Note: I am continuing the Pledge Project at Atheist Ethicist Journal. There, I am tracking political events relevant to 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' across the country. If you want to help do some preliminary work on the Pledge Project, waiting for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to give out their decision, please visit there.
Obama has come out against the Supreme Court's decision that the execution of somebody who rapes a child is cruel and unusual punishment (in violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution).
MSNBC reports in McCain, Obama disagree with child rape ruling:
"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes," Obama said at a news conference. "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution."
For my part, I think that the best position to adopt is to be in opposition to all capital punishment. I am not firmly committed to this position. It is grounded on evidence that seems to suggest that a country that raises its children with a greater aversion to killing - an aversion strong enough that they disapprove of capital punishment - also raises fewer murderers. The hypothesis here is that the celebration of certain killings that we find in a society with capital punishment teaches at least some children the joy of killing, making it psychologically easier for them to commit murder.
My commitment to this position will depend on the degree to which empirical research confirms or falsifies this hypothesis.
However, my objection to Obama's position is not so much with his conclusion, but with the standards that he has used to reach this conclusion. He believes that the death penalty should be applied to “the most egregious of crimes”.
How do we determine what counts as "the most egregious of crimes"?
There are people who think that blasphemy is the most egregious of crime. Nothing that you can do to another human being is nearly as bad as insulting or denying God – the divine creator.
Some societies hold that apostasy (converting from one’s religion) is the most egregious of crime.
Some people think that teaching heathen beliefs to children, putting their immortal soul in danger, is the most egregious of crime.
If somebody goes to scripture to discover what the most egregious of crimes are – crimes that deserve the death penalty – then working on the Sabbath and eating shellfish are on the list of most egregious of crimes.
I think that we can safely assume that Obama does not share these standards. But, what standard does he apply?
"While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes — mass murder, the rape and murder of a child — so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment," he wrote in his book "The Audacity of Hope."
So, it seems that Obama's standard for determining who should live or die is whether one can muster enough outrage to want somebody killed. If somebody is sufficiently outraged by the sight of somebody else sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance, then the death penalty for sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance becomes justified. The very desire to want somebody killed is justification for killing him.
This is the type of standard that I worry about with respect to the relationship between capital punishment and murder. A society that teaches its children that the desire to want somebody killed justifies killing him is a society that will raise more murderers than one that teaches children that, no matter how great your outrage, you should not kill.
Anyway, perhaps Obama is not advocating that we measure the justification for killing people by our own desire to see them killed. Perhaps Obama is offering, instead, the Obama outrage test. "In order to determine if you are justified in killing somebody you should not look at whether you want that person killed. You should look at whether I want that person killed." The Obama-outrage standard would have the advantage of giving one standard to everybody. It has the disadvantage of having absolutely no reason or justification to back it up.
Yet, maybe the Obama standard is not as personal as we might believe at first. Perhaps rather than the Obama-Outrage Test, what Obama is really using is the Obama-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test. This test differs from the Obama Outrage test in that Obama does not look at his own sense of outrage to determine whether a particular policy is right or wrong. Instead, what he looks at are poll results and other pieces of data that suggest what impact his stated position on an issue will have on his campaign.
He is merely pretending to use some other standard – and is struggling to identify a standard he can pretend to have, a standard other than the Obama's-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test – that would yield the same results. Those standards are unreasonable, but it is not impossible for a fake but unreasonable standard to pass the Obama's-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test.
I am a realist about this last proposed standard. It follows as a matter of logic that elected offices will be filled by those who hold this standard more than any other. The candidate that allow public opinion to determine his position has a significant advantage over the candidate that bases his position on principle. So, we have no choice but to elect a candidate whose standard for morality is, "That which gets me elected is good; that which thwarts my election is bad."
Yet, I would love to hear a candidate declare what I would declare in this type of circumstance. "I believe that capital punishment is a mistake. I believe that it gets innocent people killed, and we can save innocent lives by raising our children to think that all killing is wrong. However, in running for public office, I am not running so that I can represent only myself. I represent you. Too many politicians run for office expecting that, after being elected, they have a constiuentcy of on - themself. Poll tell me that you support execution in this case. As your representative, I will carry out your wishes. Though, in this case, I think you are making a mistake, and innocent people will suffer as a result."
The MSNBC Article also mentions briefly how Michael Dukakis was defeated in part because of his stand on capital punishment. Dukakis was against capital punishment.
Dukakis was asked during a nationally televised debate with Republican George H. W. Bush whether he'd still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. His unemotional, dispassionate answer was ridiculed, and gave Republicans more material to paint him as an emotionless liberal.
With the advantage of hind sight, I could suggest a better answer to this question.
"If the institution and culture that are required to execute my wife's killer was one in which your wife would more likely to be killed as well, then I would forego the execution of my wife's killer for your wife’s sake. And for yours."