Monday, September 14, 2015

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

After a long period of time during which it was disturbingly uncontroversial, capital punishment in America is once again becoming a high-level issue. Opposing the death penalty is one of the few issues that I've been consistent on throughout my young life, though my rationale has varied. There are certainly religious and moral arguments against capital punishment, but I'd like to lay out as rational a case as I think can be made against it.

The most convincing argument in favor of capital punishment, in my view, is deterrence--that by executing murderers, we will save innocent lives by deterring future murders. So why doesn't this argument hold up? For one thing, because there's no evidence that the death penalty does actually have a deterrent effect any greater than life imprisonment. But, in my view, even if the evidence were that such a deterrent effect did exist, capital punishment would still be unjustifiable. 

There are certainly circumstances we can come up with where killing a person would be uncontroversially justified, such as in defense of the life of an innocent. Obviously, it makes sense for the government--or agents thereof, such as the police--to have the authority to kill a person in a situation like that, as we would give that degree of authority even to a private citizen. In the case of capital punishment, though, we are talking about killing a person who often poses no threat to anyone else (given that they're being held in prison and can be held in solitary confinement if they pose a danger to fellow inmates) and may even be genuinely contrite for the crime they committed. Why should the government have the authority to kill a defenseless person? To give the government such a right is fundamentally totalitarian; there is, in fact, no more totalitarian power the government could have than to decide who lives and who dies. Even if the death penalty did save lives, that would not justify giving the government this power; should we give the government the power to detain anyone who even looks suspicious if that, too, saves lives? Perhaps we should start executing traffic offenders; after all, highway accidents take lives, and after one or two executions no one would dare to go one bit over the speed limit.

An anti-death penalty protestor at St. Louis University College 
Secondly, in order to have a genuinely good society--that is, a society that secures to the greatest extent general well-being--certain values are important. Unlike many social conservatives, I certainly don't support punishing anyone who acts contrary to these values, but the government should at least abide by them. One important value, in my view, is to wish at least a minimal amount of well-being for each member of society, no matter how despicable they are. The United States is one of the only First World countries to still have the death penalty, and it also takes exceptionally bad care of its citizens compared to other First World countries. One of the other First World countries with the death penalty, Japan, has an unusually high suicide rate and serious cultural issues when it comes to respect of women. On the other hand, countries like Denmark and Norway, which consistently rank very highly in all regards, particularly human happiness, not only have no death penalty, but Norway doesn't even have life without parole for murderers. 

I'm not saying that it's because of the death penalty that the United States and Japan have such serious issues, and because of the lack of it that Norway and Denmark rank so highly, but rather that Norway and Denmark have done a better job than the US or Japan when it comes to embracing the idea that everyone should be entitled to some level of decency in their existence, even if they're despicable people--and that embracing this principle leaves one no choice but to eliminate the death penalty, as it runs contrary to that idea. One cannot systemically kill defenseless people and maintain respect for the idea that everyone should enjoy some minimal level of comfort.

But, again, there is no evidence for the idea that the death penalty is an effective deterrent, so while theoretically significant, these arguments aren't even necessary to argue against the death penalty. Once we've set aside the deterrence argument--for either its lack of factual support, the reasons I put forward, or for any other reason or combination of reasons--we begin to come to arguments that are much less convincing, in my view. One of those is that the punishment fits the crime. I think that this appeals to a particularly crude sort of morality. If we want to be different than murderers, and have any grounds from which to condemn them, we cannot embrace a punishment for the very reason that it's just like the sort of thing they would do. And we shouldn't base criminal justice off of some mere instinct about what criminals "deserve;" there are certainly actions that one could fairly argue deserve some kind of punishment--betraying a friend, deliberately spreading misinformation, saying things just to upset people--that getting the criminal justice system involved with would be absurd. 

Then we have the argument that we should kill murderers so we don't have to use taxpayer money to support them. This is particularly offensive to anyone with any sort of respect for human life, considering that it argues that sometimes saving money is worth killing people over. Furthermore, given the appeals involved when a person is sentenced to death, it's doubtful that capital punishment even does save money.

The worst argument that I've heard, though, is that murderers should just be viewed as undesirables and killed because we have no use for them. We may have little use for murderers, it's true, but it's pure totalitarianism to think that it's the job of the individual to be "useful" to society and that they can be disposed of if they fail to do the job.

It's important to keep in mind that people are the products of both genetic factors and personal circumstances. No one who has committed a murder is the same both genetically and in terms of personal circumstances as a normal, murder-abhorring person; they've either been dealt a bad hand genetically, environmentally, or both. This isn't to try to stir sympathy for murderers or claim that they aren't responsible for their actions, but rather to emphasize that the factors that lead someone to choose to murder another person are largely out of their own control, and that none of us can honestly say that if we had the same genetic code and personal history as a murderer, we wouldn't make the same decisions he or she did. 

And, crucially, we have to recognize that we, too, are murderers if we kill defenseless people. That we think the people we kill are despicable and deserving of death means nothing; those are the exact justifications many murderers have had for killing their victims. And, of course, if we are murderers, we are in no position to declare that murderers deserve death, unless we plan on mass suicide.

NOTE: This post was corrected from earlier version, which stated Denmark doesn't have life without parole for murderers; in fact, it does. 

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