Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

So, similar to how the guys over at the World’s Fair have posed us ScienceBloggers with a couple questions, I have one of my own that I hope my brethern will undertake to answer:

“Are you for or against the death penalty, or (if its conditional), in what cases? Furthermore, do you believe that societies that sanction war are hypocritical for opposing the death penalty?”

This question was a spawn from a real conversation I had today w/ a friend, and I can’t wait to see the answers this might generate. Readers, please also chime in! I’ll probably post my answer as well as the others out there at the end of the week or Monday.

UPDATE 8/24: A round-up of all the ScienceBlogger’s answers will be posted tomorrow (Friday)!


  1. #1 FaulknA
    August 22, 2006

    The death penalty does not keep people from killing people. It is revenge and revenge only. Lifetime in prison is cheaper in the long run and reversable if someone wrongly accused is imprisomed.

    Those are the facts.

  2. #2 baldywilson
    August 22, 2006

    There’s a certain hypocrisy in the idea of the death penalty itself, in that proponents feel that if a person is convicted of murder (or other capital crimes), then that person – in some circumstances – should be put to death by the state as punishment.

    However, such retributional forms of punishment do not extend to other crimes. There would be – I suspect – very little support for punishing drunk drivers who maim people to be forced to be maimed in punishment; although the effects on the victim are still permanent.

    To the second question, it entirely depends, I would suggest, upon the nature of the wars that the society is sanctioning. If the society is sanctioning intervening in a war to defend itself – and that is the genuine intent – then there is no hypocrisy: the people of most societies recognise that occassionally (and unfortunately) lethal force is required to defend one’s self and one’s properties from intruders that intend to use lethal force themselves. This is true regardless as to whether you’re discussing an army defending a nation, or a person defending his home (or his own life).

    If the society sanctions wars that are not defensive in nature (which, granted, is an entirely arbitrary concept) then it probably would still not necessarialy be hypocritical for that society to hold the lives of its own citizens above those of other states, and refuse to sanction the idea of the state directly and deliberately killing its own citizens; especially if that society placed its own citizens on a pedastal as “better” than those of other societies. I would argue it wouldn’t be terribly moral, but it probably wouldn’t necessarialy be hypocritical.

  3. #3 Robert P
    August 22, 2006

    We got into this over at BlueNC recently. It comes down to this:
    1. Lots of innocent people have been freed from death row.

    2. Recently Samuel Flippen was executed for killing his 3 year old stepdaughter. There is some question as to whether he was guilty, but there is no question that up to 30 other people per year kill children in North Carolina. Yet, who is executed and who rots in jail is arbitrary and in the case of Flippen was decided by the judge when the jury couldn’t come to a consensus.

    The death penalty kills innocent people. Are you willing to step up when the day comes and say:
    “Yeah, I support the death penalty even though it means that the state murders innocent people. Because, the only other alternative is to lose our right to kill some people who commit some crimes.”

    As for war. I’m a believer in just wars. I think we should have sent a million soldiers into Afghanistan, found bin Laden, removed the Taliban (they still control part of the country), removed the warlords, destroyed the poppy crops, taught sustainable agriculture practices, then got out. We have more reason to be in the Sudan then we do in Iraq.

  4. #4 DV8 2XL
    August 22, 2006

    Other than the mistaken execution of innocent people, we also must note that the penalty is not applied evenly – poor defendants go to their deaths more often than the well to do. Juries too are more often likely to acquit in marginal cases, a factor that lead to the abolition of the death penalty in Canada. Anyway, life in prison, if we are to believe the stories, is much worse than mere death.

    War is mass insanity. It is justified only in direct defence from an unprovoked attack. The critical concept here is ‘unprovoked’, any reasonably thorough and unbiased study of any war will show that clean hands both before and during on ether side of the conflict is the exception, rather than the rule.

