3 February 2010

Integrating Albert Pierrepoint...

I seem to have settled into a morbid fettle. Perhaps the first shoots of spring brought it on. Monday brought helpful information for the average citizen - how to well-regulate a naval coffin according to UK law. This morning, I wanted to discuss Albert Pierrepoint. Or more precisely, the selectively fictionalised biopic about the executioner, released in 2005. Named for the protagonist, the film starred Timothy Spall as the hangman, Juliet Stevenson as his socially-conscious wife. I mention this not to pry the lid off of the canned question of capital punishment but to think a little about an integrated personality – and inching towards a point about Margo’s proposed legislation on end of life assistance.

Pierrepoint embodies efficiency in his administration of the long-drop method, a dowdy figure, anything but cruel. While his efforts to set a record for briskness, and effect the most rapid execution, imply a rather unattractive zeal and a failure of the imagination, as the film’s scenes succeed, Pierrepoint becomes reluctant, problematised. Mass army executions provoke pangs – the script pushes him into taking refuge in his norms of professionalism. Presiding in his pub, in song – all vestige of his death-dealing professional life is suppressed. Albert is depicted as divided, only sustained by the stability of the division. In the philosophy of the narrative, Pierrepoint’s disintegrated, ambivalent persona is finally revealed as unsustainable when he is called upon to hang a friend from his ‘private’ sphere, James ‘Tish’ Corbett. He does his duty, his friend dies, but the brutal rupture and the recognition of unity of his personality which the scene enforces causes Pierrepoint to reject his fell-handed employment. The irresponsibility of the man outside the rope room is seen as a cheap, showman’s delusion. I did this dreadful thing. These dreadful things. The binary, justifying, unbalanced Pierrepoint disintegrates – but his morally responsible, reintegrated self emerges with more complete knowledge, guilt certainly – but no longer repressing his essential unity.

If all that sounds a bit high flown and gusty, just reflect how common this sort of thinking is. It tells in the familiar division people make between public and private, and for many, the degree to which their life seems suspended when they are at work. Mirroring the dramatic version of Pierrepoint, numerous examples also come to mind of potentially humane and just people, who spend their days administering injustice and brutality to their fellow men and women. As should be clear from the foregoing, I’m not really convinced by the justifying arguments, the appeals to social authority, to irresponsible divisions. In my own life, I’m only doing my job wouldn’t salve my conscience. For that reason, I feel profound ambivalence towards army personnel. There nothing is more contemptible than the bellicose civilian – but even mindful of the diverse range of functions which soldiers undertake, mindful about the difference between aggressive and defensive manoeuvres, I find it difficult to extricate myself from the sense that many of the justifications for soldiery remain unconvincing, unsatisfying. To quote from the 17th century Jansenist miserablist (and famous wagerer) Blaise Pascal,

“Could there be anything more absurd than that a man has a right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and his prince has picked a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?”

Of course, there are other accounts of morality which we can articulate to justify the taking of human life, whether by execution, in war – or assisting others towards the desired end of final, painless oblivion. For many years, framing the debate at a moral rather than a legal level, I was uncomfortable with the idea of euthanasia. Among all imaginable objections, apprehension about moral agency probably ranks among the more esoteric of possible responses. I’ve written before about the problems presented by our fractured moral discourse on living, dying – and more broadly, the morality of killing. How can these be reconciled, I asked, eye on the debate? Margo MacDonald, however, whose hand has lost none of its cunning – sees much more clearly than I have. At the launch of her Bill and on subsequent telly appearances, the Independent MSP spoke of wanting to wait till she had a concrete legal proposal, not fence with abstract generalities. In this sense, she recognises that – as an engaging issue with many facets – if she attempts to answer every questioning little doubt everyone has – she is definitely stuffed. Legislative particularism does not need us to resolve (except implicitly, by neglect) the blameworthiness or appropriateness of doctor-imposed death in cases where the patient is incapable of taking a view, for instance. Although passing pangs may occur to us, we need not construct a meta-theory of the godless preciousness of the human form to determine that in particular circumstances, a doctor should not be prosecuted for murder or culpable homicide.

Our legislative questions are of a different order. They’re more modest. More precise. They ask us – is it just, fair, right, equal for people to be prosecuted in case A? That, after all, is the primary judgement. The enactment is a series of rules, giving directions to public officials. After all, what is striking about law is how limited causes of action are, both criminally and civilly. Reflect on how many things in our lives cause harm, life’s little injustices and devastating wounds which rend and tear whole lives. The law sees in categories, not the diverse particulars of the individual complaint and the individual complainer’s sense of manifest wrong. The idea, in any simple way, that law ‘reflects our values as a society’ is exceedingly problematic. Certainly, it has a superficial siren allure - such a doctrine can set in motion particular reforming attempts informed by some theory of law as social mirror. I’d suggest, however, that as far as the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill goes, if we spend our time quibbling over whether the law, abstractly, should engage in an implausible and transcendent defence of some inconsistent idea of life's sacred inalienability - we fail to attend to the brute realities. Namely, the machinery of state prosecution, punishment - and morally dubious retribution.


  1. "Morally dubious retribution." Being of a philosophical and pedantic nature, I would say we surely have to pursue the source of that dubiety. That may reveal much about
    'retribution' and little or nothing about the (perhaps nebulous) notion of the sanctity of life but it's surely worth trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of your (our) unease.

  2. I can absolutely agree with that point. Articulation (never mind resolution) of these theoretical, moral quandaries is the unfinished work of a generously proportioned tome, with small print. Ambivalence is everywhere, adherence to mutually inconsistent goals - never mind the dearth of empirical sources to evaluate the effectiveness or otherwise of our attempts to control human conduct or enshrine human values.

    Even though I give long, laborious posts a more enthusiastic stab than many - I don't think I could manage a brisk 1,000 word compression. Exploring these questions is, however, crucial. These conceptual problems aren't creatures, best left confined in ivory towers. We're all theoretical all the time, from the most to the least reflective.

  3. I wholly concur. My undergraduate philosophy seminars often seemed like mere exercises in conceptual/linguistic deconstruction. But that is where it's at. I'm not sure you can actually move on from there to anything worthy of the soubriquet 'objective'. Our intersubjective values are worth pondering though as they not only help to define who we are but where we should be going.

  4. I should stress, simply for clarity, that I don't regard 'theory' as a dirty word - and although the issue is hoaching with complexity, I'm not a mad Platonist of sympathetic sort of character, grubbing about or vaulting high in search of objectively-sanctioned, unproblematic values.