Saturday, April 22, 2006

Death Penalty Laws

South Carolina recently passed a law making multiple-child rapists eligible for the death penalty. Louisiana already has a similar law, but it remains to be seen if the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold it (since it struck down a law allowing dealth penalty for rapists of multiple adults). Articles here, here, and here.

The ever-useful Wikipedia has some information on death penalty for crimes other than murder.


BobDole said...

No one else was going to say it so I guess I have to.

In the words of Penn Juliet, “the death penalty is bull%$8#.” And as much as I hate to sound like a bleeding heart liberal, I have to agree with him for a few very simple reasons.

The first reason being it is never okay to kill another human being. That’s right, I said never. Not as revenge, not as punishment, not in self defense. If death results from an action of defense, in my professional opinion, that is completely justified and forgivable. However, if the intent in your first action of self defense is to deliver a deathblow, that doesn’t seem much better than murder. But we are not talking about self defense; we are talking about the death penalty and I wouldn’t kill someone for any reason and I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I’m not willing to do myself.

Murder. Killing a person out of revenge makes you a murderer. It has been said, “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” The most important thing that separates criminals from everyone else is everyone else doesn’t partake in criminal behavior. By some crazy coincidence, we (the non-murderers, non-rapist, non-thiefs, and non-terrorist) are able to control ourselves when we have impulses to act on our feelings. By killing as an act of vengeance, we take that difference away. There would be nothing (morally) to separate us from the criminals. We might as well be a bunch of animals.

Capital punishment. The actions that are punishable by death are not actions that can be deterred by the threat of punishment. There are three reasons that a person will commit murder; passion, profit, or compulsion. People acting out of passion don’t stop to think about the consequences. Professional killers put plenty of thought and preparation into their work and don’t plan on getting caught, and thus don’t worry about being punished. Finally, people acting out of compulsion are sick and they can’t help themselves, even thought they know its wrong and they know the punishment. I imagine the same would apply to rape and child molesting except it would be more passion and compulsion and not so much for profit. With that said, I don’t really see a point in murdering people as punishment.

More then that, I don’t want to see people punished as much as I want to see them atone. When you kill someone, it’s the end of the story. Just like that. They don’t get to see how much they’ve hurt people. They don’t get to see how they’ve ruined people. They don’t get to understand how wrong their actions were. They don’t get a chance to try to redeem themselves.

This is probably just the sick part of me, but I want to see a punishment fit the crime. I don’t know if psychological abuse is as bad or worse than the death penalty, but I would like to see criminals reprogrammed clockwork orange style. Then on a more civil note, convicts would spend their days on well supervised community service, cleaning up crime scenes, physical labor for victims and victim families, slave labor for Wal-Mart, or something else productive and socially beneficial that amnesty international would not approve.

Becca said...

Thanks, bobdole. I thought it was interesting that MOJ had a post on death penalty today too. Check it out and see what you think. Witty and hard-hitting at the same time.

I'm not sure that I'm willing to say I think the death penalty is wrong as a matter of principle, but the way it is handed out is too often tragically sloppy.

I agree with you that the motive should NEVER be revenge, but I can see a justification for the state administering the death penalty as a societal condemnation/restitution. I am uncomfortable (as some of the justices are in the MOJ post) with letting emotional "mitigating" or "aggravating" factors become the focus of capital punishment, because that implies the motive of revenge--we sentence a guy to death because we hate him, we are angry at him, we think he is not worthy of living.

I think C.S. Lewis was more on track when he suggested that we punish people for crimes because it respects their moral autonomy to hold them accountable. Forgiving and excusing are two different things. Forgiveness acknowleges the wrong as a wrong, but forgoes hatred. Excuse says the person is not morally developed enough to make meaningful decisions.

But all this strays a bit from capital punishment. In short, I'm not ready to condemn it in principle, but feel a little skitish about some of the practical ways it's applied.

Becca said...

I think I meant retribution, not restituion in the third paragraph. Been studying too much Contracts lately, it would seem. Silly me.

The Bard said...

bobdole, I respectfully dissent from almost all your arguements. But before addressing them, I must say that I am very uneasy with how capital punishment is applied today in the US. Our current system suffers from severe procedural and substantive problems. I more than open to arguements that those problems make capital punishment an bad policy choice. Furthermore, just because someone deserves a certain punishment, good arguements might exist in any specific case for not giving it to them.

My biggest problem is a matter of proof of guilt. Are we sure X did it? But to that, I must add that there NO EVIDENCE that any innocent person has been executed in the modern era of the death penalty. People have been exonerated on death row, but that suggests that our system might actually work. Recently DNA tests were done one several executed killers who plead innocence and whose cases were cause celebe for the anti-death penalty crowd. Every test came back showing guilt.

With those (substantial) caveats, I come to your positions, which I cannot square with logic, experience, or Scripture.

You say it is never ok to kill a human being. That is quite a statement. Do you really mean it? What about war (if you oppose Iraq, what about World War II)? Is it wrong to kill a Nazi guard in order to save an escaping Jewish family if you yourself are not in peril? Can you really expect people to live consistent with that belief?

You try to parse self-defense and intending death in self-defense, but I do not buy that distinction. Often there is no other method to self-defense but to kill. No religious tradition of which I am aware condemns killing in true self-defense, and I would be interested in knowing how you support your moral claim that an intent to deliver a deathblow in self-defense makes one no better than a murderer.

As to capital punishment, Becca is right about the difference between revenge and retribution. Furthermore, there is a difference between private action and government/public action. Even the New Testament speaks of rules not bearing the sword in vain. I cannot accept your view that punishment automatically equals revenge. Revenge is undertaken privately because someone feels personally slighted. Retributive punishment is handed out publically after a judical process not because some person is angry, but because the criminal has made a moral choice (at least against the positive law, if not against moral law) and now society giving effect to that choice. Arguing for punishment to fit the crime does not work; you must argue that the fitting punishment for murder is not death. One could argue that the only way to atone for murder is to forfeit one's own life. There is no other crime like murder.

Deterrence. I agree that capital punishment has only a minimal deterrent affect, but that does not matter to me since I do not see the purpose of punishment as deterrence.

I find your alternative ideas for murderers psychologicall appealing, but how are they not revengeful? How are we any more animals for making people's lives unpleasant that for killing them? Is the government a thief for taxing your money? I might feel that way on April 15. Our tax system may be unjust, but government taxation is not the same as theft. Likewise, I am uneasy with capital punishment, but that does not make an execution following trial, conviction, and appeal murder.

Again, I have huge problems with American capital punishment. Doubting the justice of capital punishment in the abstract is not one of them.

bobdole said...

We can sit and argue ethics and morals all day. There are thousands of situational examples that a person could site to make an appealing case for killing other people. I agree with you completely that murder is unlike any other crime and its uniqueness makes it very hard to punish. However, after giving it much thought, I will stand by my previous statement that it is never okay for one human being to deliberately take the life of another. Not in war, not in defense, and not the form of punishment. In any situation that I am presented with the question, "should I kill them?" my answer will always be no, and that’s what makes me different from a murderer. Someone might die as a result of my actions, but it’s not my place to judge and condemn them. Police officers, for example, shoot for the center of mass when it is absolutely necessary. Then they call for an ambulance instead of leaving them there to die or finishing them with a blow to the head. I guess the only point I’m really trying to make is that I see a distinction between intentionally killing a person and taking actions that result in a person’s death. Through all that gibberish, I would like to say that I never think it is okay to say, "I/you/we should kill this person" and I would like the government that I support, the same government that represents me, to feel the same.