Are you for or against the death penalty, or (if it’s conditional), in what cases? Furthermore, do you believe that societies that sanction war are hypocritical for opposing the death penalty?
Rather than giving a detailed argument in favor of my position on capital punishment, I’m just going to enumerate my reasons. Then, I’ll see if I can say something sensible on what this ought to mean for my position on war.
I’m against capital punishment because:
- You can’t undo it if you’re wrong. It’s a problem to jail someone for a crime they didn’t commit, but at least there’s a chance of correcting that mistake. If you execute the wrong person, you can’t magically restore him to life and say, “My bad.”
- In many cases, you can’t be 100% sure of the guilt of the person sentenced to death. Eyewitness testimony can be misleading, and even the best circumstantial evidence is still circumstantial. Enough people have been exonerated after ending up on death row that we’re probably executing at least some innocent people.
- Application of the death penalty has been pretty biased. All the research I’ve seen indicates that, for the same kinds of crimes, being poor and non-white in the U.S. makes you much more likely to be sentences to death than non-poor and white. This strikes me as deeply problematic.
- It doesn’t seem to work as a deterrent.
- It’s expensive. Because there are no do-overs with an execution, there tend to be mandatory appeals built into the process, which means lawyers and billable-hours.
- On the face of it, it seems hypocritical. If killing other human beings is wrong, isn’t it still wrong when the state does it? (Can the state make a case that execution is a killing in self-defense? Not one that I’ve found persuasive.)
- It coarsens us. This is the reason I feel most viscerally. If the state executes people in our name, it treats those people as no longer belonging to the human family. I think this puts us in danger of seeing some people as more fully human than others — and encourages us to treat people accordingly. However, I’m committed to the notion that even persons who do bad stuff are persons deserving of a basic level of respect. (This basic level of respect may well be compatible with life imprisonment, depending on the magnitude of the bad stuff.) If I fail to give them that respect, that’s a problem for me.
And what about war? I’m generally against that, too, largely because it seems to me that human lives are too precious to be viewed as allowable losses in a battle over land or resources or political systems. As well, I’d like to believe that we can accomplish more with moral suasion than we can with guns and bombs. However, I’ll allow as how there may be some situations where wars are a matter of self-defense for the people fighting them. I guess I just don’t think that a state needs to execute prisoners the way people might need to fight for their own survival.