The crackle of a firing squad. A metallic thunk from the guillotine. Ropes tightening under the body weight of a hung prisoner. Long morbid lists could be made detailing the human history of capital punishment.
Our modern world has greatly sanitized this with the introduction of lethal injection. No screams, no heads rolling and no blood. Prisoners are heavily sedated but instead of undergoing a helpful surgery, they are administered sodium thiopental (a potent anesthetic that knocks them out), pancuronium bromide (to paralyze them and prevent unsightly convulsions) and finally potassium chloride to stop their heart.
As sterile as this new form of execution is, it still results in the finality of death. And more and more modern nations are banning capital punishment, stating that it is too brutish for sophisticated and advanced societies. A good starting point would be to examine the morality of the death penalty itself.
Never Shall We Kill
Only about 58 of the world’s sovereign countries still practice capital punishment. Interestingly, many of the Western nations that have abolished the death penalty have the most lax abortion laws. As a result the death toll within their borders is actually much higher than what capital punishment could ever achieve. And the victims of abortion are the most innocent members of society as opposed to the most guilty.
Essentially, the argument in favor of capital punishment begins by tackling the notion of guilt and punishment. Many secular thinkers claim that humans are not free will agents but simply biological robots. In such a world, the notion of guilt is meaningless. Therefore, the justice system is not really about justice, but about rehabilitation. If we can make a sick man well in our hospitals, why not cure a man who is suffering from “criminality.” This is where the secular world view deals a “death blow” to the notion of punishment for the sake of punishment. Many non-religious people feel this is a more humanitarian system. Yet I would argue it is more brutish than a retributive (i.e.: punishment based) system ever could be.
In a secular humanist’s mind, the only thing that needs to be considered is A. Will a certain procedure cure the patient of their criminal inclination? And/or B. Will the punishment deter others from committed the same crime? What is never discussed under the secular humane view of criminal punishment is C. Is the punishment just?
“So what?” the secularist might reply, “what could be inhumane about a system that simply rehabilitates and deters? Are you such a savage that you want a “pound of flesh” because of your primitive blood thirstiness?”
No, actually, it is quite the opposite. We want to avoid barbarism. Therefore we are obsessed with justice.
Case in point, if you are caught growing your own marijuana plant in the Philippines, you could get the death penalty. Such an extreme measure is meant to deter drug dealing in this country. No one is concerned as to whether or not the punishment is just, but simply with whether or not it will help rid the nation of drugs. In this case, instead of being a human with rights, you are a tool of the State and are considered fully expendable in the State’s quest to purify their borders of narcotics. It no longer matters how lop sided your sentence is, as long as it helps the State achieve a goal of deterrence.
We should also ponder criminal systems that only seek to rehabilitate the prisoner. In our older and many of our current systems, we have juries deliberate over important court cases and help determine sentences. This keeps the court system accountable to the people. This approach helped balance the British judicial system in the 1700 and 1800’s. During this period, sentences for crimes were too stiff and as a result, jurors refused to find defendants guilty in order to save them from unfair punishment. Therefore the British legal code was forced to correct its imbalance. It softened its penal code to allow jurors to find criminals guilty without feeling like they were administering injustice.
But if we move to a purely rehabilitative approach, we would no longer rely on common men and women jurors (i.e.: the people) to balance the system and give constant feedback. Instead we would have to use expert psychologists and criminologists to determine which procedure should be used to “cure” the prisoner of his or her criminality. Much like we do not poll the public to see which medical procedure should be used in hospitals, if we were to treat the criminal like a patient, we would develop a class of “judicial doctors” that would be — by nature — as unaccountable to the public as an oncologist in a cancer ward would be. As a result, these “experts” would be left to “treat” prisoners indefinitely. There would be no moral law code to determine the length of a sentence. No accountability to the general public to keep itself in check. It would forever be a matter of whether or not the patient was cured. And the sole judge of this would be a class of criminologists working for the State. By giving the State this type of power, we would open ourselves up to an ever expanding series of “treatments” that had no basis in justice and would be applied for more and more criminal infractions.
This is how communist regimes began their re-education camps. Once the State has the power to determine when you are or are not rehabilitated, and once it has removed the notion of justice from its criminal system, all it has to do is label something a crime and you will be in its merciless clutches. This should send shudders down anyone’s spine.
