The Oresteia of Aeschylus is the Greek’s great epic about the founding of the state. The trilogy of plays tells how a blood feud in the house of Agamemnon comes to an end when the gods decree that justice shall now be delivered not through individual vengeance but by governmental process. As Charles Hill writes in Grand Strategies, “This makes the death penalty the foundation stone of civilization, for only when a victim’s kin are convinced that the state will exact justice in response to murder will they entrust that power to the state.”
When a state decides to abolish the death penalty, they are reneging on that original agreement. The progressive argument is, essentially, that the contract was made in former times when people were not so civilized as they are now. Years of life under the rule of law have made us better than we were, and we have moved beyond the savage need to punish murder with murder. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as Ben Kingsley said when he was pretending to be Gandhi.
The conservative argument — the argument, in this case, for preserving capital punishment — is, no, mankind is ever and always what it was. New technologies may have given us greater powers of imprisonment and reform that make execution necessary in fewer cases, but there is still murder in the world and the wronged heart still demands full recompense. The state must hold to at least the minimum of its Oresteian agreement or lose the right to govern.
But Aeschylus notwithstanding, the delivery of justice after an attack is not the only foundational contract a state makes with its people. In allowing the government to maintain a standing army and police force, we are also agreeing to transfer to the state the duty and immense power of defending us from being attacked in the first place. This is not only a matter of practicality, it’s the only method anyone’s come up with to prevent the Hobbesian war of all against all.