  5. #5 Kagehi
    August 22, 2006

    Lets put it this way.. Is jailing an innocent person for 20+ years, then finding out, “Oops! I guess we got it wrong!”, **actually** much less likely to ruin their lives, relationships or job prospects (never mind the number of people that don’t get the memo and insist they wouldn’t have been arrested and jailed for that long if they hadn’t done it), than simply killing them? For most, probably not. If its even longer, then you have robbed them of what life they might have had anyway, so its practically a null issue. The best solution when dealing with the guiltless is do every damn thing you can to make sure they don’t end up there in the first place, which we are not really doing.

    What do I mean about that last part? Simple, if you are spending insane amounts of money to bust people with a few ounces of pot on them *and* spending it to prosecute other similarly stupid things (some of that money which admitted would need to go to ending the addictions, not just arresting the addicted, though a “much” smaller amount) ***and*** making sure that the people that do end up in jail have more material items, better food and greater health benefits than they did “before they got there”, then you are not going to have money to buy the latest forensic kit or proper training for the people whose job it is to make sure the right people end up there.

    Put simply, you can’t streamline the courts, fix the police forensic situation and reduce costs if you are fighting a losing battle with bad strategy against things like drugs, funneling more people through the system than it can handle and then offering up lots of perks to people for “being in jail”, because the same morons whining about the unfairness of the death penalty are also whining about how some inmate told them they needed more expensive designer underware, “Because the stuff they make us wear chaffes horribly!!”

    I no longer agree with the death penalty. It “is” worthless and the only real benefit it provides is less bodies in jail cells, using up the money needed to actually combat crime. However, there are lots of ways that can be solved, starting with not spending so much money on the people “in” prisons in the first place. You can’t have it both ways. You can target real crimes, investigate them with the best methods and tools possible, prosecute them as efficiently and honestly as you can, then toss the guilty and unfortunately innocents in a low cost, minimal cell, without special favors **or** you can treat them like kings, go after idiotic crimes that can’t be permanently fixed by prosecuting them, use 30 year old tools to examine the evidence, then spend all your money making the guy that lands in jail comfortable, because there is a higher than acceptable odds you screwed up the rest of the process. Its only in such an environment that killing people to free up space starts to make some twisted economic sense and people have to invent various excuses for how it “helps punish/detere crimes”.

    Its about what you value. Revenge and simplistic answers, or real solutions. Unfortunately, as with must things involving ethics, one sides answer seems to be, “we have no answers, but you shouldn’t be so hurtful”, while the other side literally **can’t** intellectually comprehend why their revenge system is so broken it has never, can never and will never work. Everyone in between gets ignored, because they, as in the later case, don’t have thousands of years of “tradition” showing they are right or, as in the former one, they simply don’t whine loudly enough to get all their complaints about the unfairness of everything from the death penalty (reasonable) to the idea that someone is serving the wrong brand of apple sauce to inmates (freaking insane) heard by the right people.

    Worse, it wedges in nicely with the mental defects you see in people that range from, “My son would never do such a thing!”, to the BS that PZ posted about recently, where some judge thought that the argument that two brain dead jocks might “have a future”, was justification for deferring their sentence until the season was over, after they nearly killed, and caused permanent brain damage to one of, two other kids. Like if it had been the local Mathelites club member they would have been allowed to continue the rest of the year, on the chance that they might get a scholarship and turn their lives around…

    Seriously, pick a group with specific political goals and ambitions and 9-10 times I can show you a group of people that are so blinded by the certainty of some aspect of their vision of the world that they are institutionally blind to how screwed up their strict application of that ideal would make the world. The only thing that keeps civilization from imploding, most of the time, is that its nearly impossible to get the majority of people all charging blindly in the same direction, without about half of them wondering, “Why the heck am I doing this, its stupid?”

  6. #6 CaptainMike
    August 23, 2006

    I have nothing against killing people, although I think that it is something that should be avoided whenever possible.

    On the other hand the government should not be allowed to kill people for any reason at any time. I base this on their abysmal track record in every other area.

    I oppose the deathy penalty not because of ethical reasons but because of pragmatic ones.

