10/25/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated Dec 25, 2011

Cheers or Tears? What Confucius Would Say About Texas Executions

Campaign 2012 is well underway with Republicans jockeying for place in the sweepstakes of the nomination process.

Certainly a memorable moment in the Republican debates occurred when Governor Perry was asked about the number of executions carried out in the state of Texas, a number far surpassing all other states, and in particular the number of executions carried out during his tenure as governor, a number far exceeding any previous governor!

Before the governor was able to respond, a good number of the audience broke into applause and shouts of support. Applause and shouts for what?

Even the commentators of the debate were stunned. Bryan Williams addressed the issue of the audience reaction to Governor Perry himself. Surely, he suggested, such a response from the audience is both startling and unsettling. Is such an audience response appropriate?

The audience response seemed to demonstrate not only the acceptance of, but also admiration for, a system of state-condoned execution -- capital punishment by any other name. Even more blatantly, it celebrated its success, if that is the appropriate term.

Governor Perry's answer suggested that in Texas there is a law and people know that if they violate that law they may have to pay the ultimate penalty -- execution. Apparently, his answer confirms the expression "Don't mess with Texas."

Granted that capital punishment in this country has been for decades a controversial issue, still, for the audience to burst out in applause and shouts of approval over the issue of killing someone seems ethically, let alone religiously, problematic at best. At its worst, it seems nothing short of barbarous.

Most religious traditions adapt teachings of love and mercy, at least to a degree. They each struggle in their own way, however, with the relation of ethics and justice, necessarily condoning even capital punishment at times to combat what is seen as a greater evil -- the suffering of the innocent at the hands of the guilty. The role of capital punishment -- and at a larger scale, just war theory -- fits the bill.

Confucius and Confucianism have rarely been heard in the debate about such issues in our contemporary world. What indeed would Confucius make of this latest public ovation for what the audience perceived to be the benefits of capital punishment?

To answer this question, I go not to the Analects of Confucius, but to the words and reactions of a more contemporary Confucian voice, Okada Takehiko, a prominent Confucian in Japan throughout much of the 20th century.

Okada's response to the question of capital punishment was in the setting of a discussion I had with him in the 1980s that focused upon a series of ethical issues of our contemporary world. This interview and discussion, found in my work "The Confucian Way of Contemplation: Okada Takehiko and the Tradition of Quiet-Sitting" (1988), posed a series of ethical issues and dilemmas and asked specifically for a Confucian response.

Our discussion of capital punishment was in the context of the Confucian view of the goodness of human nature, the fundamental Confucian belief that all humans possess an original nature that by nature contains the seeds of goodness. The tradition does not deny the existence of evil in the world, but believes that a person's original goodness has been changed and transformed by largely external forces into something we would designate as evil.

What then of capital punishment as a punishment for one who has slipped into the ways of evil?

Okada's response is telling:

"If someone has committed a serious crime, then the person should be executed for the crime. The problem is that when you have to execute the person, you would do so while you were at the same time crying, crying and continuing to believe in the basic goodness of human nature." (p. 194)

A little different from the audience exaltations and ovations of the Republican primary debates!

But what is the difference?

A Confucian response suggests that evil must be addressed and that even execution is justified under certain circumstances of heinous crime. Such actions, however, on the part of the state are not a cause for celebration. They are instead a sad reminder of the distance separating the way we act, both as criminal and judge, from the potential that is within each of us to act in ways of goodness.

In a Confucian world, law is not an end in itself. Law is first and foremost a way in which to fulfill the goals of goodness and righteousness. And when the law is called into a situation that represents the worst of humankind, it must act, though with great sadness for the loss of the best of humankind. The act of execution is thus a failure of both individual and state. Okada's crying at the occurrence of such punishment is a far cry indeed from the celebratory response witnessed in front of a national audience.

Where has our world gone that applause and shouts of approval greet the saddest of circumstances, that a life must be taken because of the acts of one person upon others? Where is humaneness? Where is righteousness? Where is the recognition of our own need to address moral rectification in others?

Applause and shouts of approval? What would Confucius say?