An eye for an eye?

The recent public execution by beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, by the Saudi Government1 as “punishment” for a domestic misadventure that culminated in the tragic death of an infant2 serves as an impertinent reminder to us all, that large parts of humankind remain untouched by modern jurisprudence. It is not our intention to rebroadcast the sordid details of this case, but rather to highlight why this case is a poor show in the face of moral philosophy as it stands today.

Let us momentarily overlook the gaping holes in this case3,4 such as the accused being a minor at the time the crime was committed, the lack of any legal representation for the accused, the lack of convincing evidence that the child was strangled by hand and didn’t choke on a fluid, the lack of an opportunity for appeal, the signing of a statement in a language not understood by the accused, the complaint of physical assault of the accused while in prison, the abject refusal by the Saudi government to even consider two humble appeals for stay of execution by no less a person than the President of Sri Lanka etc. Instead, let us simply project the worst-case scenario on Rizana’s side (which is rather unlikely, based on the evidence available).

Let us say that Rizana was 21 years old, and was merely “chided harshly” by her employer. Let us say this triggered some sort of frenzy in her and she choked to death the said infant with a pillow. Let us say she then really confessed that she did so, and pleaded for clemency to spare her life.

So here is the question. Do we need to end Rizana’s life as a consequence of the above misadventure, ignoring her plea for clemency, for the betterment of society at large?

What we know with absolute certainty is this – Rizana was an uneducated, desperately poor person, who had the courage to go to work in a new country that supposedly would bring about better financial prospects for her and her family back home. Whilst she may have been “conscious” of her actions during her moment of rage in a neurophilosophical sense, is it even conceivable that a “plot of revenge” against her employer was on the cards, in any legally or psychologically meaningful sense? In other words, did she fit into the category of a person with antisocial personality disorder (APD5), posing a threat to society? Had she a history of violent behavior in Sri Lanka? Did she display antisocial behavior during the long incarceration prior to her execution, or was she a diligent and inoffensive worker in prison? The answers to these pertinent questions were not discussed in this case. To quote Sam Harris on the subject of moral responsibility, “if a person’s actions seem entirely out of character, this will influence our sense of the risk he now poses to others”6.

The heart of contemporary jurisprudence boils down to two concepts: the conscious intention to do harm and the likelihood of the accused doing harm again. Whilst there are scientific reasons for doubting the usefulness of the former concept of “conscious intent”, let us adopt Michael Gazzaniga’s notion that we have free will from a social viewpoint7. And let us assume that at the moment of her rage, Rizana “thought of killing the baby”. The crucial fact is, she could hardly have thought of it before the incident, because it would be blatantly counterproductive to her wellbeing! If she did so, her mental faculties would have been way below par even for a conceited criminal mind.

Moving to the second concept, we don’t punish people anymore; we absolutely prevent such a tragedy happening again, and we also attempt to rehabilitate any antisocial behavior present in the perpetrator of a tragedy. One of these two principles would guide the legal proceedings for incarceration or even ending a person’s life judicially (if indeed capital punishment were socially acceptable – which we believe it isn’t, for many reasons we shan’t elaborate here8).

We don’t end the lives of people by law because of an ancient tradition of balancing celestial accounts of good and evil. Neither do we end the lives of people to satisfy the subjective feelings of a victim of a misadventure or even a serious crime. If we did, the queue to the gallows would be chockablock with people who have offended the sensibilities of the friends and relations of the victims of vehicle accidents, muggings, carelessness, petty crimes or even serious crimes perpetrated through ignorance. The heads of Bill Clinton9 (adultery), Merle Haggard10 (armed robbery) and Vinyanamurthy Muralideran11 (terrorism under the duress of a “justified civil war”) would all have come off under the proverbial axe, if we were to go by Saudi Law. Instead, these people apparently live productive lives today and haven’t been a burden to society since their “crimes” were committed. What if they all were killed because they confessed?

Confession is the first step towards granting clemency, a motivator to evaluate under supervision or incarceration, and determine the psychology and behavior of the accused.

We don’t believe that pacifism has a place in modern moral philosophy. Anyone who is repetitively and incorrigibly harmful to the lives of others, and whose harmful actions cannot be curtailed through incarceration, and whose behavior cannot be rehabilitated through reason or therapy, may be judicially eliminated. Modern historical examples range from Osama12 to Prabhakaran13. Rizana clearly doesn’t fit into this hit list – she was at worst a perpetrator of a one-off homicide committed under extreme duress and in a poor state of mind, with zero calculated benefit to her in any legally binding sense.

But I doubt if she was even this, because all available evidence points towards a misadventure and a subsequent framing to pacify the victim’s family. It is awful to have one’s child die at the hands of anyone, but its far worse if entire societies judged people by some ancient rules that lack input from thousands of years of advancement in secular human knowledge.


  1. Rizana execution Wikipedia account:
  2. Rizana execution as reported on BBC:
  3. Human Rights Watch on the Rizana Case:
  4. Asia-Pacific Migrants Mission on the Rizana Case:
  5. Antisocial Personality Disorder:
  6. Sam Harris on moral responsibility: The Moral Landscape, page 143
  7. Michael Gazzaniga on principles of justice: The Ethical Brain, Part III
  8. Capital Punishment:
  9. Bill Clinton:

10. Merle Haggard:

11. Vinyanamurthy Muralideran:

12. Osama:

13. Prabhakaran:


One Response to An eye for an eye?

  1. Pingback: An ode to the emotion behind free will, though it may be imprisoned by causality | iZombi

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