Camus On The Death Penalty And The Right To Make Amends

In Reflections on the Guillotine Albert Camus writes:

Deciding that a man must have the definitive punishment imposed on him is tantamount to deciding that that man has no chance of making amends….none among us can settle the question, for we are all both judges and interested parties. Whence our uncertainty as to our right to kill and our inability to convince each other….Now, we have all done wrong in our lives….There are no just people merely hearts more or less lacking in justice. Living at least allows us to discover this and to add to the sum of our actions a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. The lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible. None among us is authorized to despair of a single man, except after his death, which transforms his life into destiny and then permits a definitive judgment. But pronouncing the definitive judgment before his death, decreeing the closing of accounts when the creditor is still alive, is no man’s right. On this limit, at least, whoever judges absolutely condemns himself absolutely.

The strongest ‘practical’ i.e., quasi-consequentialist argument against the death penalty is that it it is irreversible. No amends, no reparations can be made to the condemned if the sentencing is incorrect; the price that might be paid for the satisfaction of the impulse to seek retribution is too high.

To that familiar argument, Camus adds two interesting embellishments. First, there is the Biblical ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’, which indicts the accusers and condemners of inevitable hypocrisy and sanctimony (there is an interesting echo here of Tolstoy‘s reading of the Gospels’ ‘Judge not, condemn not’ in My Religion).

And then there is a ‘right to live, which allows a chance to make amends’ for past wrongdoings, which Camus describes as a ‘natural right of every man’. The denial of the right to live, to make amends, amounts to a premature condemnation, a denial of the right to live  a ‘moral life.’

These are novel rights. (They might especially seem novel in the context of an agent accused of a crime terrible enough to warrant consideration of the death penalty.) But their grounding seems clear enough: we are condemned to be free, to bear the burden of our actions’ consequences, to live a life of trials, of making choices. There is no afterlife; this is all there is, the here and now. This world is the only one in which our wrongs may be redressed by us. And since we are all together, condemned to the same fate, the same imperfections present in varying degrees in each of us, we owe a duty to our fellow beings to allow them this chance at redemption.

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