Stephen A. Cooper
Writer & Activist

Good People Oppose the Death Penalty

Reviewing, in July 1970, Sir Walter Moberly’s book “The Ethics of Punishment” (London: Faber & Faber 1968), Sir Donald Neil MacCormick, the late Scottish legal philosopher, politician, professor—and former member of the European Parliament—wrote: Moberly’s book “is a masterpiece of lucid and careful argument, illuminated throughout by a remarkable depth of insight and humanity; and by a refined Christianity which I can admire without sharing.”

While undeniably Moberly approached “The Ethics of Punishment” from a Christian perspective, there’s much insight Jewish people—and people from all faiths, and even atheists—can learn from Moberly’s deeply researched, thought-provoking work. This is especially so as it concerns capital punishment, which all good people must oppose.

Indeed, as a Jewish death penalty-abolitionist-writer, I’ve often relied upon Moberly’s observations about the immorality undergirding capital punishment. For example, in 2018, writing for the Omaha World-Herald in “Gov. Ricketts’ rationale for death penalty doesn’t hold up,” I relied on the anecdotal account—detailed in Moberly’s book—of a prison chaplain in England, Rev. W. Roberts; Roberts gave his account before the Royal Commission of 1866 “when executions were still public,” relating, specifically, that he “interrogated 167 persons under sentence of death as to whether they had ever witnessed a hanging. All but three had done so, yet had themselves been undeterred.”

The same year, in an essay called “British waffling on death penalty will have global repercussions,” this time for the Alabama Political Reporter, I relied again on Moberly and his declaration that state killings have a “demoralizing and brutalizing tendency[,] familiarizing the public with horrors,” and “caus[ing] human life to be held cheap.” Sir Moberly’s tome decries these dastardly acts—all of them—as being a “deliberate infliction of torture [that] to [the British people] [is] unthinkable wickedness, degrading all who have any part in it, whether as agents, spectators or hearers after the event.”

Then, in 2019, in a column titled “Abolishing the death penalty requires morality,” I again turned to Moberly’s wisdom and compelling prose; I did so by quoting his pithy aphorism that “[t]he executioner pays the murderer the compliment of imitation,” and, his even more keen conclusion: “Much demand for retribution certainly has a shady origin. It springs from the crude animal impulse of the individual or group to retaliate, when hurt, by hurting the hurter. In itself such resentment is neither wise nor good and, in its extreme forms, it is generally condemned as vindictive.”

Yet once more, in 2024, with assistance from George Boyd Snell, the former eighth Bishop of Toronto, I want to again inject Sir Moberly’s clearheaded thinking about capital punishment into the public sphere—and why such punishment cannot be morally justified.

Speaking at an open forum on the death penalty held in Toronto, Canada, on February 5, 1954, the late archdeacon Snell, remarking on the untruth that the death penalty acts as deterrent, referred to yet another of Moberly’s writings on “Capital Punishment” from the Christian News-Letter for July 1953 (Oxley & Son, 4 High St., Windsor, England).

Bishop Snell said: “We come then to consider the problem of the retention of capital punishment from the standpoint of its value to society. Here our chief concern is undoubtedly with the deterrent power of the death penalty.” Continuing his discourse, Snell then quoted one of Moberly’s maxims—a maxim Moberly later included in his “Ethics of Punishment” virtually verbatim: “An increase in the efficiency of the police force does more to prevent murder than the busiest hangman.” In close proximity to this passage in the “Ethics of Punishment,” where Moberly makes this argument, he notes also that “every outbreak of violent crime seems to evoke a confused clamour for flogging or hanging.” And, he remarks that capital punishment has “morbid accompaniments, such as the impulse which leads boys to run to see a pig being killed.”

Piggy-backing on Moberly, Snell goes on to say “we must ask ourselves another question—whether [the death penalty] does not do more harm in brutalizing human nature and lowering the whole moral tone of the community than the deterring power of capital punishment does to make life secure.”

At the tail-end of last year, together with Cantor Michael J. Zoosman in a piece called “Jews must speak out against Alabama’s planned nitrogen gas executions,” I answered Snells’ question as it concerns how Jewish people should view state-sanctioned killing. “Because of what has happened to us in our history—the hatred, the hurt, the humiliation, the denial of our humanity—and because of the commonality of this experience with condemned prisoners, I believe strongly that Jewish people have an obligation to be death penalty abolitionists.” (See also “Houses made on death row” and “Growing Away from God by Executing Michael Smith” for additional information and support for my position.)

70 years ago, Bishop Snell, a proponent of Moberly’s timeless erudition like me, was equally convinced that the death penalty’s retention “does not seem to be of value to society.” Snell said, too, that because “[w]e are concerned primarily with the protection of society” then “we must consider the positive damage that is done by the retention of the death penalty.”

Snell opined: “There comes a time when further advance is held up until the law moves forward to a new position.” And it is here, as his writing does so often, that famous American writer James Baldwin can be of service in galvanizing citizens to engage in rightful—and righteous—action. Baldwin wrote: “a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become.”

Morally strong countries—countries composed of good people—don’t execute their citizens. Ever.

About the Author
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on "X"/Twitter @SteveCooperEsq
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