Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Humanism and Capital Punishment

I will start with this:
 
I am opposed to the death penalty.
 
And yet, I want to call out this piece - The Humanist Case against Capital Punishment by John Shook - as an intellectually vacant, arrogant, and condescending treatment of the subject.
 
The very first sentence oozes with condescending arrogance.
 

Humanism cannot support the death penalty.
 
This is like saying that science cannot support a geocentric theory of the solar system. It could support the geocentric theory - if the evidence were to be found for it. There is no evidence - but that only supports the conclusion that science does not support a geocentric theory of the solar system. It would not be science to say that it could not.
 
Humanism - unless it is a dogmatic system that issues commandments that no person shall be permitted to question - can support the dealth penalty, if reason can be found to do so. If no reason can be found to do so, this would support the conclusion that humanism does not support the death penalty, but it would not support the conclusion that humanism can not do so.

Here is another place where his arrogance oozes out.
 
The pro-death camp will admit that trials can deliver wrong verdicts.
 
There is no pro-death camp.

Claiming that there is such a thing is a libelous distortion of the opposing view in an attempt to bludgeon the reader to accept a conclusion.

I am entirely in favor of name-calling, when the name-calling can be proved true. I do not object to calling somebody who lies a liar, or somebody who rapes a rapist. If I can demonstrate that somebody applies moral principles inconsistently to self and others, and that he makes derogatory overgeneralizations across whole groups, then I call him a hypocritical bigot.

But Shook's 'pro-death' refocus falls into the category of abandoning truth and reason in favor of bludgeoning readers with an emotional club devoid of fact and reason - if they dare to question his Truth.

Next, John Shook writes as if he is in complete ignorance of one of the two classic arguments for capital punishment - the deterrance theory. That is to say, executing convicted murderers provides a way of reducing the number of innocent people who will be killed.

He writes, against the death penalty, that potentially killing an innocent person is a bad thing - something we should avoid. However, if it is a bad thing, and if killing a convicted murderer - or threatening to - deters the killing of 10 innocent people on average (for example), then this would make the death penalty a good thing. We are preventing the killing of innocent people - preventing more of what Shook himself claims to be worth preventing.

This is not some obscure argument buried deep in the capital punishment literature. It is Ethics 101 - an argument I would expect any college freshman just picking up the subject to cover.

The data does not support deterrence claims. However, that is not the point if this post. The point of this article is Shook's arrogant and condescending name-calling without even considering common arguments like the one above. The deterrence argument doesn't fit Shook's interest in derogatory over generalizations, so there is no mystery in the fact that he ignored it.

Besides, even the innocent who are executed are seldom, if ever, pillars of social virtue - far worse, on average, than the average person murdered.

In addition, innocent people are not only executed, they are imprisoned as well. There is a real risk that, in abolishing capital punishment, we conclude that questions of guilt and innocence are less significant. After all, if we merely sentence people to life in prison, we don't have to worry so much about the fact they just might happen to be innocent. That only matters if we plan to kill them.

Isn't this potential execution of the innocent argument really saying that we want to make it okay to be less concerned with the guilt or innocence of the accused? How many people, whose case was given greater scrutiny because of capital punishment considerations, were found innocent - but would have been found guilty in a system less concerned about guilt or innocence because it merely imprisons people?

So, Shook tells us that humanism cannot support capital punishment.

I wonder what humanism has to say about intellectually honest debate on social issues such as crime and punishment. It appears that Shook's brand if humanism, at least, isn't too comfortable with this principle either.

7 comments:

Kristopher said...

good post. i have been guilty about using the phrase "pro-death" and your right to call us out on it. thanks.

mojo.rhythm said...

My first argument against the death penalty is that it has not been shown empirically to have much more of a significant effect than life imprisonment.

Moreover, the possibility of executing an innocent citizen ought to send up alarms and red flags for any decent and compassionate human being.

Lock em' up and throw away the key I say. Life without freedom is already horrible enough as it is. At least one gets a lifetime to make the case for their innocence if they know they are not going to be executed.

What's more: the death penalty does nothing to stop the spur-of-the-moment, adrenaline-charged killings. If a person is blinded red with fury, so much so that they cannot think straight, I don't believe that they will give pause to consider whether or not the criminal justice system in their state includes death by lethal injection as a punitive measure for some of the more heinous crimes.

The death penalty prevents those who are planning to commit a murder and are not so sure of themselves. It definetly doesn't do jack shit about the deluded criminals who think that they will never, ever be caught.

It's more trouble than it is worth I say. Time to dismantle this barbaric practice.

David Week said...

