Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

A few days ago, I issued a challenge to my fellow ScienceBloggers:

“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?”

Quite a few of my esteemed cohort stepped up to the plate and took a swing. If you are interested in my thoughts on the subject, well they are below the fold.

Mike Dunford of The Questionable Authority is “more or less opposed” to the death penalty but reserves the right to fry the extra-baddies.

Tim Lambert at Deltoid discusses some recent papers regarding whether the death penalty is a deterrent to murder.

Kevin Vranes of No Se Nada is disgusted with the science of executions more than the moral aspect.

Nick Anthis of The Scientific Activist examines the death penalty through the lens of nature v. nurture, and compares it to the current animals rights nexus at Oxford.

Razib at Gene Expression is opposed to the death penalty, but not war.

Dr. Janet Stemwell of Adventures in Ethics and Science is also against the death penalty, and gives a well-organized laundry list of points why.

PZ Myers of Pharyngula is very outspokenly against, and directs his readers to John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts who expounds in greater detail as to why an acceptance of sanctioned killing reflects badly on a society.

Newly minted ScienceBlogger Joshua Rosenau at Thoughts From Kansas is more tolerant of war than the death penalty, lamenting that many on death row could be productive members of society if anybody gave a damn.

Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles cops-out, but hey, I suppose I had it coming.


The death penalty is incredibly arcane. There is no better demonstration that no matter how much we wish to believe that, as humans we have evolved above the banalities of nature, deep-down we still must kill to feel alive.

Society is, by nature, exclusionary. As with any group, it is defined more by who is left out that who is allowed in. And who is “left out” of American society? Well, those whose behavior falls outside of the parameters of normalcy to a degree which is deemed harmful to the whole. This is the basis of our judicial system. Specifically, that those who deviate outside these parameters are met with consequences of increasing exclusion from society. These consequences are meted out as a function of the degree of the offense as well as the number of offenses committed. But, most importantly, the purpose of the punishments is twofold: 1) to deter the deviant, as well as other potential deviants, from future offenses; and 2) to provide a sense of security to the “included” parts of society that the deviants among them are identified, examined, and punished (if guilty). Purpose #1 is for the benefit (or correction) of the perpetrator, while #2 is essentially for the peace of mind/good night’s sleep of the “normals.” I choose to look at the death penalty through this lens.

So the first question is “Does killing our worse offenders deter the crime of others, who wish to avoid the same fate?” As discussed by my betters (especially Tim and John), in the best case it does nothing to deter crime, and in the worst case it contributes to it. Therefore, the death penalty cannot be considered to fulfill the requirement of ‘punishment as useful deterrent.’ Now, obviously this isn’t true in other countries. Take China for example. One of the many offense which can gain you the death penalty in China is killing a panda; this was instated to eliminate poaching of this highly endangered species. Guess what? People stopped killing pandas, and the species is on the rebound. The reasons for why this work are elusive, but I hypothesize that it is a mixture of cultural differences (the Chinese are much more apt to abide within the law and defer to the government) as well as the “offense to punishment” relationship. By this I mean that, the less serious and compulsive the offense, the more likely that a severe punishment will deter it. Murderers and rapists likely will kill and rape despite the consequences—because it is often a compulsion which they cannot control. Very few people feel a compulsion to kill a panda, or to run a stop sign, falsely testify, etc. Often they do such things for monetary gain, a small thrill, or other minor payoffs. However, we reserve the death penalty for the very crimes that are unlikely to be deterred, in any event. This seems to suggest that the application of the death penalty in our society is a function of revenge and retribution rather than of determent. It is a method with which the victims can gain some sense of satisfaction for whats been done against them.

Isn’t it? Then why are the appeals processes so long and drawn out? And the execution so sterile and removed? Once someone is convicted and handed the death penalty, why not just allow the victim to shoot them in the head right there, if they wished?

Because, essentially we know that killing—in any capacity—is wrong. Not wrong in some religious sense, but rather against the morals that humans are striving to formulate as part of our scientific, technological, and social evolution. We are, I hope and believe, trying to improve everything it means to be human. The death penalty stands as a large stumbling block on that path. And it is *because* the process has become sterile, drawn out, and removed from society (no more public hangings!) that we are still able to swallow it. If public executions were broadcast on TV, or held in the city square, I believe that the hypocrisy and barbarity would be so evident that a public outcry would immediately follow. It is the closeness of the thing that makes it real.

