issue 4, p371, 10p
Author:Lazere, Donald
Abstract:Discusses Albert Camus' arguments against capital punishment. Evaluation of American writers' attempts to refute Camus; Capital punishment's failure as a deterrent to crime; Metaphysical argument; Political argument.
AN:9611262870
ISSN:0026-7457



Magazine: MODERN AGE, SEPTEMBER 01, 1996

Section: AN EXCHANGE

CAMUS AND HIS CRITICS ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

A large majority of the American public continues to favor the death penalty, and a 1972 Supreme Court decision virtually abolishing capital punishment on constitutional grounds has gradually been superseded by a variety of legislation within individual states circumventing the Court's constitutional objections and resulting in a new cycle of executions during recent years. For this reason, Albert Camus' classic essay against capital punishment, "Reflections on the Guillotine," retains all of its timeliness and power as a challenge to Americans and citizens of other countries where support for the death penalty remains strong. "Reflections" was published in France in a 1957 book co-authored by Arthur Koestler titled Reflexions sur la peine capitale and the English version appeared in a 1960 collection of Camus' journalism, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.[1]

For the purpose of reconfirming the viability of Camus' arguments on capital punishment and the larger philosophical, political, and literary issues the essay raises, I will briefly review his lines of argument and then evaluate two major attempts in the United States to refute them, "On Camus and Capital Punishment" by Thomas Molnar and "For Capital Punishment" by Walter Berns. This exchange retains additional contemporary significance because Molnar and Berns represent the movement of intellectual conservatism that has gained increasing influence in the United States in the past few decades, so that the debate provides an exemplary case of the nature and quality of conservative versus liberal ideology--though Camus was more inclined toward nonviolent anarchism and communitarian socialism than liberalism.

Published fifteen years after Camus' The Stranger; "Reflections" recapitulates several of that novel's images and themes concerning the impending execution of its narrator Meursault: the story of Camus'/Meursault's father self-righteously going to watch an execution but coming home vomiting; the agonies of the condemned man in the death cell, the theatricality of courtroom rhetoric and arbitrariness of the verdict, etc. Camus continues beyond The Stranger, which ends before Meursault is guillotined, to describe actual executions, juxtaposing their barbaric reality to the euphemisms in which society inconsistently shrouds this purportedly exemplary ritual. (Camus argues that executions should be televised rather than taking place in private if society truly believes they serve as a deterrent to potential criminals.)

After beginning with these gruesomely visceral physical descriptions of decapitation, Camus reviews criminological data refuting defenses of capital punishment based on its alleged deterrent value and citing the high incidence of judicial errors and variability in verdicts from one time and place to another. These data provide the basis for arguing against capital punishment on the grounds of its irreversibility; on these grounds alone, Camus argues for life imprisonment without parole as an alternative. He goes on, however, to philosophical, religious, and political levels of argument. He does not wholly reject conservative defenses of punishment as revenge or retribution, but draws the line at death, not only because of the dangers of erroneous executions but because society drags itself down to the level of its most irrational members in indulging the impulse to bloodshed, and indeed may incite more of those members to murder through emulation than it deters.

On the metaphysical level, Camus attacks capital punishment as blasphemy against Christian mercy and repentance: "There could be read on the sword of the Fribourg executioner the words: 'Lord Jesus, thou art the judge.' . . . And, to be sure, whoever clings to the teaching of Jesus will look upon that handsome sword as one more outrage to the person of Christ."[2] Moreover, he argues that the religious faith undergirding earlier church-states can no longer justify modern secular states' assumption of Godlike power over life and death.

