Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Abolishing Capital Punishment

I am getting an ever increasing number of requests to address specific issues, to the point that I have a small backlog. I will get to them as I can.

One question that I received from email asks about the Italian proposal for a moratorium on capital punishment.

I think that I favor such a moratorium. I am not fully certain because my final answer depends on the verification of certain physical facts relevant to the wrongness of capital punishment. I think that these hypotheses would be confirmed, but the possibility of error suggests a possibility of error on the issue of capital punishment over all.

The main issue, in desire utilitarian terms, is this: Would promoting a universal aversion to all killing strong enough that people are adverse to killing even their most hated criminals do more to protect innocent life than promoting a desire to kill the most hated criminals?

There is reason to believe that societies that teach their children the stronger aversion to killing end up raising fewer murderers, and end up with fewer innocent people being murdered (or maimed) than societies that teach their children to celebrate certain killings.

Causes of Murder

Technically, I suggest that those who harm others typically ‘rationalize’ the wrongness of what they are doing by twisting commonly accepted moral principles to make their actions seem justified. The rapist convinces himself that women like rape or that certain types of women deserve rape. Embezzlers convince themselves that they have a right to the money because their employer is not paying them what they are really worth.

Following this model, we can expect murderers to be people who have come to think that their victims deserve death. To the degree that a culture accepts the idea of ‘deserves death’, it is easier for a person within that culture to come to that type of rationalization. To a degree that a culture rejects the concept of ‘deserves death’, it should be a bit harder for people within that community to think this of a potential victim.

Not all children, sitting at the dinner table coloring in his book while his parents celebrate the killing of some criminal, is going to learn that what the criminal did was bad. Some may learn that killing itself is joyful. Later in his life when he encounters some frustration – a girlfriend who will not return his affection, a competitor who wins a choice contract, an annoying neighbor - his weaker aversion to killing might not be strong enough to stop him from fulfilling his desire to do harm to those who are causing him grief.

I am not saying that this is some type of rigid natural law. There is a lot of ‘noise’ that would have to be filtered out in a study of this issue. I may be mistaken – which is why I offer no unqualified support of the Italian proposal. However, I have some empirical evidence to suggest support for this view.

Empirical Measures of Deterrence

The standard way of determining the effects of capital punishment is to look at a place where capital punishment rules changed and compare murder rates before the change with murder rates after the change. If the explanation above has merit, this would not be effective. Changes in murder rates and changes in capital punishment laws would have a common cause – with a growing aversion to killing simultaneously promoting a reduction in murder rates even before the aversion to capital punishment has an effect on the law.

One statistic consistent with this suggestion can be found in the fact that Europe (which has banned capital punishment) has a lower murder rate than the United States (which substantially supports capital punishment). Of course, this may be the result of cherry-picking the data. Or the reason might be found in some other cause such as limitations on private gun ownership.

Another fact that suggests that capital punishment, at least, does not deter murder rests in the fact that a large proportion of murderers are younger. If fear of capital punishment were a statistically significant influence on murder rates, we would expect younger people to have a stronger reason to resist the urge to kill than elderly individuals – yet elderly individuals are less likely to murder.

These arguments are not decisive. They point out where it may be fruitful for some people to do some investigation. I suspect that they will find that an aversion to killing so strong that people are averse to killing even their most hated murderers will result in fewer murderers to hate.

It seems almost self evident that we will have a much stronger basis on which to criticize the terrorist, the kidnap-murderer, the war-monger, and the tyrant. To assert that killing is never justified gives these murderers little room for moral demagoguery; whereas our killing grants them room to argue that their killings are mere variations of the same theme.

Moral Absolutes

Now, desire utilitarianism does not allow for moral absolutes. Any desire or aversion can be outweighed by stronger desires and aversions recommending different actions, or the combined weight of several smaller desires. It will not pay to teach children to grow up with such an aversion to killing that they become easy prey for the first tyrant to come along and take over their government. We do not create a culture that protects our children from harm if we make our neighbors too timid to step in and protect our children, by violence if necessary, if they witness our children being victims of an attack.

Yet, the claim that we would not benefit if we made the aversion to killing infinitely strong (which would be physically impossible anyway) does not imply that we would not benefit from making the aversion stronger than it is now. It would have been a mistake if the American culture was so averse to killing that we failed to recognize that the invasion of Afghanistan was a necessary evil. However, we would be 3000 lives and $400 billion richer if we had recognized that the invasion of Iraq was not a necessary evil.


There are those who would protest this conclusion on the grounds that their favorite scripture supports capital punishment. If we take the way such people respond to the scientific evidence supporting evolution as our model, we can well expect such people to twist, distort, and misinterpret the physical data on capital punishment so that it appears to support their view. However, there is clearly no sense in allowing scripture to determine who lives and who dies. If scripture were to be made our guide, then none of us would be alive. There is nobody on the planet that has not performed a deadly sin according to somebody’s book somewhere.

Scripture must be taken as being in error in who it says that we may kill. Otherwise, all people who work on the Sabbath could be executed, as well as any who speak in defense of anything other than Christianity. These errors, and several like them, tell us that the moral person cannot turn to scripture to determine who should live and who should die.

