Two ethicists consider Gov. Rick Perry, the audience at the Republican debate, and the death penalty


Jack Marshall raises an interesting ethics issue here, as he does so often in his Ethics Alarms. This time it’s the conflict between empathy and justice. He explains how the Golden Rule can get us into some uncomfortable ethical conflicts. He writes,

‘Empathy is considered an ethical virtue for good reason: it is at the core of the Golden Rule. A person without empathy is less likely to put himself or herself in the other person’s place. The criminal justice process, however, is not a good fit for the Golden Rule. In the place of a guilty criminal, I would still probably want to be pardoned, set free, and given a second—or third, or fourth—chance to be law-abiding.”

Marshall defends Gov. Rick Perry’s answer at last Wednesday’s Republican debate to moderator Brian Williams’s question whether Perry was troubled by the idea that there might have been some innocents among the 234 people executed while Perry was Governor. After the audience cheered the grisly tally, Perry answered:

“No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required. But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.”

Marshall wrote that Perry’s answer wasn’t bad, and that it demonstrated Perry’s leadership qualities.

There are respectable arguments pro and con regarding the death penalty, but there is no argument that it takes the lives of guilty poor and people of color disproportionately, and that it too often takes the life of innocents as well. One can respect a Governor who allows people to be executed according to the legal process of the state, but a Governor who does it without struggling with it, as Perry says he does?

That’s not leadership, that’s disregard for humanity. It’s the very opposite of ethics.

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