Thursday, June 26, 2008

Standards for Determining Who Should Be Killed

Note: I am continuing the Pledge Project at Atheist Ethicist Journal. There, I am tracking political events relevant to 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' across the country. If you want to help do some preliminary work on the Pledge Project, waiting for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to give out their decision, please visit there.

Obama has come out against the Supreme Court's decision that the execution of somebody who rapes a child is cruel and unusual punishment (in violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution).

MSNBC reports in McCain, Obama disagree with child rape ruling:

"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes," Obama said at a news conference. "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution."

For my part, I think that the best position to adopt is to be in opposition to all capital punishment. I am not firmly committed to this position. It is grounded on evidence that seems to suggest that a country that raises its children with a greater aversion to killing - an aversion strong enough that they disapprove of capital punishment - also raises fewer murderers. The hypothesis here is that the celebration of certain killings that we find in a society with capital punishment teaches at least some children the joy of killing, making it psychologically easier for them to commit murder.

My commitment to this position will depend on the degree to which empirical research confirms or falsifies this hypothesis.

However, my objection to Obama's position is not so much with his conclusion, but with the standards that he has used to reach this conclusion. He believes that the death penalty should be applied to “the most egregious of crimes”.

How do we determine what counts as "the most egregious of crimes"?

There are people who think that blasphemy is the most egregious of crime. Nothing that you can do to another human being is nearly as bad as insulting or denying God – the divine creator.

Some societies hold that apostasy (converting from one’s religion) is the most egregious of crime.

Some people think that teaching heathen beliefs to children, putting their immortal soul in danger, is the most egregious of crime.

If somebody goes to scripture to discover what the most egregious of crimes are – crimes that deserve the death penalty – then working on the Sabbath and eating shellfish are on the list of most egregious of crimes.

I think that we can safely assume that Obama does not share these standards. But, what standard does he apply?

"While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes — mass murder, the rape and murder of a child — so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment," he wrote in his book "The Audacity of Hope."

So, it seems that Obama's standard for determining who should live or die is whether one can muster enough outrage to want somebody killed. If somebody is sufficiently outraged by the sight of somebody else sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance, then the death penalty for sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance becomes justified. The very desire to want somebody killed is justification for killing him.

This is the type of standard that I worry about with respect to the relationship between capital punishment and murder. A society that teaches its children that the desire to want somebody killed justifies killing him is a society that will raise more murderers than one that teaches children that, no matter how great your outrage, you should not kill.

Anyway, perhaps Obama is not advocating that we measure the justification for killing people by our own desire to see them killed. Perhaps Obama is offering, instead, the Obama outrage test. "In order to determine if you are justified in killing somebody you should not look at whether you want that person killed. You should look at whether I want that person killed." The Obama-outrage standard would have the advantage of giving one standard to everybody. It has the disadvantage of having absolutely no reason or justification to back it up.

Yet, maybe the Obama standard is not as personal as we might believe at first. Perhaps rather than the Obama-Outrage Test, what Obama is really using is the Obama-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test. This test differs from the Obama Outrage test in that Obama does not look at his own sense of outrage to determine whether a particular policy is right or wrong. Instead, what he looks at are poll results and other pieces of data that suggest what impact his stated position on an issue will have on his campaign.

He is merely pretending to use some other standard – and is struggling to identify a standard he can pretend to have, a standard other than the Obama's-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test – that would yield the same results. Those standards are unreasonable, but it is not impossible for a fake but unreasonable standard to pass the Obama's-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test.

I am a realist about this last proposed standard. It follows as a matter of logic that elected offices will be filled by those who hold this standard more than any other. The candidate that allow public opinion to determine his position has a significant advantage over the candidate that bases his position on principle. So, we have no choice but to elect a candidate whose standard for morality is, "That which gets me elected is good; that which thwarts my election is bad."

Yet, I would love to hear a candidate declare what I would declare in this type of circumstance. "I believe that capital punishment is a mistake. I believe that it gets innocent people killed, and we can save innocent lives by raising our children to think that all killing is wrong. However, in running for public office, I am not running so that I can represent only myself. I represent you. Too many politicians run for office expecting that, after being elected, they have a constiuentcy of on - themself. Poll tell me that you support execution in this case. As your representative, I will carry out your wishes. Though, in this case, I think you are making a mistake, and innocent people will suffer as a result."

The MSNBC Article also mentions briefly how Michael Dukakis was defeated in part because of his stand on capital punishment. Dukakis was against capital punishment.

Dukakis was asked during a nationally televised debate with Republican George H. W. Bush whether he'd still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. His unemotional, dispassionate answer was ridiculed, and gave Republicans more material to paint him as an emotionless liberal.

With the advantage of hind sight, I could suggest a better answer to this question.

"If the institution and culture that are required to execute my wife's killer was one in which your wife would more likely to be killed as well, then I would forego the execution of my wife's killer for your wife’s sake. And for yours."


Anonymous said...

Hi Gang,
May I recommend a substitute for execution? I have had salmonella poisoning twice in my life. It is truly horrible.
If we "injected" salmonella once a month, it would take the inmate about two weeks to overcome it, and then two weeks to look forward to another injection. Of course, over their objections, we would keep them alive.

G-man said...

Yeah, torture... great suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Let's enter the realm of fantasy here...

Alonzo, have you ever heard of the manga and anime series Death Note?

A "Death Note" is a magic notebook. If you write someone's name in a Death Note while picturing their face, they will die. (You can also specify the time and cause of death, but the time can't be more than 23 days after the name is written.)

So, if you had a Death Note, what would you do with it? It's a weapon, much like any other, except that it's essentially untraceable, guaranteed to be effective, and kills without inflicting collateral damage. So, if it's okay for you to shoot someone, it's okay for you to write that person's name in the Death Note.

If you see, on the news, that "John L. Badguy" has taken a school hostage and is killing children, writing "John L. Badguy" in the Death Note is probably a good thing to do.

If I had a Death Note, I'd seriously consider going through the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list and writing down their names, in the hope of stopping them from killing more people...

What would you do with one?

Anonymous said...

Doug - I'm not Alonzo, but I view this as an arguement from fictional evidence. Which is a problem many such analogies have. In the case you are proposing, there is no other way to stop these criminals/terrorists/whoever in a quick and sure manner. Perhaps someday they could be stopped, but it's more than possible that they'd escape capture for long enough to do quite a bit of real harm.

The death penalty, on the other hand, is only applicable to people who are already in police custody and probably will never see the outside of a prison for the rest of their lives. There is no way for them to do any more harm.

The two situations are not nearly equivilent.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I know I'm getting off-topic.

In a previous comment, Alonzo wrote that, given the chance, he would not go back in time and kill Hitler, because Hitler was not the problem; the problem was a doctrine that said it was okay to kill people in order to improve the world.

I think he's wrong. To a great extent, Hitler really was the problem. Many of the horrors of Nazi Germany were a direct result of Hitler's personal beliefs. There may very well have been some other German dictator if Hitler had been among the people who died fighting World War I, and that other dictator may very well have started World War II. However, if not for Hitler's very personal obsessions, there probably would have been no Holocaust.

Some people really do have to be killed because they are a danger to others, there is no practical way to incapacitate them, and there is a practical way to kill them.

Furthermore, does "The only acceptable response to words and private actions are words and private actions" also apply to the words "I've hidden a bomb in Kennedy Airport" and the words "I'm going to kill the President tomorrow?"