A few of my fellow bloggers have also approached this from the perspective of “Innocent people die, as the system is not perfect, therefore the death penalty should not be used.” This is also quite true, and sad, but it is the nature of any system where a judgment of guilt is subjective. Perhaps one day fMRI technology will become advanced enough to detect guilt/innocence and make this point moot, as Razib noted. Yet, I still believe that the death penalty would be wrong. The killing of innocent people is a terrible byproduct of the death penalty, but its the intentional killing of *anyone* which is the real problem.

As for war, I believe that this is a more global problem, as an independent country can only be as noble as the most ignoble country in the world. As the collective ability of the world to avoid war progresses, the individual countries’ stances on war can be more lax. This is because a country has a mandate from the people to protect them–in a world that is war-mongering, this mandate includes the perpetration of violence against an aggressor. I emphasize “aggressor,” as I see this as the only justified war, with a few exceptions. So, essentially, when there are no more aggressors, there will be no more war. But what about situations of human crisis, like the Sudan or WWII? These are the exceptions: when the cost of violence is less than the benefit to the moral evolution of humans, war can also be justified. This is a very tricky definition, and requires a lot of thoughtful discourse before we just go stomping into a situation (a la Iraq.)

The death penalty and war are fruit of the same twisted, black tree. They are the baser parts of human nature, that we wish didn’t exist. In the terms of the death penalty, it is the sincere wish that a person who is termed “bad” should suffer (but this causes internal conflict so we must sterilize/distance ourselves); in the terms of war, it is the age-old belief of us vs. them. “Them” is bad, and therefore their suffering is inconsequential. Hopefully one day, humans will get to a place where these feelings don’t exist. We aren’t there yet.

Comments

  1. #1 JaysonB
    August 25, 2006

    you WAY had it coming.

  2. #2 luna_the_cat
    August 25, 2006

    You identify the purposes of punishment for crime as:
    “But, most importantly, the purpose of the punishments is twofold: 1) to deter the deviant, as well as other potential deviants, from future offenses; and 2) to provide a sense of security to the “included” parts of society that the deviants among them are identified, examined, and punished (if guilty).”

    I say, the second purpose is actually misleading. The purpose is not, or should not be, to “provide a sense of security”; it should be to actually provide some form of security. For example, in the neighborhood where I live, burglaries always spike in frequency as soon as one certain individual gets out of jail. They drop sharply in frequency as soon as he gets put back in jail. Obviously he doesn’t consider jail a particularly bad punishment for burglary; however, I don’t care. I still prefer that he be in jail, since our chances of being robbed are in actuality much less while he is confined away from society. I don’t care if he has a good life while he is confined, just so long as he is actually confined.

    Similarly — if you look into the DoJ statistics, I think you will find that many violent offenders are serial offenders as well.

    Death is the ultimate way of making sure that someone never hurts an innocent person again. Now, if we could guarantee that a violent offender would never walk the streets and have access to innocent people ever again, ever, under any circumstances — fine, no need for a death penalty as far as I am concerned, just keep him confined forever. However, if death is the only guaranteed way to make sure that someone we know, for sure makes a habit of victimizing other people — then I would say, without hesitation, kill them. Sorry, but there ARE things that people can do which mean they legitimately forfeit the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; why IS killing inherently wrong, if you are dealing with someone who makes a habit of harming other people? Why is this person’s life inherently valuable? Why are they entitled to be preserved at the expense (and I mean that in a monetary sense, as well) of other people? What makes your assumption of the worth of a life — any life, no matter how badly and harmfully spent — more “right” than the assumption that some people genuinely ought to be removed from the world on the basis of the harm they do?

    Just saying.

  3. #3 Shelley Batts
    August 25, 2006

    “…there ARE things that people can do which mean they legitimately forfeit the right to life.”