On the political plane, Camus argues as a leftist that bourgeois society breeds and profits from anti-social conditions like poverty and alcoholism, but totally absolves itself of responsibility for the criminal consequences of these conditions. (This argument has been supported by recent studies of atrocity killers in the United States showing nearly all of them to have been poor and abused as children.) His argument is not that individuals bear no responsibility for crime or that society is not entitled to defend itself, but that as long as society bears the smallest fraction of responsibility, it is unwarranted in placing 100% of responsibility on criminals in executing them; the cost of life imprisonment should be considered society's minimal share of responsibility. Finally, and most compellingly, he argues that capital punishment is the ultimate weapon of excessive state power over the individual, and should be abolished as a first step toward reversal of the deification of the state and nationalism that has led in the twentieth century to two world wars, the threat of nuclear war, totalitarianism, and the diminishing of individual liberties, even in democracies.

II

Thomas Molnar's "On Camus and Capital Punishment" appeared in the summer 1958 issue of Modem Age. Walter Berns's "For Capital Punishment" was published in the April 1979 Harper's, at that time predominantly neoconservative in its politics; the essay was republished the same year in Berns's book For Capital Punishment: Crime and the Morality of the Death Penalty.[3] Berns, a political scientist, was and still is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. In my view, Molnar's article, although appearing only a year after Camus,' presents a more informed account than Berns's later one of Camus' philosophy and its basic points of opposition to conservative thought. Nevertheless, I will make the case that both essays misrepresent Camus' ideas to the point of attacking a straw man and evading the central issues Camus addresses.

Before summarizing Molnar's and Berns's arguments, it is necessary to note that neither critic addresses all of Camus's main lines of argument, including the issues of judicial error and variability--an omission that presents problems for the moral position they defend, which assumes a high degree of rectitude in the judiciary system. Both do raise the traditional conservative argument for deterrence, only to acknowledge its weakness as a defense of capital punishment; they reject it not so much because empirical evidence does not support it (which neither denies), but because any empirical argument, as Molnar says, "enters into the game of pragmatism and statistics,"[4] as opposed to the moral dimensions they both emphasize.

Molnar begins his essay with the case of an elderly, white New York shopkeeper who, having been held up twice, finally shot to death a third black robber, whose gun, as it turned out, was a toy. Molnar defends the shopkeeper's action against predictable liberal criticisms, moving from this individual execution of justice to the death penalty. In both cases, Molnar asserts, man has a "moral duty to react with indignation when his common sense, uncorrupted by psychological and sociological sophistication, tells him that evil is evil . . . . that every action is projected against the walls of the social order and of the divine order, and reverberates from there."[5]

Molnar opposes this definition of justice to the alleged moral relativism of modern liberals, including Camus. After a fairminded summary of Camus' various works expressing his social and metaphysical skepticism, particularly regarding the frailties of legal justice and "the role of the judge who assumes divine prerogatives in an agnostic society," Molnar charges that "Camus' idea of justice is tinged with sentimentality, and it fails to distinguish between a generalized and hazy guilt-feeling (made fashionable by the novels of Dostoevsky and Kafka) and the moral and legal concept of individual responsibility."[6] Molnar continues:

I reply to Camus that responsibility ought to be kept limited if we want it to have a meaning . . . . It is human nature to feel interested in, concerned with, and, hence, responsible for a relatively small number of people and issues. This is contrary to the prevailing liberal, humanitarian philosophy which wants to impress upon us a universal concern for all mankind, and responsibility for events distant from us, outside of our possible sphere of influence and effectiveness. The man who would adopt this attitude [is] oblivious to its abstract and artificial nature . . . .[7]

Molnar goes on to reply to Camus' arguments about the impossibility of definitively delineating between the individual's and society's responsibility for crime, equating Camus with the kind of liberals who "say or imply that man is good, but 'society' corrupts him . . . . We know these Rousseauistic laments, but we may be surprised to find them under Camus' pen."[8]

In spite of Molnar's generally well-informed view of modern moral philosophy and Camus' thought in general, he misrepresents "Reflections on the Guillotine" on three major points: Camus' alleged denial of the responsibility of criminals and the legitimacy of punishing them, his displacement of responsibility for crime onto society, and the abstract nature of his position. To begin with Molnar's charge that Camus has a romantically sentimental attitude toward criminals and exonerates them of all responsibility, Camus could not be more clear in his opposition to such attitudes:

There is no question of giving in to some conventional set of sentimental pictures and calling to mind Victor Hugo's good convicts The age of enlightenment, as people say, wanted to suppress the death penalty on the grounds that man was naturally good. Of course he is not (he is worse or better). After twenty years of our magnificent history we are well aware of this. But precisely because he is not absolutely good, no one among us can pose as an absolute judge and pronounce the definitive elimination of the worst among the guilty, because no one of us can lay claim to absolute innocence. Capital judgment upsets the only indisputable human solidarity--our solidarity against death--and it can be legitimized only by a truth or a principle that is superior to man.[9]

The key word here is "absolute." Likewise for Camus' view of punishment: "The instinct of preservation of societies, and hence of individuals, requires . . . that individual responsibility be postulated and accepted without dreaming of an absolute indulgence that would amount to the death of all society. But the same reasoning must lead us to conclude that there never exists any total responsibility or, consequently, any absolute punishment or reward . . . . The death penalty, which really neither provides an example nor assures distributive justice, simply usurps an exorbitant privilege by claiming to punish an always relative culpability by a definitive and irreparable punishment."[10] And, "Compassion, of course, can in this instance be but an awareness of a common suffering and not a frivolous indulgence paying no attention to the sufferings and rights of the victim. Compassion does not exclude punishment, but it suspends the final condemnation."[11] And finally, "We should admit at one and the same time our hope and our ignorance, we should refuse absolute law and the irreparable judgment. We know enough to say that this or that major criminal deserves hard labor for life. But we don't know enough to decree that he be shorn of his future."[12]

In response to Camus' citation of the high incidence of slum housing and alcoholism in France as factors contributing to crime, Molnar claims, "Now Camus may be hoist by his own statistical petard,"[13] since France has a lower crime rate than other countries with better housing and less alcoholism. Camus never attempts, however, to make such a reductive correlation between social conditions and crime in one country or another; his point is that any society that fosters, and allows profiteering from, poverty and vice bears a minimal share of responsibility for the criminal consequences.

So Camus' case rests not on a denial of individual responsibility or punishment, but only on drawing the line at carrying them to the point of death; in ignoring this essential distinction, Molnar misses Camus' entire point. Ignoring the distinction likewise misleads Molnar into an analogy between capital punishment and a mother slapping her child for disregarding her instructions:

Beyond the mother's immediate response, avenging, in some way, the injury against a visible (or invisible) order, there is, of course, the further and inseparable intention of "teaching the child a lesson." But again, this does not amount exactly to discouraging him from repeating the same thing; it merely informs him that each time he commits act A, he takes risk R that punishment P might follow. The legal systems of civilized nations express the same idea.

Thus the law does not punish only in order to set an example and prevent other misdeeds, but also because our innate concept of justice, reinforced by tradition, demands an immediate reaction against crime and a penalty possibly equal to the amount of suffering or damage caused.[4]

Whether Molnar is arguing here for deterrence or retaliation, the analogy of slapping the child, for whatever 'purpose, is surely incommensurate with teaching someone a lesson by killing him. And the notion of "a penalty possibly equal to the amount of suffering" could be said to enter into the game of pragmatism that Molnar eschews, since it involves what Camus calls a casuistry of bloodshed attempting to measure what degree of imposed suffering justifies execution--murder in various degrees, kidnapping, rape, adultery, etc.-and possibly leading to justification for crucifixion, drawing and quartering, or keeping killers alive to torture them daily.

Molnar makes another dubious analogy in criticizing Camus' "cheap rhetoric" in his gruesome descriptions of a decapitation, intended to expose the hypocritical euphemisms in which executions are shrouded. "After all," Molnar comments, "few people could bear witnessing even a minor surgical intervention, let alone a major operation."[15] It is generally agreed, however, that the gore of an operation is justified by its salutary effects, whereas the salutary effects of executions, on society if not on the patient, are exactly what abolitionists dispute. Molnar further ignores the point of Camus' use of emotional appeal--that many people who approve of capital punishment in the abstract would not do so if they understood its flesh-and-blood reality.

