Human Exceptionalism

“Spine for a Spine” Punishment In Saudi Arabia Would Violate Human Exceptionalism

A Saudi man who paralyzed another man in a physical assault is threatened with the punishment of being made paralyzed. From the story:

A Saudi man convicted of paralysing a fellow countryman in a cleaver attack is being threatened with having his spinal cord cut in a tit-for-tat punishment. The ultra-conservative desert Kingdom enforces Islamic law and on rare occasions metes out punishments based on the ancient code of an ‘eye-for-an-eye’. The case judge in the northwestern province of Tabuk has sent letters to several hospitals seeking their advice on whether it is medically possible to render the attacker’s spinal cord non-functional, local newspapers said.

One leading hospital said that it could not perform the operation, apparently on ethical grounds. The King Faisal Specialist Hospital – a leading medical facility in the Saudi capital, Riyadh – said in a letter of response to the court that ‘inflicting such harm is not possible’. Another hospital reportedly said it is possible to cut the spinal cord but it was not clear whether it is prepared to do so.

This is a contentious crew here at SHS, but I would be stunned if we all didn’t agree that paralyzing the criminal would be an egregious wrong.  (Some of us might pretend to disagree, but that is a different thing.)

But why, exactly, would it be wrong to render a spine for a spine?  It sure could dissuade others from attacking people with cleavers!  Some might say that no doctor should ever intentionally cause a patient harm–and that is certainly true.  Or, they might equate it with a physician participating in an execution and note that such acts are not medical.  True, too.  But why would it be wrong. exactly, for doctors to cause harm or act non medically in a medical capacity?  And on the bigger picture level, why would such a severed spine for a severed spine punishment be wrong?

The answer lies in human exceptionalism.  Each of us–even the worst of us–has certain inherent dignity that should remain sacrosanct, no matter what we have done.  Punishing a criminal by rendering him paralyzed as a matter of vengeance crosses that line and treats the criminal as less than human.

But if humans do not have an intrinsic and universal dignity that prevents certain lines from being crossed, then why not?  And while we’re at it, why not sever his spine and then see if stem cells could knit it back together again?  Once we give up HE, what we do to each other merely becomes a matter of cultural differences and the attitudes of the power structure.