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Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy

Arguments For And Against

Arguments in defense and criticism of the death penalty can take any of several forms: secular versus religious, and empirical versus a priori.

Religious arguments. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have often defended the death penalty on the strength of texts in the Bible and the Koran. In 1995, however, the Vatican released a papal encyclical—Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)—arguing that the death penalty was permissible only under very special conditions, and that in modern civil society it was not permissible because none of those conditions prevailed. The encyclical argued that the basic doctrinal paradigm for how God wants murderers to be punished is to be found in the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8–16). Abel was murdered for no good reason by his brother, Cain, and upon discovery God inflicted on him a threefold punishment: he was cursed, he was stigmatized so all would know he was a murderer, and he was banished. He was not killed; indeed, God threatened dire punishment on anyone who would "raise his hand" against Cain. Early in the history of the Biblical peoples as this story is, it is unquestionably vivid and telling. Whether its impact is negated by later passages in the Bible, in which the death penalty for many crimes is endorsed, is a matter of controversy among scholars.

Christians often appeal to "the sanctity of life," or at least the sanctity of human life; but this appeal cuts both ways in the controversy over the death penalty. Its opponents think executions fly in the face of the sanctity of human life; but its friends will cite this religious idea as their most important reason for favoring this punishment. If we are created in "the image of God" (Genesis 9:6), and if this is the source and nature of the sanctity of our lives, then the crime of murder is the gravest and most radical violation of that sanctity imaginable. It requires an adequate response to the offender's crime, and the only adequate response is to put the offender to death.

There is much more in the Bible relevant to the death penalty besides the story of Cain and Abel and the imago dei, and Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been adroit and energetic in interpreting their scriptures to support their preferred view about the death penalty. In secular societies, however, or in nations whose religious history is nonbiblical (apart from western imperialism), other arguments are required to establish public policy and the principles governing the criminal justice system.

Secular arguments. Defenders of the death penalty typically divide between those who rely on consequentialist (crime preventive) considerations, and those who rely on deontic (retributive) considerations. Arguments of the former kind depend on empirical evidence but the latter do not; they rely on moral intuitions and a priori reasoning. In a day when the death penalty was used for a wide variety of crimes and long-term imprisonment had yet to be practiced, it was plausible to stress the death penalty as a necessary means to the end of public safety. The death penalty could be used as a means to that end in either or both of two ways: as a deterrent, striking fear in would-be felons, or as incapacitation, effectively preventing recidivism in any form.

The chief source of support for the claim of superior deterrence was essentially this argument: Persons fear death more than imprisonment; the greater the fear the better the deterrent. That argument involves two empirical claims, raising the question of what (if any) evidence can be enlisted in their support. Little or no empirical evidence had been brought to bear on them until half a century ago. In the early 1950s in the United States, social scientists compared homicide rates in adjacent states (some with, others without the death penalty), homicide rates in all abolition states versus the rates in death penalty states, and homicide rates in a given state before and after abolition. In none of these comparisons was any evidence found of a superior deterrent effect thanks to the death penalty.

The debate was heightened in the mid-1970s, when statistical methods borrowed from econometrics purported to show that each execution during the middle years of this century was correlated with eight or so fewer homicides. Close scrutiny established that the purported special deterrent effect (the claim that each execution caused eight or so fewer homicides) was an artifact of the methodology and not a reliable, reproducible result. By the mid-1980s, social scientists had lost interest in further research of this sort. The most recent review of a half century of deterrence research concluded: "Neither economists nor sociologists, nor persons from any other discipline (law, psychology, engineering, etc.) have produced credible evidence of a significant deterrent effect for capital punishment. And not a single investigation to date has produced any indication that capital punishment deters capital murders—the crime of direct theoretical and policy concern" (Bailey and Peterson, p. 154).

Research on incapacitation, by contrast, has been infrequent and less rigorous. A study of the behavior in prison and (where relevant) after release of more then five hundred offenders on death row who were resentenced in the 1970s as ordered by the Court in Furman showed that a half dozen of these murderers killed again. Many committed other felonies, but hundreds (if the evidence is reliable) were guilty of no further crimes. Since there is no reliable way of predicting which convicted murderers will recidivate, recidivist murder can be prevented only by executing every person convicted of murder. This will strike all but a few as excessively draconian as well as immoral (because it involves "punishing" some prior to their having recidivated, and it involves "punishing" others who will not become guilty of any recidivist crimes at all). Bureau of Justice statistics show that among death row prisoners in the 1990s, perhaps one in eleven had a previous conviction of some form of criminal homicide. Obviously, imprisonment failed to incapacitate these recidivist offenders. But there is no known method by means of which the courts or prison authorities could have identified the nine percent who would become recidivist murderers. Since a mandatory death penalty is unconstitutional, it is not clear what can practically and legally be done to reduce further (and ideally eliminate) this recidivism by convicted murderers.

