The Metaphysical Underpinnings of Capital Punishment: A Preliminary Investigation

  • Mark A. Davidson Wilfrid Laurier University


The combination of conservative ideology, an increasingly repressive political discourse, and a Federal government comprised of politicians who support capital punishment, has created an environment in which the chances of the reinstatement of capital punishment are increasing. Politicians will likely call a referendum on capital punishment following the commission of a brutal act of violence, and the debate will be charged with esoteric notions of evil infecting an otherwise pristine social body. Those of us who oppose the penalty will likely respond with rational arguments about the inefficacy of capital punishment to quell violence, and attempt to meet a discourse of a metaphysical evil with the discourse of scientific criminology. Our position can only be strengthened by understanding the psycho-social aspects of support for the death penalty. Do current means of executing convicts draw upon religious iconography? Is capital punishment a rational legal response to a rights violation, or a spiritual practice that appears to benefit both the killers and the killed? And is there a connection between the death penalty and ancient forms of human sacrifice which sought to satisfy the urge for violence by banishing violence to proscribed arenas, thus maintaining social stability?

As it stands, the Federal government could be seen as nudging us towards the reinstitution of the death penalty. Our Minister of Justice has openly called for the "return of capital punishment" (Boswell, 2009). In 1999, the Reform Party -- which is effectively in power now -- introduced a death penalty bill (Bill C-335). As Public Safety Minister, Stockwell Day refused to seek clemency for a Canadian on death row in the U.S. In response, the Canadian Bar Association resolved that the government is implying "that the DP may be appropriate for some Canadians" (2009). And when Canada recently refused to cosponsor a U.N. Resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment, Amnesty's Canadian Secretary General asserted that "Canada is taking a step backwards," that is, towards re-institution (CBC, 2007).

Those of us who oppose state killing could find ourselves arguing against those who would like to see Sodium Thiopental and Potassium Chloride replace treatment programs in prisons. But reasoned argument alone will not be sufficient to counter an attempt to reinstate the death penalty in Canada, primarily because the death penalty is not only, or even primarily, a rational legal response to a rule violation. On a social level, it is more similar to the ancient practice of human sacrifice, which was a form of ritualistic killing. In this respect, state execution is more of a cathartic sacrament that allows society to mobilise a collective attack on a victim it perceives to be an infectious element in need of purging from society. It accomplishes a result similar to that of the ancient practice, namely, the stabilisation of the social order by reinforcing the transcendental intuitions that connected individuals through a shared cosmology (Girard, 1972, p.287).