Executions and criminalising sexuality

A cheery topic I know and in the news because of the dreadful Ashtiani case in Iran. I am worried that Iran expects us to be satisified that death by stoning will instead be replaced by another method of execution.

To a huge extent the method is irrelevant. The issue is far simpler: why does the state feel the need to kill someone for a consensual sex act?

I am viscerally opposed to the death penalty in any form. I was really pleased when, as part of the Human Rights Act, the last Labour government scrapped the few remaining theoretical death penalties on the UK’s statute books. A real Labour civil liberties win, albeit in a theoretical area. Even for murder I prefer life imprisonment, which in some cases will mean full life.

In opposing it I understand that the campaigners have to get emotional play to convince some people, but concentrating on the barbaric method seems an own goal. Iran can now say “we’ve banned stoning” (which they have) and claim to have improved their record. Which they haven’t. The issue isn’t that their hanging method is also a cruel, painful way to die (which it is), but that this killing is even being considered by the state.

To be honest there is even the question why is adultery even a crime, never mind a capital one? I’m going to invoke Mill here and look for harm.

The harm in adultery is to the other partner. Maybe in a medieval environment the harm of raising another’s child might be significant, however in other circumstances this is encouraged by religions so it seems unlikely to be that. The betrayed trust is a huge emotional hurt (I really want to be clear that I’m not downplaying this) but we don’t criminalise other emotional hurts.(To take a trivial example we don’t criminalise giving someone the hard shoulder, or insulting them; at less trivial the damage done by poor exam results doesn’t criminalise the teacher who set the test.) If there is no other partner (as in this case, the adultery emerged at the trial of his alleged murderers) is there a harm? Consequentially there isn’t.

To move to a wider ethical view, is deceptive adultery morally wrong? Yes. Does that mean the state should legislate against it? In many cases we make deception a civil matter, even when substantial harm may be involved. Some cases we do make criminal, such as obtaining goods or services by deception.

The question whether this hurt is sufficient for state intervention is an interesting one. My gut reaction a clear no, however my arguments here are not strong. I think my argument comes down to seeing marriage as a contract, albeit a very special one, and thinking that violations of the contract should therefore be seen as a civil matter. In that I think I may be underplaying the potential emotional damage as equivalent to an insult. I could play a privacy argument: but this falls down by comparing it with domestic violence where most would like to see action taken even if the victim doesn’t complain. I’d like a better argument.

On an easier area, even less defensible is criminalising homosexuality. There simply is no harm here. (I am very pleased that the UK Supreme Court has decided that homosexual asylum seekers shouldn’t be asked to be more discreet, and should not be deported. It always seemed odd to accept political activists (who could also be discreet) but not people persecuted for something they have less choice over.)

Last year Iran executed more than 388 people according to Iran. That is at least 1 in 185000 people. (Src Amnetsy and World Bank, via Google). The second highest per capita rate in the world after Iraq.

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Filed under adultery, argument, execution, Iran, Mill

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