Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Capital Punishment Without God

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.


Anonymous said...

I believe murder is higher in our country because of social and economic injustice. People who are content don't murder each other. People who have confidence in the justice systems don't take matters into their own hands.

I don't believe there is a sound and statistically relivant survey that will show capital punishment as a true deterrant. I don't believe any more punishment or justice is obtained by execution over life in jail. I also believe that human reasoning and the justice system can be flawed, and execution is the most final punishment that we as a society can impose. No amount of additional evidence will be able to save an executed convict. For these reasons I must oppose capital punsishment.

Currently the best reason I have seen is that it is used as a *tool* by prosecuters to get people to flip on others or confess. This seems crazy as well, "Confess or we seek the death penalty", how is that not coersion?

I also agree with your other points, commiting a crime *must be a choice* in order to be punished as such. If they are a continuing threat to themselves or others they should be removed from society and treated, not punished.

Anonymous said...

I can imagine one situation where execution of the insane is a valid strategy.

Bear with me, because it's a bit contrived.

Conisder a criminal ofeender who meets three criteria:
1. They are insane (ie. psychotic, homicidal psychopaths, etc.) and not amenable to rehabilitation.
2. They are habitual offenders. (when they are out, they return to their criminal behaviour)
3. They are skilled at escaping incarceration.(They have done so in the past, with or without harming their guards)

If an insane person met all three criteria, it might be reasonable to consider execution because it represents an inescapable prison.

In this specific case, execution is no longer properly capital punishment but more like the extreme case of doing harm to the fewest (and least innocent individuals) in a society to protect the majority from future victimization.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately you won't get a lot of strong and reasoned argument in favor of capital punishment as comments to this blog because you made such a strong case against it in your book. Even you have to admit it's hard to overcome the (grossly summarized) 'capital punishment is supported by those who desire to kill' argument you used. It's like arguing in favor of the global fur trade after you've read up on Singer's old moral test about pain, you'd have to be a lobbyist, PR flack, or other world class bullshit artist to even keep a straight face while doing it.

There are a few subjects over which people start from the opinions of their grandparents and then either work to justify them or continue to hold them 'just because,' and capital punishment is one of them. Abortion is similar, you can point to Stephen Leavitt's summarized economic studies in Freakonomics until you're blue in the face, but there's no bending some minds. I think you know that, as you referenced people refusing to consider change when discussing Hezbollah the other day (which might have been a step too far in terms of generalization, by the way). In fact, if you keep up with modern psychology at all, there's some recent work that suggests there's no bending ANY minds over the age of 19.

Your book, and many of the essays in this blog, pretty much represent the cutting edge in moral thinking at present. Don't let the low turnout in the comments throw you: this work is appreciated and people are talking about it all over.

Anonymous said...

In one of Robert Heinlein's novels there is a scene where a man kills a baby girl and is hanged for it. The protagonist makes the case that if rehabilitation is not possible, then the murderer is on the same level as a rabid dog and must be put down. On the other hand, if he were sufficiently rehabilitated, the murderer would necessarily be so stricken with guilt that he would have to kill himself - so why bother?

Anonymous said...

In response to oz's comment, the book is Starship Troopers, and while I initially feel inclined to acept that assertion, it really is an oversimplification of the issue.
If someone was sufficiently rehabilitated it may be that were so stricken with guilt that they decided to spend their whole life and fortune working to help the victims of crimes such as those they'd commited, or perventing crimes such as their own?
It is impossible to arbitrarily decide what a rational 'sane' person's guilt reaction will be to that situation.
Also, the argument is flawed simply because (if I recall correctly) it is based on the argument that someone who kills a child *must* be mentally ill, which is not necessarily something we can prove, or assume.

Joe Otten said...

So (Desire Utilitarian) ethics is a tool for moulding desires, by the use of praise, condemnation, punishment and reward, that is not dependent on a concept of free will.

The insanity plea seems usually to be understood as saying that the act wasn't a free choice and therefore wasn't the culprit's fault. This doesn't seem to be relevant at all, if there is no reliance on a concept of free choice in the first place.

Perhaps insanity is too vague a term, and it matters exactly what is wrong with the insane brain. If the tools for moulding desires do not work in the normal way on somebody, then I guess that is relevant. (Although if we are talking about execution, it is only other people's desires we are really considering anyway.)

Given this, and given that in/sanity is probably more of a continuum than a binary state, it seems to me that most of the reasons for punishment still apply.

I am also "weakly against" capital punishment. Somehow I doubt medieval society - with its widespread hunger and high murder rate - could have survived without it. But we can do better.

GwenKillerby said...

It's really sad that some of you are weakly against capital punishment. I am strongly opposed against it. Because humans are not infallible. We can't know for sure if people are innocent or guilty. And since an underfunded group like www.theinnocenceproject.org has proven that about 200 people WERE convicted innocently, it stands to reason that mistakes are being made, lot's of them.

Coming from a country without capital punishment, I notice that America has far stronger prejudices towards minorities than here, AND that in a Kill em all society the effects of mistakes are often grave and irreversible. We had a couple of cases where tunnel vision led to wrongful conviction. The years those people spent in prison can't ever be given back. But they're still alive to see their kids grow up. In America, not so much.

Reading this blog, I couldn't help but think: Conservatives are those who believe in fairy tales more than the other side, so they're more gullible in case of other fairy tales like "more capital punishment leads to less innocent people getting killed."
And the argument against gullibility is beautifully made in this old classic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OruQy-X32O0 by AngryLittleGirl ....