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.
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.
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.