Punishment and Death

I’m sorry for not posting for a long time.  I don’t have a good excuse.  At any rate, I just read an interesting essay, and it made me want to write.

In this weekend’s New York Times, Christian Longo, a man who sits on Oregon’s death row, makes a reasonable and convincing argument that prisoners on death row ought to be given the right to donate their organs after execution.  Longo explains that he is a healthy 37 year-old who will be executed soon but that his prison (as well as many others) refuses to allow organ donation, even though the method of lethal injection could be changed to a formula that would not damage the organs.  Longo addresses several of the key arguments against prisoner donations, including issues of safety and security, as well as the question of prisoner consent, and he provides valid and intuitively plausible responses that support his case.  In the end, I was persuaded by his arguments.

Though Longo is quite persuasive, pointing  out that “just one inmate could save up to eight lives by donating a healthy heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and other transplantable tissues,” I still felt a little wary of finding myself in complete moral agreement with a man who begins his essay by explaining, “Eight years ago I was sentenced to death for the murders of my wife and three children.  I am guilty.”  If I were a better person I would have resisted the urge to Google “Christian Longo” until after I had had some time to think over the validity of his arguments.  Unfortunately, I am not.  Immediately after finishing the essay, I read about how Longo murdered his wife and three children, tossed their bodies, and fled to Mexico.  Then I read about how he originally failed to confess to the murders of two of his children.  I wanted to find something about how Longo was diagnosed as a sociopath or at the very least a delusional psychotic, but instead, I read that he was “by all accounts a bright, extroverted, socially skilled, good-looking young man with marvelous potential.”  I learned that Longo had grown up in a dysfunctional home and was prone to deception and rule-breaking, but his own essay suggests that these environmental setbacks never stopped him from learning the difference between right and wrong and the value of atoning for moral errors.

What troubles me about Christian Longo is not the possibility that he is a sociopath playing some elaborate game of pretend.  I think it is quite possible that Longo is genuinely remorseful that he killed his two and three year-old daughters, his four-year old son, and his wife, and that he dumped their bodies in shallow graves off the Oregon Coast and then left for vacation in Cancun.  And, if Longo is genuinely remorseful because he fully understands the moral depravity of what he did, then perhaps he sees donating his organs to save the lives of other innocent people- mothers and children, maybe- as the type of penance that could give him a sense of moral redemption for the brief remainder of his life.  (I don’t believe in heaven and hell, so I don’t care if Longo thinks this will buy him eternal salvation; it won’t.)

Here’s what’s bothering me:  Even though I’m a bleeding-heart-abolish-the-death-penalty-type, I’m just not sure that Christian Longo deserves to feel like he somehow balanced the scales of cosmic justice by saving other lives after his death.   His organs won’t be of any use to him, and he has no choice about dying, so I hardly see his posthumous donation as a sacrifice of any moral weight.  But HE might feel differently.  In fact, Longo explicitly states that he has “a wish to make amends.” Even though Longo makes a very convincing argument about the good that will come of allowing death-row inmates to donate their organs, the thought that people like Longo might see organ donation as a way of genuinely making amends for their moral errors is troubling to me.

The prison told Longo, “The interests of the public and condemned inmates are best served by denying the petition.”  I think Longo demonstrates that he is capable of giving informed consent, so I don’t understand why it is not in his interest to donate the organs.  It is also quite obviously in the interest of the public.    This leads me to the conclusion that the real controversy behind prisoner organ donation has more to do with a fear that allowing generosity on the part of prisoners sends the wrong message.  So, I’m going to make one more argument in service to Longo’s plea by addressing an issue that he couldn’t touch.  If anybody deserves anything, then Christian Longo deserves to feel bad about what he did.  But even though the quality and quantity of Longo’s punishment feels relevant in considering whether he should have the right to donate his organs (or, even if it IS somewhat relevant), the good of organ donation far outweighs any benefit to denying a murderer solace, whether he deserves it or not.   I don’t know if there is as much injustice in a child dying of kidney failure as a child being murdered by her father, but I’m inclined to think that it is just as wrong to deny an innocent person a freely-offered, life-saving organ as it is to intentionally bring about that person’s death.  If an innocent life is so valuable that we sentence people to death for taking it, then surely the preservation of an innocent life is more valuable than the feelings and thoughts of a dying man.


9 Responses to “Punishment and Death”

  1. Andiis Says:

    Fortunately this is not a dilemma we would face where I come from as the death penalty is not an option, and has not been so for many years. The last execution being in 1967. Beyond the experience of many in legal practice today.
    However organ donation is an option as is the dilemma faced by the families who challenge the donors last wishes, many successfully.
    As you can imagine, the frustration of the recipients, organ retrieval teams and transplant surgeons is of the highest order. I am one who looks forward to the day of the “opt out” phase of donation, i.e. all organs retrievable unless specifically and legally the person in question ” opts out ” of organ donation, or is ruled out on medical grounds.

    So as to your dilemma of the condemned; what if all prisoners marked for execution were given no choice.. all organs retrieved and used in accordance with best medical practice and leave morality to the priests and family to argue over his soul. Would that satisfy the need for ultimate State control over the remains of the condemned? The last option of the self to gain control of his situation, taken from him.
    If religious practitioners are able to administer absolution of sins in the final hours, and the condemned go to their final breath feeling absolved of their crime and at one with god, is that not the same as giving control over their remains to them?
    If the taking of their lives is not enough punishment then why are they allowed to make peace with their god’s representative by their side.
    Take the organs without regard to Longo’s feelings, save or extend a life without a thought to his motives.
    If you are going to kill him, remove all doubt, all guilt and think only of the needs of the many.
    My only proviso would be…never offer the eyes of a child murderer for donation. They must have a separate destination.

