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Death is not a penalty

It's interesting reading and listening to the reactions to a certain Illinois governor's decision to commute the sentences of all the prisoners on his state's death row. The death penalty is wrong, so many of them read. So overturning it has got to be right, right?

Well, no, not necessarily; there is more to it than that. The death penalty is wrong — hence the handy euphemism for what's otherwise known as killing (it's not really a penalty (or a (capital) "punishment") if the person penalized or punished doesn't even exist at the end of it, is it?) — but right and wrong aren't the only principles by which even democratic governments govern, or should govern.

That is, there are other factors for a government to bear in mind when deciding what to do with a convicted criminal. A government policy's ultimate aim must be the overall health and happiness of the people (taking into account their moral values, of course). And it's possible that that goal is best served by killing certain types of criminals, whether it's morally right to or not.

I'm not saying we are best served by executing anyone; in fact, I don't think we are. But that is the relevant standard on which the policy should be judged; if the harm done by sparing a criminal's life were to somehow outweigh the harm done by killing him or her, then execution would by definition be the better policy.

Of course, that's a much less lively topic to debate, involving far less moral indignation, and far fewer blind rationalizations for bloodthirsty revenge. So I understand why so many debate it the way they do. But damned if it all means anything.

January 15, 2003 2:35 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Personally, I have to draw a line at human life (and liberty, if this were a different argument). Unless the killing directly and immediately prevents other deaths, it cannot be justified. If human life is fair game for policy tradeoffs, then what's to stop someone from arguing that the elderly or the severely disabled are better off dead? It would certainly save a lot of money, and who would miss them?

Posted by Dave A on January 15, 2003 9:42 PM

If human life is fair game for policy tradeoffs, then what's to stop someone from arguing that the elderly or the severely disabled are better off dead? It would certainly save a lot of money, and who would miss them?

The standard I described is, "if the harm done by sparing a criminal's life were to somehow outweigh the harm done by killing him or her, then execution would by definition be the better policy."

I don't think that losing money is much of a harm compared to killing the elderly and disabled, so I think the standard holds up pretty well in that case -- it would indicate it's a bad policy to do so.

Unless the killing directly and immediately prevents other deaths, it cannot be justified.

I think this is consistent with what I said; you simply offer a more specific idea about the relative harms than I gave. That is, if I understand you, you think that executing a criminal is more harmful than not executing him, unless it is the only way to stop him from killing other people. That's fair; though I don't really have a well-developed idea of when it would be more harmful to execute a criminal than not, myself, so I don't actually have an opinion on whether I agree.

Posted by M on January 16, 2003 12:54 AM

There is no such thing as a "death penalty": everyone dies. A so-called death sentence is in fact a sentence to spend one's last moments (and, for logistical reasons, one's last years as well) in as unpleasant a manner as possible.

I don't really have a well-developed idea of when it would be more harmful to execute a criminal than not

I think that's the problem with the standard you describe, Matt: it's a relative standard but killing is an absolute "punishment". In my view, the undeniable fact that our justice system is flawed and will, if a death penalty is available, execute innocent persons, consitutes such an irredeemable harm that it is never less harmful to execute any criminal.

Posted by Senn on January 16, 2003 10:52 AM

I think that's the problem with the standard you describe, Matt: it's a relative standard but killing is an absolute "punishment".

I disagree. The fact that I haven't worked out an answer doesn't mean there isn't one, or that it's a relative standard. Saying killing is an absolute harm is the equivalent of throwing up your hands and conceding. Imagine a case in which a government cannot afford to imprison a criminal, or is not strong enough to keep him from escaping or being freed; and that he will kill again if he is free. If killing is an absolute harm, each alternative is equally bad. I may not have decided which alternative I think is worse, but I don't accept that one isn't worse than the other.

In my view, the undeniable fact that our justice system is flawed and will, if a death penalty is available, execute innocent persons, consitutes such an irredeemable harm that it is never less harmful to execute any criminal.

But this isn't an argument against executions, it's an argument against any sort of punishment. I can understand that it may be less harmful to imprison innocent people for life than it is to execute them, but the difference lies in the act of execution itself, not the flaws in the justice system. I.e., the fact that our justice system isn't perfect is a wholly seperate issue.

Posted by M on January 16, 2003 1:10 PM

when you have a family member who could face the death penalty your views change dramtically. my real father is in prison for the murder of my stepmom in 2001. although it has not ben proven he can still face the death penalty cuz we live in delaware where the death penalty is legal. i feel that capital punishment is NOT right regardless. i have always thought that. even when my dad wasn't in this situation.

Posted by Ashley on January 29, 2003 1:20 PM

"An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind" -Ghandi. Vengance is an impulse, capital punishment is irrational and irresponsible. Why let our government gamble with someone's life? Who is to say there is not flaws in the system....it is ridiculous to assume that every person put to death... is guilty, we are all in fact human... and we are not error proof. Executions leave no room for mistakes or pardons. I haven't even touched the "thou shall not kill," factor on morality. All I have to say is watch the movie "The Life of David Gale."

Posted by Krista Z. on November 10, 2003 11:49 AM

I think this whole website sucks! Death is a penalty and in terms of Jessu Christ that is killing another human body. That is commiting a sin, no matter how harsh the crime was. This world can find a better way to punish people who have committed serious crimes like stay in a closed room without bars until they pratically die slowly or just kill themselves from turning psycho! Case Closed!! This sight should be terminated for good even though this is a opinion.

Posted by Unknown on November 21, 2003 1:17 PM


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