The Morality of Capital Punishment

Capital PunishmentThe recent execution of the questionably guilty Troy Davis in Georgia has sparked a lot of discussion around whether or not the death penalty is “right”.  The evidence certainly supports the case that capital punishment is not a cost effective solution, nor is it an effective deterrent.  It is applied with a decided racial bias, and its inherent irreversibility is problematic given that at least some innocent people are irrefutably being convicted.

Yet the key point would seem to be that this is not a data-driven decision for most people.  It is a moral one.  Or at least that’s how most people seem to rationalize it.

I strongly suspect that the lion’s share of people are not as morally certain about capital punishment as they claim, or at least not as unconditional in their opposition or favor of it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about personal life and death situations here.  A bad guy is holding a knife at your kid’s throat and you’ve got a clean temple shot, do you take it?  For most of us, absolutely.  But that’s a situation of imminent and immediate danger.  And I will contend the morality of that situation is quite different from situations in which a group of people not in present danger make a choice to end someone else’s life.  The question is not whether or not you would ever kill.  Rather, at its root, the question is whether or not society has the right, as a group, to take another life.  (The government being, ostensibly, just a manifestation of society or of a group of people.)

Many people do claim they are morally and unequivocally opposed to capital punishment. The assertion is that government, and by extension, society, doesn’t have the right to kill.  Yet, in a very real sense, we the people make all kinds of life and death decisions.

As a country, we wage wars.  When that happens we know that people on both sides will die.  We may not individually choose who dies, but as a group we are sending other human beings to their death.

The National Organ Transplant group makes more specific life and death decisions every day.  People specifically choose winners and losers, and the losers die.

These may seem like off-topic references, but in these and many more cases, society chooses to sacrifice some people for the greater good.  Clearly, we’re already on the slippery slope, but arguably this doesn’t specifically address death as punishment.  Perhaps we can draw a line there.

But even death as punishment gets a little fuzzy.  Consider that today the U.S. military executed Anwar al-Awlaki.  The guy was a very influential al-Qaida operative, but he was also a U.S. citizen.  Remember back in May when Seal Team 6 famously dispatched Osama bin Laden?  How were these not examples of capital punishment?  Either of those guys could have been captured, returned to the States for trial, and held for life in a maximum security facility.  Yet very few people advocated for that.

The practical matter remains that the objective of removing dangerous people is the increased safety and security of our citizens.  Sending a local serial killer to prison for life accomplishes that.  Capturing bin Laden does not.  His followers would have created additional threats for Americans were he only in jail.  We are safer if he’s dead.  Many people who are adamant the death penalty is immoral would acknowledge that.  Therefore, it seems clear that, with the exception of true pacifists, moral opposition to capital punishment has its limits.

At the other end of the spectrum, people finding the death penalty morally sound tend to find boundaries somewhat more easily.   It’s a pretty rare person that advocates capital punishment for jay-walking or shoplifting.  Even the most ardent Evangelical stops short of arguing for stoning people who picks up sticks on Saturday as commanded by the Lord in Numbers 15:32-36.  There are arguments to had with regard to how heinous the crime should be to warrant the death penalty, but basically everyone agrees there are limits to its application.

My personal position is that I do not consider myself morally opposed to capital punishment.  I do find there are rare but real situations in which it is the sentence that achieves a demonstrably greater good for society.  And I do firmly believe that society gets to make decisions in its collective best interest, and that such decisions may extend to the well-being or even the life of individuals. However, in large part, I do find the death penalty is expensive, ineffective, and impractical.  It is very nearly almost never the best solution.

That said, I also believe it’s morally reprehensible to support the death penalty out of a sense of vengeance.  And whether they admit it to themselves or not, many, if not most, advocates will find vengeance at the core of their motivation.  They may cite religious morality in terms of Old Testament support for retributive punishment, or they may talk about justice and how the person deserved to die for what they did.  Regardless, it all comes back to some form of Godly or personal vengeance.  And I can’t abide that.

While it’s important to understand your position, it’s perhaps more important to have explored the boundaries of that position as well as the underlying motivations that led you there.  So where are you?  And why?