    I don’t think anyone has a “right to life,” or that a person’s life is inherantly valuable. I agree that in fact many lives are worthless, to detrimental. So, remove them from society, and don’t let them out. Its cheaper anyway. But similarly, when a parent slaps a child for pinching his sister—isn’t that a mixed message? Should we kill the killers as a statement that murder is wrong?

    Its not the LIFE that is valuable. What is valuable is the choice NOT to become like the killer. This, in my opinion of course, is the moral high road. The lack of killing will deter killing, not more of it.

  4. #4 Scott
    August 25, 2006

    The death penalty is state sponsored killing, one at a time. War is state sponsored killing, only it’s done in large groups. How can war be justified as “perpetration of violence against an aggressor”, while the dealth penalty cannot be so justified? So, if a group of people (be it another state or a group of terrorists) threatens “us” with death and distruction, then it’s okay to go to war and kill people, often innocent people who are doing no more than “following orders”. But if an individual threatens or does violence to one or more other individuals, it’s *not* okay to kill that person???

    How can one be justified, and the other not? Is it just a matter of numbers? Is a single “aggressor” too personal, while it’s okay to do violence to “them”, because we don’t see “their” faces? I don’t see how it is rational to be for one, but against the other.

    Me? I’d be in favor of a “justified” war to defend ourselves, as in “they” attacked “us” and will likely do so again. Similarly, I’d be in favor of a “justified” death penalty to defend ourselves, as in “he” attacked “us”, and will likely do so again.

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    August 25, 2006

    The difference is that (as state to state conflicts are currently defined) there is a choice in an execution that is not involved in war. War provoked by an aggressor is self defense. Killing a single person in pure self defense is also not viewed as murder—the *choice* involved in killing is removed. If someone kills in self defense, there is no penalty in our society. The reason behind this is that a person has the instict/right/whatever to defend themselves as best they can. I believe that this also applies in war.

    Consider this: we catch a criminal, put him away or kill him? Either way he won’t commit the crime again. This would be akin to capturing an entire army in a war and deciding to kill them instead of imprison them or let them go. Of course, we don’t do that. In fact, there are quite strict protections for prisoners of war so that we *can’t* do that.

    Take home message: Its all about the choice to kill. A justified war should be self defense. If it isn’t, the war likely isn’t justified. Similarly, a justified murder is only in self defense. It it isn’t, the killing isn’t justified. This goes for individuals and governments.

  6. #6 Bob Abu
    August 25, 2006

    By executing a convicted murderer, you are not doing anything to him (or her)that won’t happen in any event. Everyone has to die sometime. Look at poor Charles Manson, rotting away in prison. The US Supreme Court should never have overturned his death sentence. He should have been given the chance to rise again in 3 days.

    It was also a great injustice that he was not selected on that audition. I think he’s have also made a great Monkee. This is what happens to a dream deferred.

    Okay so they used animals – Hyenas and lions but they totally stole Manson’s ideas in the Disney cartoon “The Lion King,” just see the Disney DVD and then read Bugliosi’s book “Helter Skelter,” if you don’t already know what I mean.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00003CXB4/sr=8-1/qid=1156551159/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-9208530-1223247?ie=UTF8

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0553574353/002-9208530-1223247?v=glance&n=283155

  7. #7 Kagehi
    August 25, 2006

    The difference is that (as state to state conflicts are currently defined) there is a choice in an execution that is not involved in war. War provoked by an aggressor is self defense. Killing a single person in pure self defense is also not viewed as murder—the *choice* involved in killing is removed. If someone kills in self defense, there is no penalty in our society.

    Hmm. This is one case where I will contradict my prior statement about the issue. Note: my prior comment includes “all” costs involved, not just “some”. On some level, the endless series of appeals, etc, the cost of paying people to watch them, the cost of food, clothes, educational materials, etc. for them, and so on, I have a really hard time imagining is somehow *cheaper* than a few CCs of drugs, or other methods, **unless** you intentionally include the legal appeals, politicking and other actions that are “also” part of long term incarceration when discussing the cost of an execution, but “not” including them when talking about keeping them alive. Do they bury them in jewel encrusted gold coffins or something? Because I can’t see how the cost can be “higher” for an execution. It makes no bloody sense to me, unless someone is cheating, by including costs that would have happened anyway, then excluding them in the comparison.

