A Third Howler

A hard test case is the judicial killing of the guilty to serve the common good

Appeals to the common good can go wrong. In my last post I argued that Thomas Aquinas was wrong to tolerate legal prostitution on the grounds that without it the commonwealth would suffer worse evils. Earlier I argued that he was wrong to conclude that a judge with personal, but only personal, knowledge of an accused’s innocence can “sign-off” on an execution if the public judicial process requires him to do so. Prostitution and the killing of the innocent are manifest attacks on the dignity of the human person. But the common good includes the good of every human being. It’s a matter of “one for all and all for one.”

The hardest test case is the judicial killing of the guilty precisely to serve the common good. Someone might well oppose capital punishment on the grounds that we are bound to love even our enemies. We cannot love them, cannot show charity at all, if we deliberately kill them. Yet Thomas rejects that very argument.

He does so for two reasons. The first begins with a claim about how the individual is related to the whole. He writes, “Now every individual person is compared to the whole community as part to whole.” Since that is so, he continues, “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community…it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good” (ST II-II, q. 64, art. 2). After all, do we not cut away a part of the body that is a threat to the whole body?

But Thomas’s reduction of the person to a part of the whole is mistaken. It is Thomas, after all, who tells us that “the person is that which is most noble and most perfect in all of nature” (ST I, q. 29, art. 3). Is not, then, the rationality of a part contrary to the rationality of a person? And elsewhere Thomas writes that “Man is not ordained to the body politic according to all that he is and has” (ST, I-II, q. 21, art. 4 , ad 3).

Thomas offers a second reason for setting aside an appeal to charity that would spare the lives of sinners facing the death penalty. But the second reason is more suspect than the first. Thomas writes that “By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood,” and concludes that “although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast” (ST II-II, q. 64, art. 2, ad 3).

But even a person on death row is made in the image and likeness of God. So it is that he or she has an ineliminable dignity. To be fashioned in God’s image and likeness means that one shares in the intelligence and freedom God bestows on human nature. Because of this dignity, the Church brings the gifts of the sacraments to even the worst of criminals and would fail in her mission were she not to do so.

To what might I attribute Thomas’s wrongheaded treatment of capital punishment? He was confused both about the common good and the range of love. But so, too, are we and in many ways. We are often confused about what the common good requires of us in the sharing of our material goods, about how the common good includes the good of the least among us, and about how the common good excludes stockpiling nuclear weapons with which to target our political enemies. As we know, an examination of conscience is always in order. That should lead us to think about the near occasions of sin, both personal and public. Time for a list?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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