Which Moral Principle Should Prevail In Case Of Dylann Roof?

Jan 8, 2017
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We're going to turn back now to that disturbing story out of South Carolina. You'll remember that Dylann Roof was found guilty of killing nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. The U.S. Justice Department charged Roof with a hate crime and is now seeking the death penalty. During the sentencing hearing last week which will determine Roof's sentence, Roof told jurors that he had dismissed his lawyers and was representing himself because he rejected any claims that he is psychologically impaired.

Prosecutors are arguing that Roof deserves death because of his obvious lack of remorse, his blatant racial animus and his stated desire to start a race war. But there are other points of view. A number of the family members of the victims have publicly expressed their opposition to the death penalty. Some have said that the years of appeals that accompany a death sentence will be an additional burden to the family and to the community trying to heal.

So that prompted us to want to consider the competing moral and ethical claims here. Which moral principle should prevail? So to think this through, we called Jack Marshall. He's an ethicist lawyer and the founder of the blog Ethics Alarms, and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Jack Marshall, thanks so much for joining us.

JACK MARSHALL: Thank you, Michel. Always an honor.

MARTIN: So what are the ethical questions here?

MARSHALL: You know, ethics is the matter of society trying to decide what's right and what's wrong, and we learn over time. And the idea is to come up with standards that will lead to a more healthy society. And it's different from the moral position. I mean, the moral position may be held by the families that killing anyone is wrong. Society shouldn't kill people. It's hypocritical for them to do that. It's really a Christian position.

The ethical position is a little bit more tricky, and that is isn't it important that society express absolute revulsion at something? There is some level that actually justifies the ultimate penalty. And we have to get by all sorts of legal problems and basic problems, fairness problems. You don't want to have capital punishment where it's going to be handed out in disparate ways or on racially biased ways and you don't want to execute the wrong person. But, you know, in a situation like Dylann Roof, there's no question that he did it, so...

MARTIN: But when you have a situation where you have a group of people, those who were primarily affected by this...


MARTIN: ...Whose family members were murdered, who have a moral objection, what weight should that be given in this decision about what sentence Roof should be given?

MARSHALL: The death penalty is not for the victims. It's not for the victims' families. It's for society, and it's to make a statement. And it's to set a standard. One of the important things about having a death penalty for something - be it Osama bin Laden or Hitler or Jack the Ripper or whatever we want - it means that then we can calibrate other heinous acts down from that. So we can't delegate the decision to them, and we can't overweigh their particular take on it. It's part of the consideration, but I think it can't be given undue weight.

MARTIN: Do you feel at the end of the day - are you satisfied that the appropriate ethical questions are being asked in this case?

MARSHALL: I think we have to ask our self what - looking at this case, what is in the long range best interests of society as a whole? And therefore, what is the message we need to send to all citizens to say we are drawing a strong line in the sand that say this will not be tolerated and people that do this will no longer have a right to anything, including life, in our society? We have to decide if there is going to be some behavior that we are willing to say that about, and that's the ethical issue.

MARTIN: That was Jack Marshall. He is an ethicist. He is an attorney. He's the founder of the blog Ethics Alarms. He was kind enough to join us here at our studios in Washington, D.C. Jack Marshall, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MARSHALL: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.