Mammoth Reads: The Death Penalty

Lethal Injection Chamber*

The following list of articles skews toward the anti-death-penalty persuasion, and does not hit every cogent point, pro or con, regarding capital punishment.  How could it?  But the furor over Troy Davis' execution the other day—as well as some back-and-forth with fellow Sloth Jockey blogger Vinnie Bergl—has the topic fresh in my head.  I don't know whether Troy Davis was innocent or guilty; I don't know whether doubt over his innocence or guilt was a false impression given by the media.  For purposes of the following post, and the questions it asks, Troy Davis' specific case doesn't really inform the greater question:  is the death penalty ever justified in a civilized society?

I'm against capital punishment for what some might consider a simplistic reason: that, when doling out an absolute punishment, one innocent killed at the hands of the state is one too many.  I'm also sympathetic to skepticism over revenge, and my loose understanding of the greater effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent is that it doesn't work.  To me, the death penalty is a difficult institution to defend, even if I probably wouldn't lose too much sleep over the execution of a mass murderer or serial killer.

Consider the following:

Why Does the United States Love the Death Penalty?

In this piece for Lapham's Quarterly Christopher Hitchens considers why the United States is the last country within its so-called peer group to maintain the death penalty:

To be in the company of Iran and China and Sudan as a leader among states conducting execution—and to have pioneered the medicalized or euthanized form of it that is now added to the panoply of gassing, hanging, shooting, and electrocution and known as “lethal injection”—is to have invited the question why. Why is the United States so wedded to the infliction of the death penalty? I have heard a number of suggested answers: two in particular have some superficial plausibility. The first is an old connection between executions and racism, and the second is the relatively short distance in time that separates the modern U.S. from the days of frontier justice.


The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)

There are a couple of good paragraphs omitted from this excerpt in order to tie the thought together.  Later in the article, Hitchens also considers the Nuremberg trials and the hanging of Saddam Hussein—executions that bookended larger cultural/political movements and could not be considered standard application of capital punishment—bringing, as he almost always does, an interesting perspective to the issue, wondering where we might draw the line were we the surviving victims.

Will Wilkinson on Morality and State-Sanctioned Killing

Wilkinson has three posts on this list because capital punishment seems to be an issue about which he feels exceptionally strongly.  Apart from questions about its effectiveness, both in the court system as well as in its place as a deterrent, Wilkinson questions the very root of the revenge impulse that leads to capital punishment, arguing that it has no place in modern society.

"Plush and Unusual Punishment"
This post was written after Anders Breivik went on his sick rampage in Norway.  Many people in America were screaming for his blood, while Norwegians seemed to be coming to grips with the sheer gravity of the event, their Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, civil and calm and reflective in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Some news outlets got wind that Norway's maximum sentence was only 21 years (though it carries the potential for extension) and were understandably miffed.  Furthermore, we also discovered that Norway's prisons are not the dungeons that American prisons are, a fact that did not sit well with retributionists.

Wilkinson considers these points, and while I'm not sure I am in total agreement with him on all points, including the following excerpt, I think he is genuinely concerned about humaneness and civility, two traits that are, I think, more important that the capacity for retribution:

Nothing can be done to bring Mr Breivik's victims back to life. The most compelling, non-mystical case for vengeance is that it offers some consolation to those wracked by desolation and fury at the murder of their loved one. But the point of a criminal justice system in a civilised society is not the mental peace of those collaterally wounded by crime. All evidence supports the proposition that Norway's criminal justice system is both practically and morally superior to America's. If America's abominably cruel and unjust system delivered results even remotely comparable to Norway's enviable level of civil peace and order, then there might be some reason to take seriously American animadversions against Norway's short sentences and humane prison. But we don't. We're not even close. So Americans should just shut up and watch. It could do us some good to see how a civilised society handles such a horrifying crime.

(Vinnie originally cited this quote, and I remember arguing that I didn't know why our court system should necessarily ignore the mental peace of the bereaved.  I think my argument ran along that lines that we should consider whose rights we prioritize:  victims' or perpetrators'.  That supposes we cannot consider both, and I'm not sure I'd defend my original comments all that fervently at this point.)

"The Killing of Troy Davis"
Wilkinson on the difference between justice and revenge:

Now, I don't know how to convince you that even especially heinous murderers don't deserve to suffer the same fate they meted out. I suppose I would start by distinguishing justice from vengeance. I would observe that there is no pervasive ethereal moral substance that must be kept in some sort of cosmic balance lest society devolve into chaos. We may feel deeply, in our marrow, in our prickling indignant skin, that the yin of crime calls out for the yang of punishment. But I would warn against putting much trust our retributive instincts. I would suggest that civilization demands setting these feelings aside, that it requires that we ask ourselves in a cool hour the point of criminal justice.

