Several factors influence the just and proportional punishment for a given crime, but one of the most important is the degree of social consensus that the act is morally wrong. Moral questions are complex, inherently subjective, and emotionally charged. People will always disagree about them passionately. But we disagree about some questions more than others, and civilized societies navigating that landscape in search of peaceful coexistence must tread lightly on the areas of greatest contention.
This is why Kevin Williamson’s repeated, unrepentant position that women who get abortions should be executed is beyond the pale, and why The Atlantic was right to fire him. It’s fine (though wrong, in my view) to believe that abortion is tantamount to murder. And it’s fine (though wrong, in my view) to believe that murderers should be sentenced to death. But it’s immature and unserious political philosophy to simply combine those claims in a vacuum, without facing the reality that half the country disagrees with each of them. It’s akin to animal rights activists endorsing the execution of hunters, on the grounds that they think hunting is murder. And if you object to that analogy because “hunting is murder” is a more radical and scarcely held view than “abortion is murder,” you’ve proven my point: one cannot determine the just punishment for a crime without reflection on what portion of society agrees it should be a crime in the first place.
Elevated discourse of the sort The Atlantic promotes is impossible without intellectual humility: the self-awareness to recognize when one’s fiercest convictions are not shared by others, and the tolerance to admit that’s a relevant factor in how to proceed. Both halves of our political spectrum are in dire need of that.