Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Death Penalty

Funnily enough, I don't have any strong opinions on this topic (much like abortion). I'm not quite sure what all the fuss is about, actually. Both sides seem to assume that capital punishment is far more serious than other kinds of punishment. Only execution gives the worst offenders what they deserve, or violates their human rights, depending on who you ask. But I'm not sure that it's so different from life imprisonment.

It's terrible to take the life of an innocent person, of course. But is taking away their freedom really all that much better? Injustice is terrible no matter what form the misdirected punishment takes. I wouldn't be surprised if some people would rather die than spend the rest of their life in prison. After all, as liberals are usually well aware, it's our quality of life that matters. There's more to life than having a heartbeat, and we tend to be critical of conservatives when they forget this. So why are we suddenly the absolutists when it comes to capital punishment?

As a utilitarian, I hate prisons - they're so damn wasteful. In the linked post I suggested some alternative punishments for minor crimes (it might even be worth considering corporal punishment - as Ethical Werewolf commented, "I'll trade an inhumane, inefficient system for an inhumane, efficient one any day."). Perhaps capital punishment would be a more efficient alternative for the most serious crimes?

So, for me at least, the question of capital punishment is less a moral issue than an empirical one: would it have the best consequences? Would it be cheaper than life imprisonment? Would it be a better deterrent? Or would it just encourage more violence and a callous attitude towards life in the broader culture? It could well be that it would do more harm than good. But this is an empirical question which requires careful research / examination. I'm not convinced that we can rule it out a priori. Or am I missing something?

Update: Matthew Yglesias makes a similar argument.


  1. How could the death penalty be not that different from life imprisonment? The huge difference is that if someone spends the rest of their lives in prison then they still own their lives, although they cannot do what they wish with it to a certain extent. With the death penalty the state exerts ownership of the person's life by ending it, and that is wrong.

  2. I'm not sure in what sense a person locked away in a dungeon retains self-ownership. Sure, they are alive, but they no longer control their life in any meaningful sense.

    (Not that modern jails are 'dungeons', but it helps bring out the principle at stake here.)

  3. Riotous -
    Interesting things happen inphilosophy when we rate life above freedom. Not that I am totally rejecting the concept.

    personally I am against the death penalty because I just dont feel all that good about being responsible for death. its too easy for that to screw up my utilitarian score card and there are other ways generally to achieve my aims. What I don't mind however is whatever it takes (think drugs and aversion therapy and constant survelance) to make you reform.

    Brutally inhumane - but if it gets the job done then a few months of pain may save many decades of imprisonment / death.

  4. punishing some people may keep others from commiting a crime (by creating a perception that laws are enforced and there is no easy "out"). But in general i agree with you if punishing hte person acihieves nothing (in that person or in anyone else) it is fundimentally a waste of resources.
    And revenge is a pretty poor "achievement".

  5. I suspect there would be much more crime if people thought they could get away with it. The fact that some criminals are undeterred does nothing to refute this. (Compare: most vehicular deaths may involve people who wear seatbelts. But that doesn't refute the claim that seatbelts save lives - it may be that without seatbelts, there would have been even *more* deaths.)

    Apart from deterrence, punishment can also serve to secure a community by incapacitating a threat (either by locking them up, or castrating rapists, or chopping off the hands of a thief, whatever...)

    But I do agree (at least in principle) that in those cases where punishment would do no good, then it is a waste of time.

  6. I think oyu have a mistaen assumption
    Normal human behaviour is to be open to commiting murder.
    Certain mental abnornmalities might make certain people unable to do that or more likely upbringing and the constant presence of law inforcement's threat may prevent them from commiting murder. but I would hardly call it a mental illness.

  7. how can a problem be it's own solution? Surely no-one would punish a thief by stealing his posessions?
    How can the people who believe that murder is so wrong possibly be the same people who suggest it as a law? If you strip it down to the bear facts, it is still murder. The deliberate killing of another human being. No matter what backrounds you give the people involved, the story is always the same, isn't it?

  8. "Surely no-one would punish a thief by stealing his posessions?"

    I believe it's called a "fine". :p

  9. To take an innocent life in the act of murder is to create a debt that is unreplenishable. Assuming the murderer is autonomous, they are responsible for their own actions and were capable of choosing alternatives to murder (or negligence) at the time of the crime. When this person has made the autonomous decision to take another's life, they made the decision to take something they could never possibly give back. The most valuable thing known to man, LIFE,that victim ever had and was ever going to have has been taken away. The only way justify the murderer's actions is to give his/her life in return. Furthermore, this execution acts as a deterrant for homicides and also eliminates the risk of the murderer escaping prison to commit more murders.


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