Monday, November 21, 2005

Capital Punishment

Today, I want to take on another one of the big-ticket moral issues; capital punishment.

My overall position is that the issue of capital punishment is complex and depends on whether certain facts are true or false. Then again, I hold that all moral claims are to be determined to be true or false and are not to be settled by means of an appeal to feelings, intuitions, a mysterious "moral sense," or similar forms of magic.

For example, the murder rate is highest in the South, where capital punishment is widely used, and lower in Northern states which have ceased to support capital punishment. (pdf) Murder rates are higher in the United States than they are in Europe, which has also given up capital punishment. They are higher, even, than in Canada, which has also quit using capital punishment.

In this case, I suspect that the evidence suggests that capital punishment is wrong. By this I mean that society is best served by promoting an overall aversion to killing that is so strong that we are adverse even killing a convicted of murder.

General Argument

Empirical research suggests that societies that do not have capital punishment have fewer murders. Capital punishment is supposed to act as a deterrence, which means that it should be reducing the number of murders. If it is not effective, then we should be asking, "Why not?"

I am going to suggest a possible explanation that I think would make for some fruitful research. That proposal is this:

A child who grows up in a society that says, "Do not kill -- killing is so wrong that we are not even going to kill convicted murderers," is a child that is disposed to grow up with an overall inhibition against killing. Regardless of what life may throw at that person, he will approach it with an attitude that includes, "No matter what, killing is always wrong." Whatever frustrations he may experience, he would not consider killing to be a viable response.

On the other hand, the child that grows up in a society that says that it is sometimes permissible to kill will grow up to be an adult with a weaker psychological barrier against killing. Because of that weaker psychological barrier, it is going to be easier for him to consider killing as an option to life's frustrations.

The child in the first type of society virtually always sees killing in a negative light. He internalizes this attitude towards killing, and becomes somebody who will not kill. However, the child in the second type of society seeks killing as something to be cheered and celebrated in certain circumstances. He learns to cheer and celebrate some killings. A few of them learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong kinds of killings.

This effect may not be all that common, but it need not be common to have a significant effect on the murder rate. In a nation with a population of 300 million people, a nation where 1 out of every 1000 people learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong kinds of killings will raise 300,000 murders inside that population.

These numbers are purely hypothetical. Nobody should leave this essay thinking, "If we do not ban capital punishment, then we will have 300,000 murderers." That is not what I am saying. My claim is that to the degree that some killings are cheered and celebrated, some people will learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong types of killings. That situation creates a risk. How big of a risk it creates depends on the number of people who learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong types of killings.

We may ultimately be better off -- we may ultimately be safer -- if we design our society in such a way that we cheer and celebrate no killings. This will mean fewer people growing up to cheer and celebrate any type of killing, which means fewer murders.

This matches certain empirical observations - the higher murder rates that tend to be found in capital-punishment societies -- to a degree that suggests that it could be worth looking into.


Most of the research on capital punishment deals with the change in the homicide rate once it is instituted or abolished. That type of research would not be useful here. Before a nation or state abolishes capital punishment, it would generally have already created a culture that makes capital punishment undesirable.

This, in turn, if this thesis is correct, would have lowered the murder rate before capital punishment is repealed. In fact, the repeal may be aided by the fact that society has already experienced less of an interest and a cause to use it.

This, then, suggests a different focus for research into capital punishment. Instead of looking for a statistical correlation between capital punishment and homicide rates, perhaps we should be looking for how a general opposition to killing -- a refusal to cheer and celebrate any killing -- effects both murder rates and execution rates.

Argument from Feeling

Many proponents of capital punishment would respond by telling a story of a particularly heinous crime and a despicable individual and asking, "Would you not want to see this person killed?" If I were to answer 'yes', this is then said to prove that the killing would be morally justified.

Yet, it is a strange argument to make to say that we can determine if killing is justified just by looking to see if we want to have a person killed. If this is our method for measuring right from wrong, the moral ground that the murderer stands on is just as solid as ours. After all, he wanted the victim killed, and from this he drew the conclusion that he was morally justified in killing the victim.

Using the type of moral reasoning being defended here, we are being asked to do the same thing -- drawing our conclusion that this murderer may be executed from our desire to see him killed.

This ties in with the problem that I described in the previous section concerning capital punishment. To the degree that we teach children to grow up celebrating certain these types of killings, and to the degree that we teach them that killing is justified if we search our feelings and decide that we really want that person dead, to that degree we can expect to be living in a society where more of the people can more easily become killers.

Feelings are not a measure of what is right and wrong. Feelings are a measure of what we like and do not like. The habit of using feelings to measure moral value is the habit of drawing a false (but very tempting inference), "I want this to happen; therefore, it is right and good that it happens."

The person who asks us to check our feelings is leaving out an important part of the argument. What he does not explain to us is that, to the degree that we feed and nurture these desires to kill, to that degree we may be raising children who find it that much easier to kill others. To that degree, the people we care about (including ourselves) may discover that we face a higher risk of being killed -- because we have taught our children to celebrate killing in some instances.

The Culture of Life

Many conservatives talk about a culture of life, and of how this would be a better and safer society for us to live in. Surprisingly, they associate this "culture of life" with things where there seems to be little or no evidence that the value of life is affected.

At the same time, they avoid attaching this value to the one case where there is empirical evidence suggesting this effect. They do not apply it to the act of teaching children that killings in some instance are to be celebrated and cheered, and the effect that this may have in those children growing up to kill.

What I am offering here is speculation. I am not saying that this relationship exists and has been proved. I will await the testimony of trained experts in the field to answer this question. I am not going to pretend that I know the answer to this question. I merely offer it as a question worth asking.

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