Molnar's penchant for analogies that distract from the visceral specifics of an individual's death is only one sign of precisely the abstract modes of thought Camus' essay and the rest of his works are addressed against. When defenders of capital punishment dismiss cases where innocent people may have been executed, on the grounds that such cases are "exceptional," Camus remarks that all of "our lives are exceptional, too."[16] Molnar, accusing Camus and other liberals of abstract moralizing is anomalous in an essay filled with phrases like, "[Camus] simply fails to see that it is not the judge-in-person, but the representative of the law who sits in the chair, and that the law--expression of the social order--possesses certain definite, although imperfectly mirrored, attributes of the divine order."[17] Such phrases inevitably bring to mind one of Camus' most powerful criticisms of the abstractions of legal justice., the passage in The Stranger where Meursault, having been condemned to death for a murder committed in a moment of sun-blindness, muses:

Try as I might, I couldn't stomach this brutal certitude. For really, when one came to think about it, there was a disproportion between the judgment on which it was based and the unalterable sequence of events starting from the moment when that judgment was delivered. The fact that the verdict was read out at eight p.m. rather than at five, the fact that it might have been quite different, that it was given by men who change their underclothes, and was credited to so vague an entity as the "French people"--for that matter, why not to the Chinese or the German people?--all these facts seemed to deprive the court's decision of much of its gravity.[18]

Criticizing Camus, along with other existentialists like Sartre and Malraux who assert the factitiousness of society's claim to power over individual lives and deaths, Molnar says, "Never for a moment do they seriously consider the view that the detects of institutions and of society as a whole have their roots in human nature, or as the Christian and Jewish religions put it, in original sin; that we are not justified to transfer man's own failings to the community and its defective organization."[19] Camus does indeed consider such views, for more than a minute, and thoroughly refutes them. He argues that modern societies are essentially secular or ecumenical, and therefore have no right to legislate on the basis of the beliefs of specific religions. Particularly in legislating matters of life or death, they cannot legitimately assume the existence of a God or an afterlife in which the errors of human justice might be redeemed. How can a society like the United States, for example, whose present gods are the pursuit of wealth and consumption of commodities, rock music stars and professional athletes, suddenly lay claim to being the steward of divine order when it comes to executions?

In Molnar's statement about original sin cited above, the phrase after the semi-colon seems a non sequitur. Even if one accepts Molnar's belief in original sin (as Camus does not), the logical consequence of that doctrine, as Camus suggests, would seem to be that the postlapsarian state of all societies as well as individuals should be a warrant against the assumption that any such fallen society should have the godlike power to judge who shall live and who shall die. Thus Camus does not attempt, as Molnar claims, to "transfer man's own failings to the community," but only to assert (an assertion that would seem to be equally valid for either believers or agnostics), "There is a solidarity of all men in error and aberration. Must that solidarity operate for the tribunal and be denied the accused?"[20] One can imagine Camus' bemused reaction to Molnar's reference to "imperfectly mirrored attributes of the divine order." Which society is nearly enough perfect to mirror divinity, and which isn't? Nazi Germany? Communist Russia? The United States?

One would think that Molnar, as an Hungarian survivor of Nazism and Communism, should be as skeptical as Camus of the claims to omnipotence by modern states, including Nazi Germany, which claimed the religious mandate, Gott mit Uns, especially in exterminating political "criminals." Molnar claims that Camus' arguments against capital punishment (which Molnar sees as a plea for mercy toward victims of political persecution during the Algerian War, at its height in 1957), "may serve, in the eyes of a non-discriminating public opinion, the much more dubious cause of exonerating common criminals, murderers, and Gestapo-torturers."[21] This last claim ignores Camus' record as a leading Resistance journalist and his extensive postwar deliberations on moral dilemmas such as executing Nazi war criminals in "Reflections on the Guillotine" and elsewhere, including his account of his change of attitude from favoring capital punishment as the result of a debate with the Catholic author Francois Mauriac, who argued persuasively against executing Nazi collaborators in France following World War II.

