Adventures in Ethics and Science

Because Shelley asked (and Josh, Mike, Chad, Nick, PZ, and John have all posted answers), I’m going to chime in.

Shelley asks:

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.


  1. #1 Stentor
    August 24, 2006

    Doesn’t the hypocrisy argument apply to *any* punishment? Taking people’s money is wrong, as is confining another person in a small space for a long period of time, but I assume you don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the state fining people or jailing them.

    The concern about dehumanizing criminals is extremely important, but it goes beyond the death penalty. Orindary prison is extremely dehumanizing. Attempts to reform it into a more humane and effective rehabilitation-oriented model are defeated because the public believes that criminals are Bad People who must be Made To Suffer.

  2. #2 Rebecca
    August 24, 2006

    Makes sense to me.

  3. #3 Jeff Coleman
    August 24, 2006

    Very well put. I agree with all those positions, you’ve enumerated pretty much exactly how I feel about executions.

    When I was a child and still had to attend Sunday school, nobody could explain to me why the same book said “Thou shalt not kill” and then said “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his ten thousands”, as if that was something to celebrate and be proud of.

    I feel the same way about the death penalty–like you said, if killing is wrong, isn’t it wrong when the state does it?

    I don’t have the figures offhand, but it’s also illustrative to look at the company we keep–the other countries in the world which also have the death penalty, versus the ones who don’t. It’s not a pretty picture.

    Jeff Colman

  4. #4 Unlearned Hand
    August 25, 2006

    Hanging judges are my top reason. To whit,

    As to dehumanizing prisoners, I might scan the literature for a Rawlsian notion of punishment – it doesn’t jump out at me as something I’ve seen before.

  5. #5 Bro. Bartleby
    August 28, 2006

    “When I was a child and still had to attend Sunday school, nobody could explain to me why the same book said “Thou shalt not kill” and then said “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his ten thousands”, as if that was something to celebrate and be proud of.”

    Sorry it took so long, I assume you have left Sunday school behind many a year ago, so to answer what your Sunday school teacher couldn’t, “Thou shalt not kill” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew, which is “Thou shalt not murder” or “Thou
    shalt not illegally shed blood.” Big difference between “kill” and “murder” — in the Torah murder is never justified, yet kill can in certain instances be justified, such as self defense.

  6. #6 beajerry
    August 30, 2006

    I understand there are a lot of “ifs”, but if someone willingly commits a horrible crime that involves the intended loss of life, and if that person freely admits it and/or is proven beyond doubt of guilt, then I have no problem removing their existence from this world.

  7. #7 Prup aka Jim Benton
    August 31, 2006

    For many of the reasons you give, I have always opposed capital punishment, at least for ‘personal crimes.’ (I am not sure about situations like Osama or the Nurnberg defendants — and I’ve always been fascinated that not all of them were simply sentenced to death, that some had shorter sentences, and one, in fact — Hans Frische, who was a ‘stand-in’ for Goebbels — was acquitted.)

    However, being a bit of a contrarian, I’ve always wondered about one situation. What if a person is already serving the maximum possible non-capital sentence when he commits a murder, he’s already serving ‘life without parole’ in a maximum security situation? What then? (True, he shouldn’t be able to have contact with people so he could, but he can, for example, arrange and mastermind a murder.)

    Just asking.

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