The horror of mathematical certainty

Albert Camus (1913 - 1960)

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)

Still, obviously, one can’t be sensible all the time. Another equally ridiculous fancy of mine was to frame new laws, altering the penalties. What was wanted, to my mind, was to give the criminal a chance, if only a dog’s chance; say, one chance in a thousand. There might be some drug, or combination of drugs, which would kill the patient (I thought of him as “the patient”) nine hundred and ninety times in a thousand. That he should know this was, of course, essential. For after taking much thought, calmly, I came to the conclusion that what was wrong about the guillotine was that the condemned man had no chance at all, absolutely none. In fact, the patient’s death had been ordained irrevocably. It was a foregone conclusion. If by some fluke the knife didn’t do its job, they started again. So it came to this, that— against the grain, no doubt—the condemned man had to hope the apparatus was in good working order! This, I thought, was a flaw in the system; and, on the face of it, my view was sound enough. On the other hand, I had to admit it proved the efficiency of the system. It came to this; the man under sentence was obliged to collaborate mentally, it was in his interest that all should go off without a hitch.

From the novel “The Stranger” by Albert Camus (1942)

Awaiting the public execution of his death sentence for murder, Meursault proceeds in imagining altered, fuzzy death penalties, governed by probabilities that offer a theoretical chance, albeit a dog’s chance, to the criminal. In Camus notebooks (March 1940), despair is recognized as genuine only in the case of a person convicted to death as “here horror is produced by the certainty, or rather by the mathematical element that constitutes this certainty“.


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