  7. #7 our boy
    August 24, 2006

    I am opposed to the death penalty. Always. Those who discuss it in terms of the possibility of executing the wrong person are changing the subject. That argument assumes that if we get it right, then execution is okay. It isn’t. It is morally indefensible. It is a way for people to do vicariously what the person being executed has done for real.Try teaching your children that killing other human beings is wrong. “But, Daddy, what about this man that just got sentenced to death?”
    “Oh, that’s different. He’s a bad man and he did bad things.” So it is okay to kill bad people who do bad things. What does that lead to? Columbine.
    It is morally wrong to kill another human being in a premeditated, cold-blooded manner. I know it and you know it. So stop avoiding the subject by raising other issues like executing an innocent person on occasion. Legal execution is just a socially acceptable way for otherwise decent citizens to act on their murderous inclinations with impunity. Somehow, some way, someday, we have to stop killing each other. Ending the death penalty is a start.

  8. #8 Nathan Myers
    August 24, 2006

    This is an easy one.

    Government has no business killing ordinary citizens, for plenty of good reasons, some suggested above. However, rights of citizens may be waived by prospective government employees. The logical conclusion is that capital punishment should be imposed only on government officials, presumably only for egregious abuse of government authority.

    People usually counter, when I mention this, that the most egregious possible offense must always be to have been employed in the previous administration. That would make orderly transfer of power after elections awkward, and thus less likely to occur at all.

    Bush won’t be executed, but we can dream.

  9. #9 Dave Roberts
    August 24, 2006

    This is such a complex issue and my opinions on it have evolved over the years. I?m not totally confident in my opinions now. I would find being a juror on a death penalty case with a guilty defendant to be extremely challenging. I think OUR BOY made an important point.

    Here are my thoughts.. In our society, punishments usually consist of various degrees of the loss of liberty. We got from community service, probation, jail, prison, and the death penalty. The death penalty is the most extreme loss of liberty. So maybe the death penalty makes sense? sort of the fulfillment of a social contract that everyone is obligated to make with society. “If you intentionally choose to end another?s life, then you’ve violated the social contract and thus give up your right to exist.” Kind of merciless, but probably makes sense to a lot of people.

    But maybe the death penalty is different, because unlike prison terms the death penalty is a DIRECT action of violence of the state upon the convicted. I don’t think the state should use violence to deliver justice to the victim. The whole violence begets more violence concept.

    Here’s a few other ideas and questions that I?m stuck on:
    1. If capital punishment is a direct form of violence administered by the state, then non-solitary prison sentences are really an indirect form of violence… i.e. the convicted is placed in the prison culture where forced dominance and submission is the currency for survival. Our prisons often produce ex-cons with elevated anti-social behaviors. So isn?t the state adding to our problems by responding with indirect violence?

    2. Some people have told me that they oppose the death penalty because it and the years awaiting it are a form of torture. What about the super-max prison where the una-bomber & Zacarias Moussaoui are? Imagine a 25 year old sent there with no chance on appeal? 50+ years of near solitary confinement. Think of the most boring day you ever had and stretch it to 50 years. I think insanity must slowly take over these guys in the end, I might beg for death. So if you oppose the death penalty on the basis if inhumane treatment… isn’t a solitary life sentence similar?

    Info on the prison:

  10. #10 Nick Anthis
    August 24, 2006

    “do you believe that societies that sanction war are hypocritical for opposing the death penalty?”

    Probably. At least it’s not a problem for the US….

    Here’s another reason to question the death penalty: lethal injections are not as humane as commonly thought.

  11. #11 Alon Levy
    August 24, 2006

    So if you oppose the death penalty on the basis if inhumane treatment… isn’t a solitary life sentence similar?

    An inmate who is so inclined is free to commit suicide.

    By the way, in the US what matters is not so much the killer’s race as the victim’s. Murdering a white person is far likelier to result in execution than murdering a black person. BOW murders are especially likely to result in execution, much more than WOW ones, but overall the race of the victim matters much more than the race of the perpetrator (link).

  12. #12 Dave Roberts
    August 24, 2006

    “An inmate who is so inclined is free to commit suicide.”

    no, not really… even an inmate’s ability to choose suicide is limited, especially the higher profile inmates in near solitary situations.

    so, are you advocating placing inmates in inhumane conditions where they’re free to endure it or commit suicide?

