Andrew Hamilton SJ
Australians have responded with compassion to Mr Nguyen Tuong Van’s impending execution. They have also rejected judicial execution as a legitimate instrument of state policy.
It is easy to understand why Mr Nguyen and his plight have aroused such sympathy and outrage. We have seen the face of a young man, have heard the story of a life, and know that on a day fixed beforehand he will almost certainly die.
Although we may not know him personally, we have heard, too, of his family and of the pressures that drove him to smuggle drugs to pay his brother’s debts. We have also been allowed to enter his inner journey – how in prison he has grown to be more generous and reflective. Seeing a youthful face and hearing of a life touched by grace, we naturally refuse to accept that such a promising life should be ended abruptly.
How then do we weigh the story of Mr Nguyen against the good of a drug-free society, to which the Singapore Government appeals?
Sentiment may not be reliable as a lone moral guide, but every ethical judgment must begin with human faces and human stories. To talk about policies and principles that touch human beings, we must begin by imagining the full human reality of these policies. In contemplating the face of Mr Nguyen and the relationships involved in his killing, we are confronted with the reality, the mystery and the precariousness of what it is to be human. We crystallise this recognition of human dignity in such axioms as these: we should treat other people as we treat ourselves; we may not use human beings as means to ends, and so on.
It is difficult to reconcile that intuition and those axioms with killing an unprotected human being. We may not trade the life of one human being for the good of society. There can be no proportion between Mr Nguyen’s life and any social good that may be secured by his killing. Nor may we say that a malefactor’s life is forfeit. We need only ask to whom it is forfeit to appreciate that this claim is presumptuous. We may test the justice of our rejection of capital punishment by asking whether we could, without diminishing our own humanity, take part in the deliberate killing of an undefended person.
The consequences of basing our moral argument in human faces and stories are large. We shall also struggle to justify using lethal injections in hospitals, experimenting on embryos and making war for any reason but immediate self-defence. Such a morality is vulnerable to the charge that saints may choose it, but politicians must reject it. But the face and story of Mr Nguyen will haunt such an argument as surely as his face and story have aroused widespread compassion.
Andrew Hamilton sj writes regularly for Eureka Street.