Austin Cline had a piece on About Atheism yesterday about capital punishment and mental competence (particularly, insanity). He made the claim that, “[I]f you don’t believe in souls, there is no moral difference between executing sane and insane people.” He then suggested that, “[I]t is questionable whether or not an atheist can legitimately support capital punishment at all.”
The argument he used against the death penalty (from an atheist perspective) is that capital punishment cannot be reconsidered – that, for all practical purposes, capital punishment is ‘playing God’ in the sense of making a claim that the accused cannot be rehabilitated without having the perfect knowledge necessary for making such a claim.
There are three morally relevant issues here. One is the issue of capital punishment itself and whether an atheist can justify it. Another is the issue of executing somebody who was insane at the time he committed the crime. The third involves executing somebody who was sane at the time he committed the crime but became insane later.
Argument Against Capital Punishment
The first question to address is whether capital punishment can be justified at all, without belief in God.
I am weakly opposed to capital punishment. However, I think that it is possible that capital punishment may be justified by an argument that makes no reference to God.
My opposition to capital punishment rests on the idea that children raised in a society without capital punishment tend to acquire a stronger aversion to killing others than a children raised in a society that celebrates (some) deaths. The stronger aversion to killing in the society without capital punishment means fewer citizens who are tempted to kill when they find life to be somewhat frustrating. Fewer murders means that the society is one in which more and stronger desires tend to be fulfilled.
Children raised in a society with capital punishment are supposed to learn to celebrate only the deaths of certain wrongdoers. However, we cannot reasonably expect all children to learn identical lessons as to what counts as a wrongdoer. It is not at all difficult for a young man to come to believe that he has been wronged in ways that society does not fully accept. He may come to see "wrongdoing" in a rival for some girl's affections, "wrongdoing" in the person who got a promotion that the agent was seeking, "wrongdoing" in the way another person drives, or "wrongdoing" in a woman's decision to dress in a particular way he finds stimulating but who then refuses to have sex with him. These are just some examples.
The harms of capital punishment come in those instance where an attitude of celebration over certain deaths is combined with one of these distorted opinions as to what counts as a "wrongdoer" in the relevant sense. Criminals 'rationalize' their actions. They tend to come up with some way to view their actions as consistent with the moral standards they have learned in society. If society says, "killing is sometimes to be celebrated," then this makes it easier for criminals to kill by making slight adjustments to what counts as "sometimes." On the other hand, if a society says, "Never kill," there is less room to come up with a rationalization for one’s actions.
As I said earlier, I have no hard evidence in support of this theory. It comes from an observation that murder rates tend to be lower in countries that do not have capital punishment and higher in societies that do. Something has to explain these results. The idea that an attitude of celebrated killings makes it easier for people to kill is at least a possible explanation.
Possible Secular Argument For Capital Punishment
This argument against capital punishment suggests a possible way in which I can prove wrong, and the argument can be defeated. If we can sometimes justify the killing of innocent people in circumstances such as war or to prevent a sufficiently great tragedy, we can certainly sometimes justify the execution of guilty people. It does not require a belief in God or souls to do so.
If I am wrong -- if a willingness to execute murderers teaches makes children grow up to have a stronger aversion to murder and makes for a generally more peaceful society -- then this would suggest that capital punishment is justified in a sense that does not require belief in God.
To illustrate the argument, let us imagine that the data is obvious. Imagine that societies that execute murderers have murder rates in the area of 1 per 100,000. At the same time, societies that do not execute murderers have murder rates closer to 1,000 per 100,000. The reason is that capital punishment (or even the willingness to engage in capital punishment) teaches a stronger aversion to murder and, as a result, there are fewer murders. It appears quite rational to argue that society should adopt an institution of capital punishment.
Executing the Innocent
We can even add the assumption that 50% of the executions in the first society turn out to be executions of innocent people. There are still far fewer innocent people dying in the first society than in the second. It is still the case that an innocent person has a 1.5:100,000 chance of a premature death in the first society, and a 1,000:100,000 chance of a premature death in the second society.
Executing the Insane
As I said at the start, there are two questions regarding executing the insane. The first has to do with those who were insane when they committed the crime. The second has to do with those who become insane.
On the first issue, I can simply see no plausible argument for suggesting that executing the insane can do any good. We are assuming that insanity is not something that a person chooses. It is something that happens to them. Thus, our execution of those who become insane (or those who kill while insane) cannot do anything to reduce the incidents of insanity or the incidents of murders by insane people. So, it makes no sense to execute those who are insane. We have no reason for such a law.
On the second issue, I can see some possible effect of executing the insane. To return to our exaggerated numbers, it might be the case that the society that executes those who become insane after conviction has a murder rate of 1:100,000 – because it teaches others to have a strong aversion to killing innocent people. It may be the case that not executing the insane results in a murder rate of 1000:100,000 because people do not acquire as strong of an aversion to killing innocent people.
Yet, I do not think that it at all likely to be true in the real world.
Instead, it makes more sense to view the punishment of the insane to be the equivalent of harming somebody for the pleasure of doing them harm. It creates a situation where we have a person who is suffering without knowing why he is suffering – being harmed by others apparently because those others simply value doing harm to him.
We have strong reason to promote an aversion to inflicting baseless harm on others. We have strong reason to fear for our own safety and the safety of those we care about if we create a society where those around us will freely and even happily do harm to somebody who does not have any understanding as to why they are being harmed.
For these reasons we have reason to avoid executing the insane.
Now, Cline mentions a case in which an insane individual was given treatment to the point that he could understand the reason he was being killed, and then executed. I hold that this makes no sense. This sounds like the action of people with too great of a fondness for killing, and such a great fondness for killing does not strike me as an attitude that one would want to promote in a society. It is a case that illustrates what is wrong with capital punishment in fact.
It is not my purpose to actually argue for capital punishment. It is only my purpose to point out the conditions under which an argument for capital punishment is possible, even by somebody who does not believe in God.