I really, really don’t like UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who is now a popular writer for the Washington Post. I will never be able to get past my revulsion at something he wrote in 2005, which is one of the most bloodthirsty, psychopathic things I have ever read. Discussing the public execution of a murderer in Iran (under the heading “Something the Iranian government and I agree on”), Volokh wrote:
I particularly like the involvement of the victims’ relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he’d killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing — and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act — was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there’s a good explanation. I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.
When others were horrified by Volokh’s position, saying they thought it would reduce their humanity to torture and kill someone, Volokh was utterly unmoved, saying “mere appeals to my humanity just don’t do much for me.” Volokh said he found such appeals “unpersuasive,” preferring the “laudable human impulse to avenge.” In fact, Volokh argued, in the case of a child murderer, even torturing and killing them was “ridiculously inadequate.” He professed himself baffled at the very idea that our humanity could be diminished by the ritual torture and killing of criminals. Those who believe that simply have a “moral instinct” he doesn’t share.
Of course, Volokh is correct when he argues that one cannot rationally persuade him to abandon his position. His moral instinct is that torturing someone to death can be, under certain circumstances, “laudable.” My own instinct is that it can never be. He cannot persuade me, because there’s no reason I should accept his proposition that vengeance constitutes justice, and I cannot persuade him, because there’s no argument I can give that would cause him to share my horror. He and I both operate viscerally and a-rationally; he viscerally wishes to torture and kill murderers, I viscerally find such an act sickening. (It is important to note, however, that when he says certain acts “deserve” to meet with savagery, he is talking out of his anus. Deserve according to what standard? According only to Eugene Volokh’s animalistic bloodthirst, and nothing more.) Of course, I’m not sure how many public executions Prof. Volokh has actually attended. I find it highly plausible that he’s mostly just a little boy engaging in violent daydreaming, and that if he were actually confronted with the task of throttling a shackled pedophile who had a 75 IQ, he would end up like Albert Camus’s father, who wanted to witness an execution and then began to vomit when he “discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked.” Camus suggests that his father held the common belief that vengeance could bring justice, but that when it came down to it:
Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its head cut off.
But who knows, perhaps I’m overestimating Prof. Volokh’s distaste for bloodshed. Perhaps he really would enjoy it, and isn’t just emptily blustering from his office at UCLA. Out of fairness to him, I’ll give his sociopathy the benefit of the doubt.
(Amusingly enough, Prof. Volokh later “backed down” from his position solely on the practical grounds of “how hard it would be for a jury system to operate when this punishment was available, and how its availability would affect gubernatorial elections, legislative elections, [etc.]” He also conceded that his preferred execution methods definitely violate the Cruel & Unusual Punishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which would create some complications. Yet despite acknowledging that his program of systematized torture faced a set of formidable practical implementation obstacles in the U.S. context, Volokh continued to stand by his firm belief in the justice of gleefully throttling people to death.)
Here we find the limits of argumentation. There is no way to resolve this moral dispute, as he says it’s a “battle of moral axioms.” But I intend to work toward a merciful world, and Volokh intends to work toward a vengeful one, and I hope people will come with me and he hopes people will come with him. And he disdains me and finds me unpersuasive, and I disdain him and find him unpersuasive, and neither of us is “right” in some cosmic sense but I think it’s factually indisputable that he’s an inhumane, violent sadist. (That’s by his own admission; he says he is “pleased” by slow throttling, and rejects “humaneness or squeamishness.”) So as long as he’s willing to accept that he’s an inhumane, violent sadist (but that he thinks those are underrated virtues), Prof. Volokh and I can agree to disagree.