I think you make too much of too little. When Shook says "no humanist" he means "no humanist knowing what we know today." And what we know today is:

• historically, the death penalty is driven by religious, "eye for an eye" ethics;

• empirically, the death penalty is no deterrent;

• mistakes are made by the justice system;

• the death penalty is applied in a racially biased way;

• the prison system is insane: Michel Onfray's the Atheist Manifesto argues forcefully that it is based on the Old Testament model of the vengeful God. It could be reconfigured so that lifers continue to be productive human beings, literally repaying their debt to society.

So Shook is correct: no rational atheistic humanist, on the evidence that is before us today, can support the death penalty. Nor do they. No do you.

I say: stop wasting energy attacking someone's rhetorical forms, and use that same energy to attack some of the real evils of the world: like the death penalty.

That too seems like basic humanist ethical reasoning.

(PS: On the flip side of the "deterrent" argument, someone who reckons that if caught will get the death penalty, may see no benefit in surrender, and will rationally shoot away when cornered, killing as many as possible, if it provides even the smallest increased likelihood of escape.)

mojo.rhythm said...

David Week,

Touche. Well said!

Henry said...

Good post. I too lament the irony that we would most likely never have heard of potentially innocent death row inmates if they had been sentenced to life in prison, which moots the idea that as long as society doesn't execute them there is a chance for exoneraton.

I prefer utilitarian arguements against the death penalty, such as the excessive cost, difficulties with extraditions from non-death-penalty countries, and of course the lack of evidence that it works as intended. When we play on the moralistic playground we risk becoming dogmatic.

Here's a question for you, Alonzo: Are societies bound by the same ethical rules as individuals?

Michel Virard said...

As luck would have it, I just met, for the first time, John Shook in Toronto, Saturday morning. He was the first speaker of the day at the Humanist-Canada convention. He certainly did not come through as "arrogant". I just look at my convention notes and found, in front of his name: "impressive".

So, I am puzzled. Is there here a misunderstanding? Could it have something to do with the expected meaning of "humanist" as understood by two different persons?
John Shook is a self-proclaim secular humanist. As myself, for that matter. So, it is fairly implicit that whenever we use the expression "as a humanist" we do mean the particular brand we belong to. Typically, secular humanist associations require their new members to officially subscribe to a short list of principles. In many cases it is a straight copy of the Humanist Manifesto (although several versions of it exist).
It should be noted that, although "reason" a.k.a. scientific reasoning is mentioned as the privileged tool of knowledge, there are principles that are simply straight affirmations, without any "reason" given for them. They are, basically, postulates.
Indeed, the very first principle is something like "affirming the value, the dignity and the autonomy of individuals...". No justification is proposed.

I don’t think it is a big stretch of imagination to consider this first principle as inherently disqualifying capital punishment. Although we may want to prevent dangerous individuals to do harm by all available means (including killing him if it is an absolute immediate necessity), it does not follow that a human being, even the worst murderer, can be deprived of his or her humanity by other humans. Coldly killing him is to deprive him of his humanity.
So John Shook affirmation that “Humanism cannot support the death penalty.”
seems to me completely consistent with the proclaimed worldview of modern secular humanism as we know it.

Michel Virard
Porte-parole
Association humaniste du Qu├ębec

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Michel Virard

Typically, secular humanist associations require their new members to officially subscribe to a short list of principles.

Officially subscribing to a list of principles appears to be a bit dogmatic. Whereas a scientist may be expected to agree with evolution or plate techtonics or atomic theory, I would not expect a scientific organization to require that they subscribe to a given set of propositions. Rather, they would leave open the possibility that future investigation could reveal problems with any of these ideas and would want to leave that option open - however unlikely.

It should be noted that, although "reason" a.k.a. scientific reasoning is mentioned as the privileged tool of knowledge, there are principles that are simply straight affirmations, without any "reason" given for them.

This sounds like it has a lot in common with religion - basic propositions given without evidence or justification - just accepted as true on faith? If not faith, but without justification, what is the third option?

Indeed, the very first principle is something like "affirming the value, the dignity and the autonomy of individuals...". No justification is proposed.

I find these to be quite ambiguous words. The fact that they mean different things to different people means that a large group of people can agree with the sentence without agreeing with each other. It does not imply anything about capital punishment - which affirms the value of those who might be murdered and offers them protection, affirms the dignity and autonomy of individuals by treating them as responsible agents and mere machines (who do not have moral accountability and cannot deserve punishment).


So John Shook affirmation that “Humanism cannot support the death penalty.”
seems to me completely consistent with the proclaimed worldview of modern secular humanism as we know it.


Would you want to address the distinction between 'cannot' and 'does not' that I made in the post?