Molnar glosses over Camus' central argument that fascist and communist totalitarianism arose largely out of the modern deification of state power and ideological absolutism epitomized in the death penalty:

Those who cause the most blood to flow are the same ones who believe they have right, logic, and history [and, he might have added. God] on their side . . . . Bloodthirsty laws, it has been said, make bloodthirsty customs. But any society eventually reaches a state of ignominy in which, despite every disorder, the customs never manage to be as bloodthirsty as the laws . . . . How can European society of the mid-century survive unless it decides to defend individuals by every means against the Stale's oppression? Forbidding a man's execution would amount to proclaiming publicly that society and the State are not absolute values, that nothing autorizes them to legislate definitively or to bring about the irreparable?

Molnar's position against Camus derives from a classic conservatism justifying state power in the tradition of European church-states and the divine right of kings. But such a position seems anachronistic not only in light of twentieth-century totalitarianism but also of the degeneration of democratic states into corporate plutocracy, corrupt parties, and bureaucratic ineptitude. The mainstream of conservative ideology, at least in the United States, has been libertarian and other varieties of anti-statism. The fact that Molnar himself cites Friedrich Hayek as an authority makes it all the more puzzling that he fails to acknowledge what would seem to be the strong appeal in Camus' arguments for anti-statist conservatives. From my own social-democratic viewpoint, this appears to be one of countless contradictions between absolutistic, judicial-moral stat-ism and economic laissez-faire in contemporary conservatives (other than libertarians), whether the intellectual variety of Molnar and Modem Age or the vulgar variety of Nixon-Reagan-Bush Republicanism--though, to be sure, leftists can be accused of the reverse set of self-contradictions.

III

Walter Berns's "For Capital Punishment" follows many of the same lines of argument as Molnar; Berns falls into the same misrepresentations or misunderstandings of Camus' "Reflections" and is even more fallacious in his reasoning, adding some flights of literary fancy to confuse things. He begins by explaining that he has come around to rejecting the conventional liberal wisdom that capital punishment represents an unjustifiable principle of revenge against criminals, and now believes "we punish criminals principally in order to pay them back, and we execute the worst of them out of moral necessity."[23] He reiterates this point several times over, and yet, like Molnar, he never explains how accepting the principle of punishment logically dictates capital punishment, as opposed, say, to life imprisonment without parole as advocated by Camus.

Berns cites as authority for the principle of retribution Simon Wiesenthal's writings about his motives for bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, but he presents no supporting quotations from Wiesenthal. The fact is that in Wiesenthal's memoirs and interviews with Joseph Wechsberg he advocates neither retaliation nor execution:

"I am not motivated by a sense of revenge."[24]

[Wiesenthal] was approached by several groups who wanted to create gangs that would capture and kill their former tormentors; he opposed this idea violently. The Jews must not fight the Nazis with the Nazis' depraved methods, he said?

Wiesenthal knew that the Nazi crimes could never be 'avenged.' . . . Obviously, strict accountability for the crimes was impossible . . . . The important thing was to prevent the commission of mass murder in the future.[26]

Wiesenthal explained that the Jews have always had a high regard for the sanctity of human life and didn't think that murder would expiate murder.[27]

About Camus, Berns claims, "The most powerful attack on capital punishment was written by a man, Albert Camus, who denied the legitimacy of anger and moral indignation by denying the very possibility, of a moral community in our time. The anger expressed in our world, he said, is nothing but hypocrisy."[28] This grotesque distortion of Camus' ideas is based, not on "Reflections" but on The Stranger, a novel which Berns views as expressing unequivocally the same ideas as Camus' essay published fifteen years later. To be sure, the novel and essay express some of the same ideas, but Berns either does not know or chooses to ignore that Camus viewed The Stranger as a very limited and even anomalous part of his total work--a study of one distinctive character, his distinctive sensibility and reactions to an accidental series of events pulling him into crime and punishment. Others of Camus's works, including "Reflections," explictly or implicitly repudiated the nihilistic implications of his early novel.