12 thoughts on “The Morality of Capital Punishment

  1. I think punishment is intended as corrective as in when you punish children or students. Punishing criminals probably works for minor crimes, but when we’re talking heinous crimes, I think rehab is out of the question. We’re really talking about efficiently and effectively removing these people from society.

  2. assuming the “gulity” party was not wrongfully convicted, correct? I guess I’d argue that capital punishment is about the most inefficient form of punishment (and expensive) around. Most death row offenders languish in jail for many years, going thru appeals and stays of execution. I’m thinking efficienct and effectively removing someone from society is to kill his/her ass right on the spot.

  3. The uncertainty of guilt is a big part of the issue. And the key reason the Judge Dread model of shooting them on arrest doesn’t work. Not to mention that it seems we should feel a profound remorse for taking a life, even of someone we are sure is guilty. While it may be moral for us to take a life under certain conditions, it should never be done capriciously.

  4. My comment was tongue in cheek and I do believe you’re splitting hairs. Crimes of passion – no caprice there. Does the crime of passion perp deverve capital punishment? The only emotionally efficient killers are cold blooded sociopaths. I gues my arguement is that normal feeling people cannot take a life without passion one way or the other. But then practice makes things easier for those who flip the switch , pull the trigger and so on. Caprice for sure.

  5. Very very difficult subject. But it’s pretty plain for me. I ain’t for it in any way shape or form. And believe me, I have thought, God forbid, if it was one of my kids or someone I love. Killing the killer simply wouldn’t do it for me. And I honestly believe that those who say they’re at “peace” after an execution by the state – I don’t believe them. They are deluding themselves. UNLESS it’s revenge.

  6. No, I said Isaac Ehrlich disagrees with you.

    He’s the top economist at UB and is quite well known at least in part, for his studies on the subject. It’s a little more in depth than;

    “The two states with the most executions in 2003, Texas 24, and Oklahoma 14, saw increases in their murder rates from 2002 to 2003. Both states had murder rates above the national average in 2003: Texas – 6.4, and Oklahoma – 5.9. The top 13 states in terms of murder rates were all death penalty states. The murder rate of the death penalty states increased from 2002, while the rate in non-death penalty states decreased.Death Penalty Information Center”

  7. My apologies. I guess I have a kneejerk reaction to the Heritage Foundation. I’ll concede that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is controversial. It’s hard to get any current data on it because it is practiced by so few countries and so few states in ours. Yet the reality is that violent crimes is way down over the last 20 years across the country. It would be hard to attribute that to the death penalty, but it also doesn’t definitively dismiss it as a factor.

  8. Sorry that the first post was so short. I was literally on my way out the door to spend the night camping with the cub scouts in the rain. The Heritage foundation happened to be at the top of the list when I googled Ehrlich. So now I’m just back from the aforementioned camping trip and I can’t say that my mind is at its most focused.

    You said that you believe the death penalty is “expensive, ineffective, and impractical.” But what if it is effective? Let’s assume Ehrlich is right. Does that change your opinion? What if you could actuarially prove that having the death penalty on the books saves 1000 innocent lives of people who aren’t murdered at a cost of 50 innocent people who are found guilty of those crimes? Is that worth it? I think if you are going to use ineffectiveness as a pillar of your position, than you need to do these sort of mental exercises to see at what point you swing to the other side. If you never do, than ineffectiveness is really irrelevant. It is obviously a tough subject. You can see by the number of replies that it touches a nerve with people.

  9. Based on my experience, camping with the Cub Scouts will muddle anyone’s mind.

    The point of the article was that bright clean lines are hard to draw. It’s hard to be strictly for or against. You raise a good point with regard to extending this to include efficacy or even cost. And in those areas as well, lines are hard to draw.

    I do think any justice system will inherently have some human and hence some error level. Expecting that no innocent people get convicted is unrealistic, but we should still strive for a damn low number.

    There’s also the issue of practical alternatives. In our society, this means we never have to face the “sacrifice 50 to save 1000” problem. Life imprisonment with virtually no chance of escape is an easy and practical alternative.

    However, in the abstract, would I make such a trade off? Possibly, if there were no viable alternatives. But I might never sleep well again.

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