The solution to all of this of course, is to return to a system that is primarily focused on justice. How bad was the crime? What is a just sentence? If I caused $10,000 damage to my neighbour’s property, I should not be forced to pay $100,000 in order to help deter the rest of the community from damaging property. Nor should I be forced to keep paying money until a psychologist determines I am no longer likely to be foolish and cause further damage. Likewise, a criminal justice system that has a moral code and determines how much my crime “costs” and keeps my punishment in line with this cost is one which will avoid the horrors of the rehabilitation and deterrence systems.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Perhaps one can accept the justice system of punishment. Yet they will continue to disagree with the severity of certain crimes. This is the thrust of the argument against the death penalty. Nothing, some will say, is deserving of death. Anything would be preferable to lowering ourselves to the level of the murderers we catch and imprison, right? Well, let’s evaluate this perspective and see if there are any real life costs to not administering this most severe of all punishments? Is it possible
When an individual murders another person in cold blood, it is considered the most heinous of all crimes. The only thing worse would be the number of dead bodies and the manner in which they were killed. Obviously the families of the victim are left with the emotional trauma when a loved one is unjustly killed. What should be the price paid for murdering another human being? Some advocates of the death penalty will say that the only closure possible for the victim’s family is to execute the killer. A good case can be made for this yet no family members will ever be the same after losing a loved one in such a horrific manner. As a result we cannot expect long term studies to show that family members of the deceased feel good at any time after a murder, even once the execution has taken place. So it may not be possible to prove that closure occurs simply because the perpetrator has been killed.
Yet we can use other metrics to determine whether or not death is “too much” of a punishment. For example in the case of financial crimes such as major fraud, even if a perpetrator refunds the money in full, they are also typically given a jail sentence as well. Obviously, the bigger the amount, the longer the time spent in prison. We seem to have an inherent sense of justice that begs us to inflict a punishment on a thief up and above the restitution of the stolen goods. So if the punishment is not simply a matter of returning the material property, then we show that we realize there is a required element of punishment when handing out fair sentences. Men who have embezzled or robbed to the tune of a few millions of dollars often get threatened with near life sentences and forced to pay back more than the amount stolen. So, by logical extension, we have to ask how does one pay for the crime of stealing someone’s entire life and severely damaging the lives of their families? Does it seem ridiculous that if we can incarcerate a man for 25 years for stealing large amounts of money we should greatly increase the penalty for snuffing out a life and ruining many others’ lives? Is it so ridiculous to elevate the penalty for the ultimate crime to that of the ultimate price?
And imagine in a purely rehabilitative criminal system if a psychologist convinced the State that he or she had successfully “cured” his murderous patient and sent him or her back out into society? How would the family of the deceased feel? How safe would society feel? And let’s not forget how easy would it be for criminals to fool their psychologists? Obviously, no such system would be deemed fair or fool proof. Especially if the rehabilitation occurred relatively early on in the prisoner’s sentence and greatly commuted prison time for even the most heinous crimes in our society.
Now, in regards to the deterrence effect that capital punishment can have on other potential murderers, Dr. Michael Summers, professor of Management Science at Pepperdine University, wrote in his Nov. 2, 2007 article “Capital Punishment Works” in the Wall Street Journal:
“[O]ur recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year… The study examined the relationship between the number of executions and the number of murders in the U.S. for the 26-year period from 1979 to 2004, using data from publicly available FBI sources… There seems to be an obvious negative correlation in that when executions increase, murders decrease, and when executions decrease, murders increase…
In the early 1980s, the return of the death penalty was associated with a drop in the number of murders. In the mid-to-late 1980s, when the number of executions stabilized at about 20 per year, the number of murders increased. Throughout the 1990s, our society increased the number of executions, and the number of murders plummeted. Since 2001, there has been a decline in executions and an increase in murders.
We know that, for whatever reason, there is a simple but dramatic relationship between the number of executions carried out and a corresponding reduction in the number of murders.”
Also consider that if we forego capital punishment we incur the cost of keeping a prisoner in jail for a full life sentence. And this price tag is significant. The only reason death row inmates sometimes cost more is due to the State having to pay for one or more decades of legal aid and appeals courts. Now we can also consider that in maximum security prisons there is no incentive for those serving life sentences for murder not to commit more killing. Such an environment endangers security guards and other inmates not serving life sentences. And obviously the chance of escape is present. However unlikely it is from high security penitentiaries, it does occur. All of these issues would not exist if an individual guilty of murder was summarily executed.
The notion that capital punishment is inherently immoral does not stand the test of reason. If we do not punish according to a system of equivalent retribution, we have to abandon the moral code model and adopt a purely rehabilitation approach. This can lead to gross miscarriages of justice such as false “cures” and shortened sentences for the most heinous crimes. When we look at the long prison terms handed out for financial crimes and sexual crimes, it no longer seems far fetched to heighten the cost of taking a life — the ultimate crime — to the level of the ultimate price: capital punishment.
In SECTION 2 of this Part 4 of the “Is The Old Testament Moral?” we will look at the specific instances in which Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy ask for the death penalty and we will evaluate their justness.