Reflections on the Guillotine

The French existentialist author Albert Camus favored life imprisonment with hard labor over capital punishment for even the very worst murderers. He believed that imposing the death penalty on a person deprived her of the opportunity of making amends, and no one should be denied the opportunity of making amends. In the closing stages of his essay on the death penalty,

“Reflections on the Guillotine,” Camus is concerned with the fate of those he calls “major criminals whom all juries would condemn at any time and in any place whatever. Their crimes are not open to doubt, and the evidence brought by the accusation is confirmed by the confessions of the defense.”29 He gives the example of a young man who, annoyed by a remark made by his father about his coming home late, killed both his parents in cold blood with an axe, then “undressed, hid his bloodstained trousers in the closet, went to make a call on the family of his fiancee, without showing any signs, then returned home and notified the police that he had just found his parents murdered.”30 While his “odd indifference” was abnormal, his reasoning power remained untouched, and the medical experts asserted he was responsible for his actions, as opposed to concluding he was suffering from a mental illness or acting under duress.

Such “monsters,” notes Camus, evoke the most extreme response from society’s guardians: “Apparently the nature or the magnitude of their crimes allows no room for imagining that they can ever repent or reform. They must merely be kept from doing it again, and there is no other solution but to eliminate them.”31 Camus, for his part, begs to differ. Everyone, he holds, is capable of making amends, and not just those with a beneficent disposition: “Deciding that a man must have the definitive punishment imposed on him is tantamount to deciding that a man has no chance of making amends.”32

There are two parts to Camus’ argument here. First, there is the claim that everyone is capable of making amends. Second, there is the claim that everyone has amends to make. The latter proposition is true because “we have all done wrong in our lives even if that wrong, without falling within the jurisdiction of the law, went as far as the unknown crime.”33 To make sure that we do not miss or underestimate the importance of this point, Camus adds, provocatively, “There are no just people - merely hearts more or less lacking in justice.”34 Allowing even the worst criminal to continue living is, for Camus, essentially a matter of giving precedence to the principle of equality: it is giving him, or her, the same opportunity to make amends as is given to everyone else. So it comes about that “the lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible.”35

Camus has a more abstract and complex concept of making amends than that found in common usage. To make amends, as the phrase is commonly used, means to restore to another, or to others, what you have taken from them; alternatively, it means to compensate others for the harm you have caused them. But for Camus, it means adding good things to the sum of good things you have done, which in turn augments the universal sum of good things done, which in turn will help atone or compensate for all the bad things you have done: “Living at least allows us to discover this and to add to the sum of our actions a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst men.”36 Whereas in common usage making amends means restoring to other people, or compensating them, for

Camus it means restoring an equilibrium between aggregates of good and evil. Thus, even Camus’s preferred alternative to capital punishment—life imprisonment with hard labor—is capable of providing a person with the opportunity to exercise his or her right to atone, since, even under the gruesome conditions of penal servitude during the postwar period, a prisoner could have behaved badly or well toward other prisoners and warders. In any event, Walt, by contrast with Camus’s prisoner, manifestly does have the resources to make some reparation to some of those he has harmed, as well as to the wider society.

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