May 12, 2014 3
Responding to an incompetent execution in oklahoma, one of the NYTimes op-ed columnists recently wrote the following:
But is state-sponsored eye-for-an-eye justice truly a mark of a civilized society? How do we not, as a culture, descend to the same depravity of the person who takes a life — or multiple lives — when, as citizens of a state or country, we, in turn, take the murderer’s life? Do our haphazard attempts to rid the world of evil imbue us with it?
This seems like a ridiculous argument to me. The state hauls people off to jail and holds them for years, all the time, which would normally be called a crime (namely kidnapping). Does that mean we have all descended to depravity (even in scandinavia!)? Or is there something special about murder/execution? Maybe so, but you can’t use a circular argument to get there.
I once discussed the death penalty with a european colleague. He is quite a rational person, but he was aghast at the idea that anyone intelligent and thoughtful (e.g. me) could imagine condoning this practice. I asked about self-defense, and war, and protecting one’s family, and he was forced to admit that the line was actually blurrier than he had thought. He and I would put that line in different places, which is fine, but I think it was a win for me that he acknowledged the existence of a line and of a range of defensible positions in which to place that line. I’ve never yet met anyone who, when faced with the hypothetical situation of a psychopath with the means and intention of torturing and murdering one’s entire family, wouldn’t push a magic button that caused the immediate death of the psychopath and the safety of the family. So everyone has a line.
Where the actual death penalty as currently instantiated in the US falls with respect to my own personal line is harder to say. I think probably it fails. Evidence on deterrence is mixed at best (which actually bolsters my conceptual argument in favor; see below). I think the punishment itself is just, but the process as it stands is far from just: high racial and income disparities in application, and an extremely high price in time and money (which has an opportunity cost of taking valuable resources away from the system). The physical pain inflicted in oklahoma may have grave constitutional implications, but it is much less important to me. I don’t think ten minutes of extreme pain changes the moral calculation very much at all (although my preference would be not to incur it), and in any case it would be incredibly simple to make the process painless if we wanted to (as is done for animals all the time, including pets not just food, and indeed for euthanasia).
Thus if I had to choose between our current system and a system with no death penalty, I would vote for the latter. But my first choice, which I think is entirely feasible with modern criminology and technology, is for a well-functioning death penalty, because I believe it is a just punishment for some crimes. People like to imagine that death is in a different category from everything else, but it isn’t. I am much more familiar with this reasoning from the public health literature on cost-effectiveness of interventions: no one likes to compare one death with three cases of quadriplegia, but we can and we are forced to and it would be immoral not to (when making certain kinds of decisions). The evidence regarding [non]deterrence of the death …