    Now, for my contradiction. While I have said I object to accidentally killing someone that is innocent, the odds that someone falsely convicted of say rape, will then be wrongly convicted of manslaughter, only once out from that, being wrongly convicted of full on murder… The idea that they are not a verifiable, undeniable and obvious threat becomes quite laughable. At that point, the only valid objection, which differentiates such an act from, “sociatal self defense”, becomes a mute point, and absolutely ludicrous. And I don’t believe that the “failed” potential of someone, *had they been helped*, in any way mitigates their present condition.

    Such an argument makes about as much sense as the ones given against stem research, which says “research” is bad, simply throwing them out isn’t, and ignores “living” people in favor of “potential” people. Same thing here, only, the “potential” is long gone, unretrievable, and if anything “less” relevant.

  8. #8 Roman Werpachowski
    August 26, 2006

    To complicate further: what about the death penalty on the battlefield?

  9. #9 Alon Levy
    August 28, 2006

    A somewhat belated question about China and pandas: what was the penalty for poaching a panda before it became death? If it was lenient or nonexistent, then its success can be attributed to the fact that a long prison sentence is as effective a deterrent as capital punishment for every crime.

  10. #10 MattXIV
    September 1, 2006

    “Murderers and rapists likely will kill and rape despite the consequences—because it is often a compulsion which they cannot control. Very few people feel a compulsion to kill a panda, or to run a stop sign, falsely testify, etc. Often they do such things for monetary gain, a small thrill, or other minor payoffs.”

    I think this is wrong. While some people do have an uncontrolled compulsion to murder or rape, there are those who do so as a rational choice, particularly with regards to murder. Organized crime routinely uses murder as a means of eliminating competitors, enforcing agreements, silencing witnesses, or otherwise facilitating their more profitable illegal activities; for them it’s just a matter of whether the benefits outweigh the chance that they might get caught. Also, there are people who commit trivial crimes, such as shoplifting or drug possession, compulsively.

    The pragmatic problem with the death penalty is that the marginal increase in deterence from live in prison is small enough that it doesn’t offset the additional difficulties it creates in admininstering justice, not whether the crimes in question are deterrable. To see the deterence clearly, you need to look at what happens when you decrease the punishment substantially – if the penalty for murder was a $50 fine, the rate would vastly increase.

  11. #11 Pete
    September 1, 2006

    I’m on the same side as you Shelley in that I’m also not in favor of the death penalty. I don’t like it. I think it’s a terrible decision we as a society have to make, wether it’s proper to consciously and with forethought intention end a person’s life or not. However I think there is a very practical if unfortuneate (read: horrible or vulgar) side to this question – what other option is there?

    It’s clear that the death penalty is not an effective deterant to violent crimes in our society. So to your first point, it does nothing, agreed. However, and to address your second point somewhat, I think there are some individuals that are destructive enough to the rest of society and for whom we lack the resources to attempt to rehabilitate or to keep incarerated for extreme lengths of time. What are we supposed to do with them? As a side note, I’m also not sure about putting most people in prison. It’s entirely my assumption, but how many people who go to prison, repeat offenders or not, actually do manage to properly rejoin society? In some ways, it appears to me to make some if not most convicts more violent.

    I will disagree with you about the reason for the drawn out appeals process. I defintely disagree with the suggestion that criminal penalties should be viewed as a sort of revenge upon the perpertrator by the victim. If that was the intended purpose of the criminal courts, then A) why have an impartial judge and possibly jury?, and B) why have a seperate civil system? I believe the long appeals process is because we are talking about a penalty from which there is no changing once it has been done. It’s final. And in such cases, it is in the state’s and in the convicted person’s best interest to be quite clear that person to be executed is actually guilty, no extenuating circumstances, and no other option.

    Now, having said all that, I really do hope that people are working on workable alternatives to having to execute people. Preferably ones that will allow those convicted to be rehabilitated and properly rejoin society.

  12. #12 Teague
    September 1, 2006

    What about just replacing the Death Penalty with Lobotomy?

  13. #13 Roman Werpachowski
    September 4, 2006

    [irony]
    Yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s cut off hands for stealing!
    [/irony]