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Ernest van den Haag’s Concept of Justice

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  • Category: Justice

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In the essay, “The Ultimate Punishment:  A Defense of Capital Punishment,” Ernest van den Haag relates the arguments of those opposed to the death penalty and then categorically refutes them.  One such argument is that in which abolitionists argue that the death penalty is discriminatory.   However, van den Haag responds to this argument in more than one way and shows how justice is valued more with capital punishment.

            The abolitionists tend to assert that the death penalty is discriminatory mainly against the poor and against blacks.  Their first point is that the distribution of people on death row is unequally distributed between whites and blacks.  They also argue that some criminals guilty of murder go free while others do not and that this is unjust as well.  These abolitionists argue that racial discrimination and socioeconomic class, therefore, can affect the sentencing of a capital criminal.

            Van den Haag responds generally with a statement that punishments are meant to be applied to an individual, regardless of his situation or race, because that person committed a crime.  He calls it a personal punishment.  However, he goes on to note that just because a punishment is unequally distributed or maldistributed, it is not necessarily based upon discrimination.  He gives two reasons for this.

First, equality is not tied to justice or morality.  The author argues that even if in an extreme scenario in which all guilty black murderers are executed and all guilty white murderers are not, the concept involved is that of equality, not justice or morality, except for the fact that the murderers who did not get punished are not treated justly for themselves or for the victims.  The black murderers do not suffer any injustice because they are being punished for what they did wrong.

            The second answer van den Haag gives in response to this argument is that the punishment itself is moral because the individual who has committed murder has proven himself unworthy of living in society.  He does note that while discrimination may exist, two avenues still provide for the justice of capital punishment.

One is that the Supreme Court exists to make these determinations at the highest level provided in this country.  The next is that the only true data shows that murderers of whites receive the death penalty at a statistically higher level than the murderers of blacks.  Because blacks kill blacks while whites kill whites, this “discrimination” seems to be against whites, not blacks.  Therefore, cries of discrimination ought to be coming from whites.

            Justice, according to van den Haag, demands that as many people as possible be convicted and punished for murder. Justice has nothing to do with distribution, equality or even the fact many people go unpunished.    Justice exists alone, in a sense.  To use a cliché, justice is blind.  What is happening to other people has no bearing on the justice that is being to one individual.  Therefore, the fact that more blacks or more poor or more male people are executed than whites, the wealthy or females is not pertinent in assessing the justice of one, specific individual.

            Ernest van den Haag in “The Ultimate Punishment:  A Defense of Capital Punishment” argues for the simple execution of justice and not for its confusion with other value concepts such as equality or discrimination.  He refutes the arguments of those that believe the death penalty is discriminatory while upholding the value of using the death penalty to punish capital criminals in the United States.

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