It is not easy to estimate values correctly. It may be that life is not important. Nature seems extravagantly profligate in her giving and pitiless in her taking away. Yet death has something of the same shock today that was felt when men first gazed upon the dead with awe and wonder and terror. Constantly meeting it and seeing it and procuring it will doubtless make it more commonplace. To the seasoned soldier in the army it means less than it did before he became a soldier. Probably the undertaker thinks less of death than almost any other man. He is so accustomed to it that his mind must involuntarily turn from its horror to a contemplation of how much he makes out of the burial. If the civilized savages have their way and make hangings common, we shall probably recover from some of our instinctive fear of death and the extravagant value that we place on life. The social organism is like the individual organism: it can be so often shocked that it grows accustomed and weary and no longer manifests resistance or surprise.
So far as we can reason on questions of life and death and the effect of stimuli upon human organisms, the circle is like this: Frequent executions dull the sensibilities toward the taking of life. This makes it easier for men to kill and increases murders, which in turn increase hangings, which in turn increase murders, and so on, around the vicious circle.
In the absence of any solid starting point on which an argument can be based; in the absence of any reliable figures; in the absence of any way to interpret the figures; in the absence of any way to ascertain the indirect results of judicial killings, even if the direct ones could be shown; in the impossibility through life, experience or philosophy of fixing relative values, the question must remain where it has always been, a conflict between the emotional and unemotional; the “sentimental” and the stolid; the imaginative and the unimaginative; the sympathetic and the unsympathetic. Personally, being inclined to a purely mechanistic view of life and to the belief that all conduct is the result of certain stimuli upon a human machine, I can only say that the stimuli of seeing and reading of capital punishment, applied to my machine, is revolting and horrible. Perhaps as the world improves, the sympathetic and imaginative nature will survive the stolid and selfish. At least one can well believe that this is the line of progress if there shall be progress, a matter still open to question and doubt.
STIGMATA OF THE CRIMINAL