  13. #13 bernarda
    August 25, 2006

    Many inherently religious or theological concepts creep into the argument in favor of the death penalty, such as “If you intentionally choose to end another’s life”

    Just what does “intentionally” mean. Individuals are still the result of their genetics and environment. So what caused the killer to have such an “intent”? If it was genetic, you can hardly hold him responsible, and if it resulted from his social and physical environment he is not “responsible” either.

    What is the difference between a bad driver who kills someone, a child let’s say, in an “accident” and a person who shoots or strangles the child. In either case the result is the same. But we call automobile killings “accidents”, even though the vast majority could be avoided.

    About 43,000 people are killed each year by motor vehicles, about a third that number are killed by guns(not including suicides), knives, barehands, etc. So, if it is a question of public health and safety, it would be more useful to crack down on bad drivers.

    As to wars, how many are truly defensive? Just take the U.S. Only two of its wars can be justified: The Civil War and World War II. The Revolutionary War maybe. All the rest, from the Indian Wars, Mexican Wars, Spanish-American War and so on were wars of conquest, attacking people who were no particular threat to the U.S. The same is true of almost all wars everywhere down through history.

    Remember the slogans, “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” and “with guns in their hands and god on their side.”

  14. #14 Dave R
    August 25, 2006

    As soon as human life begins with live with all sorts of risks that can result in death. Having a transportation system is always going to results in deaths. So most of society agrees that the risks of death that a child may be exposed to on our roads is worth the benefits that result from transportation. When fatalities occur, most are deemed accidents.

    so to comment on “What is the difference between a bad driver who kills someone, a child let’s say, in an “accident” and a person who shoots or strangles the child. In either case the result is the same.”

    Wow, sounds like you should be on John Karr’s defense team, isn’t he saying that Jon Benet’s death is an accident? (Sorry to interject a sensation cable news story into this discussion, but was hard to resist)

  15. #15 Dave R
    August 25, 2006

    sorry this is off subject but on the issue of justifications for the Civil War & WWII.

    Civil War 600,000 deaths to force the south from slavery to segragation? Could economic pressure from Europe and the North worked to get the south to abandon slavery and return to the union?

    WWII (I have to admit this one is one that the U.S. had to fight, or be tricked into fighting by Ruse velt) For eastern europe it was a choice of Rule under the Nazi’s or Stalin so maybe for them “not so much”

  16. #16 luna_the_cat
    August 25, 2006

    bernarda: are you seriously trying to say that you do not see any difference between someone unintentionally killing a child, and someone who intentionally set out to harm or kill a child? Seriously?

    How about the fact that someone who has intentionally set out to harm or kill any person is far more likely to do it again?

    And are you seriously trying to argue that there is no such thing as free will, and that adults of reasonably normal intelligence are incapable of making choices or of being responsible for those choices?

  17. #17 makhita
    August 25, 2006

    Definitely against the death penalty, under any circumstances. It’s barbaric and does not even work to prevent crimes. Societies that sanction war ar indeed hypocritical if they oppose the death penalty.

  18. #18 Kagehi
    August 25, 2006

    Civil War 600,000 deaths to force the south from slavery to segragation? Could economic pressure from Europe and the North worked to get the south to abandon slavery and return to the union?

    Sorry, but slavery was only an after thought in the civil war. The real causes of it **was** economic pressures and other factors, including religion, which led the south to get real unhappy with the north. More economic pressures would have just blown things up faster, especially considering the fact, which you seem to miss, that not “ever” black person in the north was free either, nor where the great heroes of the time from the north “initially” interested in stopping it. There was even a quote, supposedly from the early pre-war days, by Lincoln, suggesting that while unfortunate (and thus he wished it wasn’t true), the dominance of whites over blacks was in the nature of both. It neither condones the state things where in, nor condemns, but simply states the “obvious” state of affairs at the time. I have no idea if its a valid quote though, so much tends to be fake and I don’t have an original cite (or the original post meantioning it).

    Point is, the slavery was only “one” factor in the civil war and it only became the paramount one “late” in the war.