Berns is especially equivocal in using The Strangerto gloss the following quotes from "Reflections":

"Our civilization has lost the only values that, in a certain way, can justify that penalty . . . [the existence of] a truth or principle that is superior to man." [Berns' ellipsis and brackets.] There is no basis for friendship and no moral law; therefore, no one, not even a murderer, can violate the terms of friendship or break that law; and there is no basis for the anger that we express when someone breaks that law. The only thing we share as men, the only thing that connects us one to another, is a "solidarity against death," and a judgment of capital punishment "upsets" that solidarity. The purpose of human life is to stay alive.[29]

The preceding words may be an accurate enough account of The Stranger, but surely not of "Reflections" or of Camus' work as a whole. (Even The Stranger does not imply that staying alive at any cost is all-important; Meursault could avoid execution by lying about the circumstances of the murder he committed, but he refuses to.) On the contrary, friendship and fraternal solidarity are among the most positive values throughout Camus. He sees this precious solidarity constantly menaced both by the absurdity of life's physical constraints and the absurdity of society's arbitrary conventions--preeminently the power of the state to suppress individual lives through war and capital punishment. By temperament a solitary individual and political anarchist, Camus nevertheless emphasized the paradox that the metaphysical and social isolation of each individual creates a bond between her or him and every other individual; as he put it in Lyrical and Critical Essays, "Solitudes unite those society separates."[30] This bond in turn should lead individuals to unite in struggling against social forces encroaching on individual liberty, and for the establishment of social conditions and political policies maximizing that liberty. Hence Camus' own lifelong political commitments, including risking his life in the Resistance, and his writings (such as The Plague, The Rebel, and The Just Assassins) delineating situations where sacrificing one's life takes moral precedence over staying alive at any cost--details that Berns inexcusably ignores. Finally, in "Reflections" Camus makes it clear that murderers must be deplored and punished for upsetting our "solidarity against death," but that by executing them society drags itself down to the same level and--even worse--institutionalizes their personal failure to sanctify life.

Berns' literary penchant leads him even farther astray when he compares The Stranger unfavorably with Macbeth, prefacing his praise of the latter with an endorsement by Abraham Lincoln, "'Nothing equals Macbeth . . . . It is wonderful.' Macbeth is wonderful because, to say nothing more here, it teaches us the awesomeness of the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill.'"[31] Berns, however, does say more:

Can we imagine a world that does not take its revenge on the man who kills Macduff's wife and children? (Can we imagine the play in which Macbeth does not die?) Can we imagine a people that does not hate murderers? (Can we imagine a world where Meursault is an outsider only because he does not pretend to be outraged by murder?) Shakespeare's poetry could not have been written out of the moral sense that the death penalty's opponents insist we ought to have. Indeed, the issue of capital punishment can be said to turn on whether Shakespeare's or Camus' is the more telling account of murder . . . .

In Macbeth the majesty of the moral law is demonstrated to us . . . . In a similar fashion, the punishments imposed by the legal order remind us of the reign of the moral order; not only do they remind us of it, but by enforcing its prescriptions, they enhance the dignity of the legal order in the eyes of moral men, in the eyes of those decent citizens who cry out for "gods who will avenge injustice."[32]

Now, even if we grant it to Berns that Macbeth presents a more cathartic appeal to our sense of justice than The Stranger, we must also note the ways he has stacked the deck in this comparison. To begin with, Macbeth is a butcherous political tyrant, whereas Meursault is an ordinary man who stumbles inadvertently into committing a single act of manslaughter. (Granted, he fails to express remorse or compassion for his victim, and in this respect, the book's morality is indeed open to being criticized, as Camus himself later acknowledged.) A much fairer and more obvious point of comparison could have been made with two of Camus' plays, Caligula, in which a Macbeth-like tyrant is likewise struck down by his oppressed subjects, or The Just Assassins, in which a Russian revolutionary of 1905 voluntarily gives up his life as compensation for his assassination of the Grand Duke.