  2. Chris Lindsay Says:

    Any amends that Longo feels he is trying to make seem moot until an organ that he’s donated is actually implanted in someone and greatly improves that person’s life. At that point, I’d defer to the person receiving the organ to state whether Longo has done something along the lines of making amends.

    • Liza Says:

      Interesting point, Chris, but I don’t think the issue is whether Longo will or could make amends. I’m not at all sure that moral redemption is even possible. The question I raise is just whether Longo might FEEL as though he had made amends if he’s allowed to donate his organs, and I am interested in that only because I think Longo’s feelings may be relevant to the question of whether justice is served by his punishment.

      • joshie818 Says:

        In my worldview, justice is never served by punishment. Perhaps this comes down to semantics on “what is punishment” and “what is justice?”

        Seems to me that everyone in this room (other commentators, Liza and myself) are in agreement: organ donation by Longo (or any death row inmate) outweighs state rights for denial of such request, based on what appears a lot like retributive justice.

        Arguments by us and/or the State which amount to “prisoner x deserves nothing more than to feel bad about convicted crimes,” is, as I see it, clearly a statement about us, more than it could ever be about prisoner x.

        As James Gray noted, it is a lot like saying, “I want you to suffer so much that I will suffer as well.” Often, we appear to forget who the “you” and “I” are in these snap judgments we make about us.

        Hence one of the reasons that justice could never be served by punishment.

  3. James Gray Says:

    Prisoners should become productive members of society to whatever extent they can period. To tell people that they are no good, aren’t allowed to enjoy life, and aren’t allowed to do any good is an unjustified form of dehumanization that helps no one. It’s like saying, “I want you to suffer so much, that I will suffer as well!”

    • Liza Says:

      Okay, James, I didn’t want to pull out a bunch of philosophical jargon, but clearly you’ve forced my hand by making a very reasonable claim based upon a very defensible set of assumptions that I’m not sure I share. Basically, this is a debate between a consequentialist justification for punishment and a deontic justification for punishment. From a consequentialist (e.g. Utilitarian) perspective, it is quite obvious that Longo should be allowed to donate his organs. I assume that is your position. The deontologists are the ones who have the problem because deontic justifications for punishment are usually retributivist on some level. Personally, I’m not a fan of the death penalty, but, for the sake of argument, I assume the retributivist position that the state is justified in executing Longo because he deserves that punishment. The whole idea of desert makes me uncomfortable, but it’s just built into any retributivist system of justice, and that is what we have. When I start to think about what it means for a person to deserve punishment I can’t find any good way around the conclusion that that means the person deserves to suffer. We can argue about what kind of suffering is appropriate and what kind of suffering is too severe (or “cruel and unusual”), but I don’t think there is any way around the fact that our prison system is designed to make convicts suffer. So, if we assume that this system is just, and if we assume that making prisoners suffer (at least in some ways) is a part of justice, then the question of how Longo feels about his crime and punishment is relevant to the question of how justice is served. In this case, if we assume that Longo does in fact deserve to to suffer for what he did, then I think it is reasonable to conclude that he does not deserve to feel as though he has somehow “balanced the scales” by saving possibly more lives than he took.

      Even if you don’t think any of these assumptions are justified, surely you can agree that a lot of people do assume these things, and for that reason, they are uncomfortable with granting death-row murderer a psychologically comforting request, regardless of how much good it will do. I think this is an interesting issue not because it is complex and morally confusing but because it is exactly the opposite. It is absurd that we should deny anyone’s request to donate healthy organs after his or her death, but prisons frequently deny this request while innocent people die of organ failure everyday. I can only conclude that this is because so many people are uncomfortable with granting criminals any right or privilege that they fail to appreciate that this policy amounts to exactly what you said: “I want you to suffer so much that I will suffer as well!”

      • James Gray Says:

        I don’t think deontologists have to agree to any of that, but some of them do. I realize that many people do. I can’t help but think that the retributive assumptions that lead to cruelty are based on revenge and hate. The idea that cruelty is deserved and someone isn’t human enough to deserve better treatment is going to be the last belief I would accept without very persuasive reasoning. I don’t find it “intuitive” although I can relate to it on an emotional level.

  4. Shane Hebert Says:

    I have no problem with a death row inmate finding a sense of partial absolution for his crimes through organ donation in the same way that I am not going to protest the right of said inmate to convert to Christianity, be baptized in the spirit a week before his demise, and head out into the cold absence of the never-after with trust that there will be celestial real estate waiting for him. At least in the prior case there can be some good salvaged from wave of entropy that was his existence.

    To deny the many people who presently wait on their own personal death rows– cases in which there is no Governor to offer reprieve– to deny them life saving organs as the result of a puerile dedication to spite is about the least evolved decision I’ve ever heard of. And I’ve considered going back to the trees.

    That being said, I have watched Eric Red’s “Body Parts” (1991) and I disagree with the procedure for entirely different reasons.

  5. John Gipson Says:

    This has got me thinking.I think it would be a good idea if prisoners could get some time taken off for giving a kidney or two,skin grafts,eyes, and whatever could be useful. And maybe give life sentence folks free beer for life for giving a kidney.

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