As an atheist I find the moral claim of this statement—essentially that no cosmic balance exists to be righted—persuasive, and I think we do need to be careful when our instincts to exact revenge hew to such lines of thinking.  However, overcoming the sense of violation and, for lack of a better term, evil  that most decent humans feel at the thought of murder is a tall order, especially if we consider that animals, humans included, are likely programmed to retaliate.

Our baser instincts should not govern our policy, and while I'm a bit torn on the absolute question of the death penalty, I think its continued existence mandates that we use it sparingly—that is to say, almost never.  Rationality and civility are best served when we can prevent certain atavistic impulses, like those Wilkinson deems objectionable in his post, from finding purchase.

"Moral Progress and Arguments Against the Death Penalty" 
I'm including this one for a few interesting graphs that Wilkinson includes which show the decline, over time, of capital punishment in Europe, of execution rates in the United States, and of executions in the United States for crimes other than homicide.

Wilkinson equates these declines, speculatively, as effects of a society that is growing more "moral". Now, to make this assumption, or to agree with Wilkinson's suggestion, we have to assume a moral position that supports the notion of killing as wrong, whether it comes at the hands of an individual or the state.  If you don't subscribe to to this philosophy, you will see a number of problems with the assumptions contained in the article.

I'm not certain that a decline in death penalty rates is necessarily indicative of a society that is making moral progress; I could imagine other reasons for such declines.  Our society, however, does appear to be growing more inclusive, more accepting of moral ambiguity in general (i.e. non-dualistic thinking), and more capable of considering alternatives to current paradigms (I'm not implicitly nodding to any ideological movements here, by the way).

Are these shifts in perspective and others like them indicators of enhanced intelligence and morality?

Our Angels Aren't Smart Enough

Jason Brennan on Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

Even if we grant for the sake of argument that some people deserve to die, it does not follow that the state may be authorized to kill them. For a state to have the right to kill criminals, it must make decisions about guilt and hear appeals in a fair, competent, and reliable manner. It must have rules that reliably let the innocent–or those whose guilt is reasonably in doubt–go free. The American criminal justice system fails to meet these standards. Perhaps a government of smart angels should be granted the right to kill. We could debate that. But no state in America deserves any such right.

Wilkinson reproduces Brennan's post in its entirety in "Moral Progress and Arguments Againts the Death Penalty", and I've just done the same thing here because Brennan's bottom line essentially states my own.

The discussion that follows in the comments is an interesting one that I haven't been able to read in full just yet.  However, I highly recommend taking a look at the discourse between the commenters and a couple of the BHL writers, a back-and-forth that prods at the notion of irreversibility and compensation for false imprisonment: For instance, is a person's spending twenty wrongful years in jail any more reversible than killing them?  That twenty years is lost, and they can never be compensated for the time.  (For the record, I don't think this notion disqualifies the anti-death-penalty position, nor do I think the distinction means we must do away with all punishment, as one commenter seems to; the comparison, however, is something we might want to think about in order to check our presumptions.  But if we can compensate falsely imprisoned people at all, it stands to reason that we have a better chance to do so if they are alive than if they are dead, in which case we could not compensate them at all.)

Much of the grunt work on good blogs is now done in the comments section, by the way, and leafing through differing immediate perspectives can be useful.

The Death Penalty Digest

I just happened across the blog Just Above Sunset while looking for trackbacks to the Brennan piece.

Editor Alan takes the following Gandalf quote as a sort of thesis, or frame, for his article:

Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

He provides a digest of some recent writings on the death penalty that cover a wider array of opinions than I've linked to in this post, and it's well worth the read, as he touches upon the contemporaneous (to Troy Davis') execution of a white supremacist whose crimes are sure to spark disgust and an impulse for revenge—all in all, a much different kind of execution than one tinged by the specter of doubt, the perception of the specter of doubt, or any case in which a confirmed innocent was killed.


Obviously, we have a lot to think about relating to the death penalty.  To read meaningful discussion and consider differing opinions is, I think, invaluable and utterly necessary, especially when considering challenges to our own humanity.  In my introduction I stated that I wouldn't lose too much sleep over the execution of a mass murderer or serial killer, and while I still admit to feeling this way, I think the Gandalf quote is a fitting statement of caution in favor of humility and against self-righteousness, and a wise starting point from which to deal with the question of administering death.

I'm interested to hear any thoughts.

* Image courtesy of publik15 (image link) under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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