Yesterday I wrote about the idea of using convicted criminals for medical experiments, prompted by a Facebook status/share/chainletter thingy. Reading through the comments in support of this barbaric idea, I saw a few people who spoke out against it on basically humanitarian grounds, and the responses to these typically took the form of this argument: "You wouldn't say that if you or someone you loved were a victim of these monsters!"
This is a very common argument, although I rarely see it in any context outside of crime and punishment. I happen to be opposed to the death penalty (for reasons I'll get to in another post), and nearly every time I get into a debate with someone who's in favour, they bring it up. It's easy to understand why: it's a very emotionally powerful argument, and what's more, it appears to be very effective at bringing out a contradiction in the position of the one arguing against capital punishment. How hypocritical, you might say, that I would oppose the death penalty in general but favour it for someone who had killed one of my loved ones. How hypocritical that I might oppose torture for molesters of other people's children while calling for the torture of anyone who molested my own.
But there's a reason why we don't see this form of argument in other contexts: it's because it's actually a pretty stupid argument, when you stop to think about it carefully. Yes, it's true that I'd probably strongly desire the death of someone who murdered someone I loved. So what? Since when does powerful emotional trauma make someone a better judge of what is to be done? Is it not widely accepted in most other contexts that a strong emotional investment in an issue usually disqualifies one from making rational, objective decisions? We require judges to recuse themselves from hearing cases where they have close connections to one or both parties, and it's generally better if your surgeon isn't also your lover. Likewise, decisions concerning penal policy probably ought not to be made by those with an overwhelming personal agenda.
It goes farther than that, though. Let's suppose we accepted the idea that overwhelming emotional desires made people better qualified to make policy decisions. It'd be hard to argue against a policy whereby the government provided free heroin to everyone on demand; after all, you'd feel differently if you were addicted to heroin and going through withdrawals!
Indeed, this is where the argument finally becomes self-defeating. After all, it relies in large part on our shared sense of moral outrage against pedophiles and violent criminals; we want to say that we are entitled to judge these people's actions as wrong. Yet much of the time, probably most of the time, what they do is driven by overwhelming emotional desires. "Don't tell me not to molest children," one might tell us, "You'd feel differently if you were subject to powerful pedophiliac urges!" Well, yeah, I would feel differently. But I'm entitled to say I'd still be wrong to act on those urges, even if I had them.
And so, by the same reasoning, I can say that while I might desperately want the state to execute someone who'd murdered someone I loved, it'd still be bad policy and bad for society at large to indulge that desire. It's natural, and perhaps even healthy, to want things that are ultimately bad for us. It's also right and proper to refuse to satisfy those wants.