The Abolitionist Rests



Whatever the outcome of this debate in the minds of our readers, it is clear to me—and, of course, to my stern opponent as well—that at this stage of our history, capital punishment is a winning cause in America, if nowhere else in the civilized world. Abolitionists may win some of their cases in the courts, in spite of the retentionists’ furious denial that the courts should have jurisdiction over the nature and quality of the punishment that the state may impose on criminals. It is still possible for abolitionists to attain high office from the electorate and subsequently to “sabotage” the executioner’s craft by commuting the sentences of condemned murderers. Nevertheless, I must gloomily concede that the public opinion polls, in which the hangman now receives a handsome plurality of the respondents’ votes, are corroborated in statewide referendums. If the general public has its way, Dr. van den Haag’s cause is won, and without the benefit of his robust arguments.


Criminal Justice Capital Punishment Criminal Justice System Public Opinion Poll Life Imprisonment 
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  1. 1.
    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651; Penguin Books, 1975), p. 186.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Johannes Andenaes, Punishment and Deterrence ( Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974 ), pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Jack Gibbs, Crime, Punishment and Deterrence (New York, Oxford, and Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1975 ), pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On the usage, “theories of punishment,” to which Dr. van den Haag has objected, see H. L. A. Hart, Punishment and Responsibility (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 70: “theories of punishment are not theories in any normal sense. They are not, as scientific theories are, assertions or contentions as to what is or is not the casechwr(133). On the contrary, those major positions concerning punishment which are called deterrent or retributive or reformative `theories’ of punishment are moral claims as to what justifies the practice of punishment—claims as to why, morally, it should or may be used.” Hart goes on to write that if we claim that capital punishment protects society from harm, then we should call “this implicit moral claim `the utilitarian position.”’ I agree with Hart’s fastidious use of terms, but the word theory is by now too deeply embedded in criminological discourse to be summarily uprooted.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    By “special case,” of course, I mean the deterrence that is ascribed to capital punishment that is beyond the reach of life imprisonment.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    I readily concede that I am too squeamish to justify punishment for the sake of vengeance. I insist that there is a significant difference between primitive vengeance—the lex talionis of Hammurabi, Leviticus, and the Twelve Tables of republican Rome—and the denunciatory, reprobative functions of retribution.Google Scholar

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© Ernest van den Haag and John P. Conrad 1983

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