I’m Against the Death Penalty in General, but…

The death penalty is one of those issues by which people tend to measure your moral character, rather than listen to your arguments. If you favor the death penalty, you’re a terrible person. If you oppose it in all cases — even if you favor the most draconian loss of liberty for the most minor of infractions — you’re a good person. I disagree. I oppose the death penalty in general, not because I’m just such a good person, but because I think that it is a terrible power to entrust to anyone, because it is a penalty for which no compensation can be offered if it was carried out in mistake, and because I’d rather not live in a country where the government feels empowered to kill people.

There are arguments (generally of a consequentialist sort) that could lead me to a different conclusion. For example, if one could show that the death penalty for murder, combined with powerful safeguards against wrongful conviction, would save a sufficient number of innocent lives, well, I think I’d be for it. Buyt I’m not convinced at present. At the same time, some of the arguments often advanced against the death penalty are pretty unconvincing. One argument often offered up by people who come to the same conclusion I reach but in which I put little stock is that “no one ever deserves to be killed.” This case is one in which it is hard to imagine anyone concluding that Abdullah Shah did not deserve to be killed, even if he should not have been. So I’m against the death penalty in general, but I’ll shed no tears for a man who “was found guilty of killing one of his wives by pouring boiling water over her body” and who “earned the nickname Zardad’s Dog for attacks on travellers along the road between Jalalabad and Kabul in the 1990s.”

6 Responses to “I’m Against the Death Penalty in General, but…”

  1. I agree with much of what you say. Another reason to oppose the death penalty is because of the problems in the criminal justice system. In short, if you are wealthy you will not get the death penalty, but if you are poor (and often, a minority), your chances are much higher. In effect, it is possible to “buy” your life, no matter how guilty, whereas horror stories abound of public defenders and opposing counsel doing almost nothing to help clients in a capital case. As long as this continues, imposing the death penalty seems arbitrary and a poor way of achieving any sense of “justice.”

  2. The death penalty is one of my biggest “waffle” areas. On one hand, I am not altogether too attached to it institutionally. If it saves innocent lives (as some econometric studies out of Emory suggest) then I am for saving lives. However, I am concerned at even my own vengeful thoughts on the subject. Many people “feel better” when someone is put to death. For instance, when I read the article you linked to, I felt glad not only that that man was no longer around to harm others, but that he got his “just deserts”. But I am not sure that is really a) an appropriate moral reaction, or b) grounds for the delegation of such final, governmental authority. Additionally, there seem to be cultural ramifications. The Pope has argued elequently his own “double life” position (anti-abortion, anti-death penalty) and his case is persuasive. As a Christian, I know that vengeance is not a good justification for killing (C.S. Lewis wrote on this) and that life is precious (the argument of the Pope). So, I waffle. Honestly, my policy stance is that it is not an issue I would fight for very hard (used in moderation) either way.
    It is certainly a tough topic. Thank you for your thoughful and moderate post.

  3. I think this news story from Afghanistan illustrates one of the strongest cases that can be made for the death penalty in general. Namely, the existence of the death penalty allows a society to express its moral outrage at certain vicious acts, such as the ones this man allegedly committed, in a legal, dispassionate manner. As this other article from BBC demonstrates (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3659043.stm), the consequences of not having a responsive criminal justice system is street justice and general lawlessness. The danger of not having a legal system that exacts what is judged by most people to be proper retribution is that people will simply carry out justice on their own. In America, about three-fourths of all people support the death penalty and I’m sure it is even higher in Afghanistan. I would imagine that if Afghanistan were to take Amnesty International’s advice and abolish the death penalty tomorrow, it would probably see an increase in revenge killings.

  4. OR it could result in a greater cultural willingness to kill in response to crime. The moral argument against the death penalty is that you don’t treat life witht he same disrespect as the criminal. You take the moral high ground. Perhaps the continuance of such executions in Afghanistan only more deeply entrenches a culture of death.

  5. Tom,

    The death penalty is one area of great interest to me. Murder represents the greatest act of injustice that anyone can commit. In my opinion, the death penalty is about serving justice and not about deterrence, it is not about saving future lives. Yes, the fact does remain that having a death penalty allows for the potential of innocent lives being lost. However, I do not favor the use of the death penalty if there is doubt. This country or any country for that matter needs to allow its justice system to use it in cases that are ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ The evidence must be staggering. My sociology professor once told me that we have ‘imperfect solutions for an imperfect world.’ The death penalty is one of those solutions. I consider myself a loving person but in cases of substantiated premeditated murderÃ?¢?Ã?¦justice needs to be served. It is not pretty job..but someone has to do it.

    Take Care,

  6. Hey waz up.. i am studing the death penalty right now in school and i just waz wondering what websites i could find some useful information about it… well im bout to get back to work.. later!