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Leibniz, the pessimum, and the death penalty

Macdonald, P.S. (2013) Leibniz, the pessimum, and the death penalty. Phainomena, 22 (84-85). pp. 105-134.


The moral and/or juridical arguments for abolishing the death penalty as it now stands succeed to some degree because the moral and/or juridical arguments for the death penalty are weak. Such arguments only have to show that the currently cited grounds for upholding the death penalty fail to meet the rationales and criteria that their adherents advance. However, arguments for or against the death penalty appeal to moral principles which are not neutral with regard to metaphysical issues; moral assertions come with ontological and epistemic commitments. No argument about equity or fairness or justice can be made without premises which express what kinds of things there are, what one can be said to know, and what an agent is free to do. This paper explores a different approach to the merits of the death penalty based on Leibniz's metaphysical principles: monads' phenomenal expression, pre-established harmony, super-essentialism, individuals' inner programs, and moral agents' freedom to act like "little gods". This paper presents Leibniz's picture of an individual who freely chooses to contribute to the moral pessimum (the worst compossible state-of-affairs) and the compensatory scheme that requires an effort by a community of rational agents to redress the overall balance of moral good. On this view, there is a positive requirement for the benefit of a community of minds to invoke the death penalty for a murderer whose individual concept contributes to the pessimum, and whose continued life retards efforts to achieve an optimum state where moral good outweighs moral evil.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Publisher: Phenomenological Society of Ljubljana
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