The aim of these reflections on the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran is to try to provide a basis on which to form some moral judgement about them. There are three possibilities: the actions could be morally right, that is to say, in accordance with the moral system or moral principles used to make the judgement. In the terms of a consequentialist ethic of the type mentioned in the last post, this would mean that, in the circumstances, the executions were the best alternative course of action. What “best alternative course of action” means depends on the particular consequentialist system. One such system, called negative utilitarianism, sees the best course of action in given circumstances as the one that prevents the most harm. In this post I will outline another system, called Common Morality, which shares some features with negative utilitarianism. (More on both these systems elsewhere on this website, for instance in Chapter 3 of the book MWR which can be found under “On Weapons Research”.) Returning to the possible moral judgements, the actions could be deemed morally wrong, that is to say, they are actions that ‘violate’ the principles of the moral system. Finally, the actions could appear to be morally wrong, that is, violate the moral principles in question, but turn out on further reflection to be justifiable. I will briefly explain both these alternatives with reference to Common Morality. A final point: morality is in the first place about the actions of individual moral agents, those with the capacity for moral reflection. Chan and Sukumaran were executed by the Indonesian state, and so to discuss the morality of these actions, we must accept that the latter has the status of a moral agent. I have no problem with that: in fact I have published a paper on the question and can make it available if anyone want to see it.
A non-consequentialist moral system does not see the consequences of an action as all that is relevant when it comes to moral judgement. In fact some ‘absolutist’ systems hold consequences to be entirely irrelevant. If “Don’t kill anyone” is taken as a part of such a system, then it means don’t kill ever, regardless of what comes next. It is an absolute demand and of course would give rise to the judgement that the executions were always morally wrong. However, very few people, and very few philosophers, would accept such a demand. For instance most people would accept that one can kill in self-defence when the attacker is unprovoked. Common Morality is a system of rules that are not absolute in the sense that they can be violated in certain circumstances. Someone who kills has committed wrongdoing in the sense that they have broken a moral rule, but if it is shown that the act was done in self-defence and that there was no other choice, then the correct judgement is that the act was justified or permissible. What would Common Morality say about the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran?
To begin with, all executions violate the moral rule not to kill, so the possible alternatives are that they were morally wrong or morally justifiable – it can never be the case that the violation of a (or of this) moral rule is ever morally right. A preliminary issue which applies only in this kind of case is whether the executions were legal. What his amounts to here is whether there was a law that sanctioned the death penalty for the offence and whether it was applied correctly. There is some dispute about the this second part, but I will assume that the executions were legal.(Of course, an action can be legal and morally wrong.) Now comes the tricky part. Common Morality holds that a violation of a moral rule is justifiable if more harms are avoided, prevented and reduced than if it is not violated, and moreover that rational persons agree that this is so and will allow violations of the same kind in the future. In the case of killing in self-defence, the point is thus not just that an innocent person’s life is saved, but that harms may be prevented in the future because would-be killers know that their victims can fight back with impunity.
In the case at hand, we see that some of the same considerations are relevant here as there were when the implications of the consequentialist system were considered in the last post. (As an aside for the specialist, some have argued that Common Morality an now be seen to be really a version of negative rule consequentialism, but I won’t explore that suggestions here!) So one needs to see whether the imposition of the death penalty in this case really acts as a deterrent. That was the point at which matters were left at the end of the last post, and it is a complicated matter, on which there are widely differing opinions. This is not something for which a philosopher has an special expertise, but I note that at least the matter is being taken up by some people in this country. It seems to me that the with the exception of the absolutists, all the judgements of the viable moral systems about this issue will be decided in terms of whether the death penalty is such as to prevent, avoid or reduce more harm than would otherwise be the case, whether is an effective deterrent. This is what you may have thought before being led through the hoops by me, but at least you know that this is what moral philosophers – assuming I have got things right – think. For the record, I myself do not believe the death penalty is on the whole an effective deterrent.