  19. #19 bernarda
    August 29, 2006

    To answer luna:

    The question of “intent” is very hard to define. I compared a killer driver to other killers. In those cases, I don’t see any difference. I gave you the statistics about the relative danger of bad drivers and other types of killers.

    Nowadays it is popular to include the idea of “hate” crimes. How can anyone know if “hate” “motivated” an agressor? Does it even matter? I think not. It is the action which society represses, not the thoughts of the perpetrator.

    luna, do you have any basis for your second question? What evidence is there of repeat killers, other than gangland professionals or serial killers I suppose. In any case these people are not let out once caught.

    Finally, yes I am saying that there is no such thing as free will. “making choices” and “responsible” is just a shorthand we use to describe situations where we don’t have sufficient data. Intelligent, or dumb, people do one thing rather than another and we usually cannot say why.

    There are a multitude of unkown factors or influences that direct a person in one direction or another. In the distant past of humanity, there came a belief in animism. People didn’t understand how people, or animals, or trees for that matter functioned so they invented a “spirit”–in other words a little man inside–who motivated and controlled actions. They didn’t get beyond what motivated or controlled the little man inside.

    For a little background, may I suggest that you read B.F. Skinner “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” and “About Behaviorism”.

  20. #20 luna_the_cat
    September 8, 2006


    It’s been a while since I visited here, so you may not think to check back and may not see this. However, I feel compelled to point out that your position is fairly indefensible on a number of fronts.

    First and simplest: figures on recidivism for violent crimes are readily available from the DoJ. You can look around here: , check the publication list here: , or simply read some summaries here: .

    “What evidence is there of repeat killers, other than gangland professionals or serial killers I suppose. In any case these people are not let out once caught.” Approximately 1.2% of all people convicted of homicide will be convicted of another homicide within 3 years of release. The recidivism rate for rape is considerably higher than that, and the recidivism rate for violent assaults considerably higher than that. Violence is a way of life for some people, and this is entirely demonstrable — educate yourself.

    The issue of intent: “hate crimes” are troublesome, because it is an attempt to make some violent crimes worse than others because the target is the target for a specific reason (e.g. race or religion). However, what is NOT at issue is whether the assailant intended to hurt the victim, period, as opposed to merely hurt them accidentally while trying to accomplish some other, legitimate goal. In an assault, the assailant is taking a deliberate action to hurt someone else, whether the reason is that they are black or the reason is that they spilled a drink on them in the bar.

    Every reasonable, sane person recognises the difference intent makes, in such a situation. Yes, deaths can equally be caused by “accident”, carelessness, ignorance, etc., as opposed to malice. But the fact that someone acts out of malice rather than out of ignorance or carelessness is universally recognised as significant, indicating much about their relationship to the rest of the species and the rest of the world. Or perhaps I should say “almost universally recognised”, since you obviously don’t include yourself in that. However, examination of the real world (as opposed to reading simplistic, non-definitive and in many ways outdated texts) would do you immense amounts of good.

    Someone who runs a pedestrian down with a car accidentally will probably be horrified, guilt-stricken, may refuse to drive again for a while, will almost certainly change driving habits in order never to do that to anyone again. Someone who has deliberately run down a person, for whatever reason, is considerably less likely to have this reaction, and if they get away with it, far more likely to use this strategy in the future. This, as they say, is not rocket science.

    Similarly, intent has a great deal to do with actual likelihood of someone picking up a brick and smashing it into another person’s face.

    As for there being no free will, I will smack you, hard, should we ever meet. And I am willing to bet my life savings that you will regard this as a purely voluntary act, and the first thing out of your mouth will be “why did you do that?!” Wittering on about animism has no particular relevance to the fact that everyone, every day, makes decisions about what they are going to do and why; except in the case of disease, biology whispers suggestions, rather than shouts orders.

    Given that intentionality, and responsibility, are things which adult humans with intelligence in the normal range *do* and *must* deal with, then focussing on how and why people make the decisions they do is a valid part of the debate about punishment vs. rehabilitation. However, claiming that the death penalty is off the board because there is no such thing as intentionality or responsibility is just, pardon my bluntness here, bloody stupid.

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