As I have argued in the past – it makes is as foolish to hold that scripture is the unassailable source of all morality as it is to hold that Hippocrates is the unassailable source on the subject of medicine. It would be savagely irresponsible to deny a neighbor the benefits of 2,000 years of medical advances – and, in particular, the opportunity to benefit on what we have learned since free thinkers through out the yoke of blind obedience to the Church. It is just as morally reprehensible to saddle humanity with a morality that was equally, primitively wrong. A primitive morality, even more so than a primitive medicine, means misery, suffering, and death.

What a primitive morality does not allow us to do is to take our growing knowledge of the world around us and to factor it into our moral standards – to learn new moral facts. As I said at the start, the rightness or wrongness of the Italian proposal depends substantially on whether we can demonstrate, empirically, that the stronger and simpler aversion to killing that includes an aversion to killing our most hated criminals will save innocent lives. The religious demand that we ignore these facts requires that we turn our back on that which may save innocent lives – as if the saving of innocent lives does not matter.


Many theists say that atheism is dogmatic. Yet, in fact, we find the atheists more likely to use the phrase, “I do not know,” when faced with questions such as this. Yet, even the atheist who does not know can give us directions on where to look. In this case, we look for the effects of promoting different aversions to killing in a culture at large. To the theist, we find the answer in the writings of people who did not even know that their world orbited the sun and was made up of atoms. We would be better off drawing our moral principles out of a hat then saying that substantially ignorant writers from 2000 years ago could produce an infallible moral system.


beepbeepitsme said...

I don't get the captial punishment thing. Partly because I live in a culture where capital punishment hasn't existed for about 40 years.

Seems to me that many people confuse justice with revenge. Two thousand years ago that was the case. An eye for an eye and all that. It seems that the overtly religious ones among us, are those who seek this kind of retribution.

Joe Otten said...

I am told that one of the reasons given for the abolition of the death penalty in the UK in the 1960s (except for treason, piracy, and arson in a royal dockyard) was that juries were reluctant to convict - that they would tolerate less doubt in a capital trial.

Now this could be taken various ways - perhaps juries are already thought to have too low or too high a standard of reasonable doubt. Without taking part in a representative sample of juries, it is hard to call.

But this does perhaps neatly illustrate one effect of an aversion to killing.

To secure convictions in a capital trial, it may be necessary to challenge potential jurors: are you not averse to killing? Which is bizarre, isn't it? The system demands the opposite of what it seeks to achieve.

Anonymous said...

In my very humble opinion capital punishment has several flaws:
It is irreversible.
Because of it, the juries will render criminals guilty less likely if the punishment is capital.
Because of it, more guilty people will be set free.
Because of it, more innocent people will be harmed.
It creates room for slippery slope – how to tell which killing is and isn't justified?
It doesn’t undo the damage.
It fails as a deterrent.
It robs society of a chance, however small, that the convict will repent or reform, and so act as deterrent to would be criminals.
It is more expensive to make sure the criminal rely is guilty than to keep jail for life, and even than you can never be sure.
And also because he who fights monsters should take care not to become one.

Alan Lund said...

I just came across a paper with an interesting hypothesis (and supporting data) that appears to be relevant to this issue: Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates among Nations. The basic idea is that religions that promote dualistic good vs. evil views of the world make it easier for adherents to justify killing others, with correspondingly higher murder rates. It does not address the capital punishment issue directly, but it would provide support, I think, for the Alonzo's suggestion that murderers come to think their victims deserve death.

Curiosis said...

If captial punishment serves to lower a person's inhibitions to murder, then arresting and incarcerating criminals should lead to higher rates of kidnapping and wrongful imprisonment. We are teaching children that holding people against their will is acceptable, right?

I am from Texas, where we execute more people than any other state. I am proud of that fact. When I hear stories of a guy who molested, tortured, and then murdered a child, I want vengence. I could take the guy out back and shoot him in the head with no remorse whatsoever. I value life, but I do not value the life of someone who chooses to use theirs to harm the innocent. By their own actions, they have made their life forfeit.

However, because execution is irrevesible, a higher standard is in order. A person must be found guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." For the death penalty to be used, there should be no doubt at all. Complete certainty should be required of the jury. I would also have no problem requiring agreement from the presiding judge as well.

To paraphrase Blackstone, it is better that all men go free than for one innocent man to be executed. But when the verdict is beyond all doubt and the crime is truly heinous, then death is warranted.

Ranter said...

In reply to the last post and especially one of my all time least favourite quotes
"it is better that all men go free than for one innocent man to be executed"
If a guilty murderer is set free and kils again, then we are in an equivalent case. One innocent person has died in each case. I am sure this comes from a belief that passively allowing something bad to happen is much better than actively doing something bad. But what if 'all men' go free? I reckon there'd be a hell of a lot more murders than the one man you might have hanged. How many innocents murdered by a wrongly released man cancel a wrongly executed man? See the problems trying to be logical about morals.
I don't have a problem with killing people, but there's always the chance of a mistake, atleast life imprisonment can be put right.