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The death penalty is wrong, no matter who we’re killing

September 22, 2011

I simply don’t understand this debate.

Last night, two men were put to death for crimes they were convicted of in the United States of America. In one case, that of Troy Davis, there was mounting evidence that his conviction for the murder of off duty police officer Mark MacPhail was wrongful – which, of course, presents us with the possibility that an innocent man has just had his life taken from him. In the other case, Lawrence Brewer (one of the men convicted in the gruesome death in Texas of James Byrd, Jr.) was killed in large part because the murder was billed as a hate crime – Brewer being white and Byrd a black man.

Apparently, the internet is abuzz with charges of hypocrisy – as the outcry against Davis’ killing is everywhere while almost no one seems to care that Brewer was also proclaiming his innocence (sort of). The internet is right, by the way. Though not for the reasons I think many are asserting. The sentiment seems, mostly, to be that killing an innocent man is wrong, not that killing any man is wrong.

In reality, regardless of the guilt or innocence of either man, the death penalty is a barbaric practice completely at odds with the idea of a free society. If we cry out at the killing of one, we must do so for the other as well. It doesn’t matter which of them was guilty and which of them was not.

It is mind boggling to me that we rank with China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia as the best in the world at just one thing – killing people. There is no defense of the death penalty that is intellectually honest except for that of retribution, and that is a terrifying reason to take the life of another. The death penalty is not a deterrent, and thus we kill people simply because it makes us feel better to do so. I find that disgusting on every level.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Julia permalink
    September 22, 2011 2:55 pm

    This has always been a tough issue for me. I can never seem to quite decide how I feel about it. I supposed I’m ambivalent: I’m opposed to any kind of suffering, but I can’t help but feel like there are some instances where one might deserve death, as long as it’s a quick, humane death. Think of it like this: if someone murdered your daughter, would you want to see them live? I know that revenge doesn’t solve anything, and I’ve heard it doesn’t end up alleviating any of the pain the victims’ families suffer, but I think the desire to avenge the death of a loved one is natural. And the law makes this possible by, well, making it not a crime. Therein lies the problem. It’s a double standard. How can we make taking a life a crime punishable by the taking of life? It’s hypocrisy at its worst. That said, I don’t exactly disagree with you. I just can’t help but think of it in terms of a hypothetical personal experience. I’ll point out the obvious here and say that makes me a hypocrite too, I know. I just think it’s hard sometimes to sort out where we stand on controversial issues like this; issues that are so morally complex. That’s why I’m glad you wrote this article. I tend to try to avoid thinking about this topic, but to do so is to lack intellectual integrity. I need to figure out where my moral principles lie on this one, and now I’ll be forced to do so.


    • September 23, 2011 1:55 am

      Anyone who has read this blog for a while should know that I’m not afraid of nuanced positions, but I have to say that the death penalty is one of the clearest for me.

      We live in a society that is ostensibly based on reason rather than passion. In such a society (and under such terms) I can see no rational argument by which the death penalty can be argued as beneficial to our society. Nor am I willing to take the chance that even one single person be put to death who is innocent. And because our system of justice is imperfect (as it cannot help but be otherwise), there seems no way other than a total ban on capital punishment that we can be sure no innocent lives are lost.

      As to the question of what if someone I loved were killed, how would I feel? Well, I would want to kill the person who did it, but that takes us back to the idea of a society based on reason vs. one based on passion. What happens to my loved one’s murderer is not up to me. And this is absolutely the right way to do things. We don’t get to run around avenging each other. This isn’t pre-history, this is the United States of America in the year 2011. That should count for something. If all we need to feel is anger in order to discard reason for passion in the most important of legal decisions, than we ought to give up the pretense that we live in a civilized society at all.

      Thanks for the response, Julia. It’s good to hear from you!


  2. September 22, 2011 9:04 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on this one. I’m coming back to see how your other readers feel about this.


  3. Lars permalink
    September 23, 2011 1:05 pm

    I personally think in a general sense there is nothing wrong with a quick execution as compared to a life sentence as punishment for a murder. If you are convicted of kidnapping someone, your punishment is essentially the same as the crime (you, like you victim, are no longer free). It is not hypocrisy to punish someone proportionally to their crime, so I would say that executing a killer is not hypocritical either. As to whether this is barbaric, I would say the judgment is entirely subjective and not rational at all. Who is to say whether our prison system itself is barbaric? It’s a matter of personal morality, but rationality will not get you that far. I would say it’s barbaric to get five years for stealing a TV, but someone else might think that appropriate. Whether the idea of legal executions in the USA turns your stomach or not is based on your passion, not logic.

    The problem is really that convictions are not always based on good evidence. And of course any punishment of an innocent person is wrong, whether it is imprisonment or execution. The solution is to make sure that everyone gets a fair trial, even if they are poor and/or a minority (I know, it seems far-fetched, but it’s a good goal).

    Morality is subjective and decided on as a society. If enough people think execution is wrong the law will be changed to accommodate that, but we should not pretend to have reason on our side. Reason does not take sides in moral arguments.


    • October 1, 2011 12:55 am

      Lars, my apologies for taking so long to get back to you on this (you may not even read it). I appreciate your commentary on the matter.

      On the idea of hypocrisy in punishments, I find your argument uncompelling. Surely we can find a better theory of justice than “tit for tat.” This is not to say that our current system does things completely right. 5 years for a TV theft might be totally inappropriate, but simply taking away the thief’s own television wouldn’t exactly be the best way to go about it either. He’d need only to steal and sell a few more (and not get caught) to afford a nicer one.

      As to the idea of reason not playing a part in moral arguments, I find that a curious position to take. But regardless of such a position, it’s beside the point. It goes back to the thrust of my original position which is that there is “no defense of the death penalty that is intellectually honest except for that of retribution.” The facts are relatively clear. Retributive justice does not reduce criminality in most cases. The reason for this is that we put people in prison, and then we (usually) eventually let them out again.

      The only way to stop a person from committing a crime again under those circumstances is to NEVER allow them into society again. With murderers, life in prison without parole is just as effective as a death sentence. And because – as we both admit – the system isn’t perfect enough to guarantee that every innocent person will always be acquitted, killing any of them simply isn’t justifiable. The wrongly convicted person who gets life in prison can eventually be released. The one who is killed can’t be brought back to life.

      I don’t see how any of this is “subjective.”



  4. Lars permalink
    October 1, 2011 12:48 pm

    Thank you for your response, Michael. My broader point was simply that morality is always subjective, unless you believe it was handed down by god(s). As an atheist, I would have to stand by the notion that morality is an evolving invention of human societies and it changes with those societies. If we tried to enforce Hammurabi’s Code today people would say it was unjust, but it was a revolutionary idea when it first came out. This is not to say that I don’t have moral ideas of my own, but they are just that, ideas (and I don’t necessarily think “tit for tat” is the best measure for punishment, it is just one of many ideas that have been used in the past). They are not absolute and they work only in my own context. Can you imagine a hunter-gatherer clan sentencing someone to life imprisonment? It just doesn’t make sense in that context.


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