Berns's comparison cavalierly disregards several major differences in the teleological and aesthetic beliefs of Shakespeare's time versus Camus'. Modern literary realism and naturalism, from which The Stranger derives, were precisely reactions against earlier ages of belief in "gods who will avenge injustice." We may still thrill today to the poetic justice in Macbeth, but we know that in real life, Macbeth would be just as likely to kill Macduff as the reverse. Berns's appeal to "the reign of the moral order," like Molnar's, seems quite plaintive in a wholly pragmatic, materialistic modern moral order engineered largely by and in the interests of the multinational corporations, their governmental agents, and assorted lobbyists, law firms, and public relations agents who are currently defined as conservatives. And that "awesome" legal order invoked by Berns--administered in America largely through patronage and disabled ever further through Reaganomic budget cuts--is the same one denounced as "big government" by Berns's supply-side economist colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute.

On a more mundane level, in Macbeth justice is administered neither by the gods nor by the state, but by Macduff. Is Berns advocating that we deal with criminals by giving them over to hand-to-hand combat, perhaps with the survivors of their victims? Vigilante justice may seem appealing in our safe aesthetic distance from the Shakespearean stage (or from the films of a Charles Bronson and a Clint Eastwood), but is Berns, or Molnar, really prepared to turn over today's legal process to anyone who declares himself judge, jury, and executioner? Berns's and Molnar's unqualified appeals to anger and moral indignation against criminals disregard an elementary point agreed on by most political philosophers in modern constitutional democracies; as Camus puts it in "Reflections," "If murder is in the nature of man, the law is not intended to imitate or reproduce that nature. It is intended to correct it. Now, retaliation does no more than ratify and confer the status of a law on a pure impulse of nature. We have all known that impulse, often to our shame, and we know its power, for it comes down to us from the primitive forests."[33]

Once again in this passage, as throughout his essay, Camus is not categorically opposing the impulse to retaliation, but he is emphasizing the need for limiting that principle at the point where it becomes morally and socially demesure or counterproductive, as in the example he gives of Arab countries cutting off the hands of robbers. Neither Molnar nor Berns really comes to terms with Camus, because their absolutistic arguments assume that his are equally absolutistic (or absolutely relativistic), without ever recognizing that the core of his philosophy in "Reflections" and elsewhere is its classical opposition of measure and limits to both absolutism and relativism.

1. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, translated by Justin O'Brien (New York, 1960).

2. Ibid., 171.

3. For Capital Punishment: Crime and the Morality of the Death Penalty (New York, 1979).

4. "On Camus and Capital Punishment," 301.

5. Ibid., 299.

6. Ibid., 300.

7. Idem.

8. Ibid., 302.

9. "Reflections on the Guillotine," 222.

10. Ibid., 210.

11. Ibid, 217.

12. Ibid, 230.

13. "Camus and Capital Punishment," 302.

14. Ibid., 301302.

15. Ibid., 304-305.

16. "Reflections on the Guillotine," 212.

17."Camus and Capital Punishment," 301.

18. The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1946), 137-138.

19. "Camus and Capital Punishment," 305.

20. "Reflections on the Guillotine," 217.

21. "Camus and Capital Punishment," 299.

22. "Reflections on the Guillotine," 227-228.

23. "For Capital Punishment," 15.

24. The Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Memoirs, ed. and with introductory profile by Joseph Wechsberg (New York, 1967), 8.

25. Ibid., 9.

26. Idem.

27. Ibid., 261.

28. "For Capital Punishment,"' 16.

29. Ibid., 17.

30. Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. by Ellen Conroy Kennedy (New York, 1968), 12.

31. "For Capital Punishment," 17.

32. Idem.

33. "Reflections on the Guillotine," 198.

~~~~~~~~

By Donald Lazere


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Source: Modern Age, Fall96, Vol. 38 Issue 4, p371, 10p.
Item Number: 9611262870
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