However, as the Supreme Court's rulings in the 1970s limited the death penalty to the punishment of murder and prohibited mandatory death penalties as well, the role of empirical arguments on behalf of the superior preventive effects of the death penalty has steadily shrunk, in favor of the a priori argument that relies entirely on desert and retribution. Here the essential argument goes as follows: Justice requires lex talionis, that is, that the punishment fit the crime; the punishment that best fits the crime of murder is the death penalty. Or, in a slightly different version: Murderers deserve to die, and justice requires that we inflict deserved punishments.

The classic objection to any argument of this form, in which the proper punishment for a crime is held to lie in making the punishment as close to the crime as possible, is that it cannot be generalized—or can be generalized only with absurd results. There is no punishment of this sort to "fit" a kidnapper who has no children, a bankrupt embezzler, or a traitor, a homeless arsonist, and a host of other serious offenders. As for the crimes of rape and torture, we could rape and torture the convicted offender, but the very idea is (or ought to be) morally repugnant. A retributivist can, of course, abandon lex talionis in favor of a principle of proportionality: the graver the crime the more severe the deserved punishment. This principle has great intuitive appeal; abolitionists who advocate life without the possibility of parole accept this principle. However, it does not require the death penalty. On the assumption that murder is the worst crime, all this principle requires is that murderers receive the severest punishment permissible. In sum, whereas retributivists have a plausible answer to the question, Who deserves to be punished? (Answer: all and only the guilty), they do not have a plausible answer to the next question, What is the deserved punishment? Their most plausible answer—murderers deserve the most severe punishment permissible—does not by itself provide any defense of the death penalty.

Opponents of the death penalty often point to the incompatibility of this practice with respect for the right to life, the value of even the worst lives, and human dignity. None of these normative considerations, however, quite succeeds in providing a rational ground to oppose all executions. Since at least the time of John Locke (1632–1704), defense of the death penalty can be made consistent with our "natural" and "inalienable" right to life on the understanding that the murderer forfeits his right to life. Even apart from forfeiture, it can be argued that the right to life is not absolute; few think it is morally wrong to take the life of an unjust aggressor if there is no other way to prevent an innocent person from being murdered. As for the value of human life, either this is a disguised way of asserting that the death penalty is morally wrong (and thus cannot be a reason for that judgment except by begging the question) or it is an empirical claim about convicted murderers (and thus open to doubt because of the belief that in the case of some murderers, whatever value is to be found by them or by society in their lives is cancelled or outweighed by the value to others of executing them). As for human dignity and the death penalty, proponents of the death penalty will argue that it no more confers immunity from a lawful execution than does the right to life. Perhaps the most that can be said about these three normative considerations is that they put the burden of argument on the defenders of the death penalty.

A better argument against the death penalty starts from a well-known liberal principle of state interference: society, and government as its instrument, ought not to intervene coercively in individual lives except to pursue a goal of paramount social importance and then only by the least invasive, restrictive, destructive means. With this as the major premise (roughly equivalent to the principle familiar in constitutional law of "substantive due process"), the abolitionist can then concede as a minor premise that reducing violent crime is a goal of paramount social importance. The crucial step in the argument is the next one, the twofold empirical claim that long-term imprisonment is (a) a sufficient means to that end; and (b) a less restrictive, coercive means to that end. The evidence for (a) is partly negative (the failure of social science to discover any persuasive evidence of the superiority of the death penalty as a deterrent, and the practical and legal impossibility of killing all convicted murderers to maximize incapacitation), and partly positive (the record of successful social control both in prison and in the general public without recourse to the death penalty in a dozen different American abolition jurisdictions spanning a century and a half ). The evidence for (b) is partly direct (convicted murderers themselves show by the relative rarity both of suicide, or even attempted suicide, on death row and of death prisoners who "volunteer" for death by refusing appeals that they believe that death for them is far more invasive and destructive than even LWOP) and partly indirect (opponents of the death penalty believe that death is more severe than LWOP, and so do its supporters).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCapital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy - The Death Penalty In America, 1793–1982, Current Status, Capital Crimes, Public Opinion, Administration