Social justice
Do Death Penalty Supporters Have the Moral Courage of their Convictions?
Posts  1 - 1  of  1
So here’s a far-out and heady hypothetical proposition, a provocative and introspective thought experiment to test the depth of belief that death penalty supporters have in the moral math of “a life for a life”. A slightly grim gedankenexperiment to make them question whether or not they have the moral courage of their professed conviction that anyone who needlessly causes the death of an innocent person forfeits his/her own right to go on living.

Imagine that a lunatic-fringe faction of seriously strict-constructionist believers in Deuteronomy 19:21 (בנפש נפש “life for life”) has come to power. They are consistent-to-a-fault absolutists who rigidly adhere to a verbatim reading of this verse in Deuteronomy so we’ll call them VDs for short. The VDs devise a disconcertingly clever way of applying their literal understanding of the “life for life” principle so as to make the implementation of the death penalty more just.

Here, in a nutshell, is the ethical dilemma of the VDs and anyone who’s pro capital punishment. One of the inherent moral defects of the death penalty is of course that it’s an irreversible punishment imposed by fallible human beings, a permanent payback dealt out by systems of jurisprudence, judges, and juries who are very much subject to human error. In other words, it’s a foregone conclusion that wrongly convicted individuals will now and then be executed, the innocent will occasionally be unjustly deprived of their lives. And when this happens and we belatedly discover that we’ve visited society’s irrevocable retribution on a not-guilty victim of a miscarriage of justice there’s really nothing we can do to make it right. We can’t release someone who’s been given a lethal injection from his grave. There’s no way to compensate the dead. Even if we catch and kill the guilty party the blood stain of an innocent still remains indelible on our society’s moral fiber.

And furthermore we have no real excuse, because we all know full well going in that when we place capital punishment on the books we’re courting the risk that we might one day, as a society, put to death someone who’s done nothing to deserve it. So how do death penalty advocates atone for the sin of killing the innocent? Of course most don’t think they need to atone, they simply rationalize that the real perpetrator of the crime that a falsely convicted defendant was snuffed by the system for is the one who’s responsible for the system’s tragic transgression against the sanctity of innocent life. That is, death penalty advocates pull a somewhat slippery move and pin all the blame on the “bad guy” without flinching in their self-righteous good feeling about their staunch support of a punishment that sometimes ends the lives of decent human beings.

But it’s society, and more specifically all the members of society who favor the death penalty who really bear responsibility for the unfortunate consequences of the punishment they’ve chosen to espouse and embrace. Criminals and murderers don’t actually compel us to endorse the gallows, the chair, or nowadays the needle, if we do so it’s our own choice. And so the question once again puts itself, when our choice costs an innocent life how do we redeem ourselves? The rub here is that the resolution is patently obvious for true believers in the logic of a life for a life. If they have the cojones to be consistent, that is.

Well, in our imaginary scenario the VDs who’ve won the Whitehouse and a majority in every legislature in the country have the mettle to practice the retributive principle they preach, and so they propose the following. The implementation of the death penalty is to be suspended for the time being, and the only way that it can be reinstated is if there’s a national referendum and the majority of the electorate votes for it. But there’s a considerably disturbing catch, this will be the only election in US history in which the practice of the secret ballot is waived, the name of everyone who votes in favor of capital punishment will go into a computer database.

This is to facilitate the lottery that will be held whenever it’s proven beyond a reasonable doubt that an innocent, law-abiding citizen has been executed. The lottery that will give capital punishment supporters the remission of their sin of casting a vote that ultimately caused the death of an unfairly condemned person.

Everyone who votes for capital punishment will be assuming the risk of killing an innocent, and so everyone who votes yea on capital punishment will also assume the risk of his name one day coming up in a lottery to choose a scapegoat, one individual who will shoulder the collective culpability of everyone whose vote made it possible for the system to legally rob an honest man or woman of his/her precious life on this earth. The unlucky winner of this atonement lottery will balance the equation by being put to death in the same manner as the innocent victim of his vote. The principle of a life for a life will be taken to its logical conclusion. The sacrifice of one capital punishment supporter for one wrongly executed prisoner will once again level the scales of justice and provide absolution to all death penalty proponents.

For capital punishment advocates the nub of the question here is of course how much, really, do you believe in your righteous rationale and rhetoric of “a life for a life”? Would you be willing to put your own life where your revengeful stance is? This is the crucial question since death penalty boosters really only have two planks in their platform, the deterrence argument and the argument that a life for a life is poetically just. And the deterrence argument is refuted by plenty of statistical evidence, which leaves them with only the “justice” plank to stand on. So, if you’re pro capital punishment this little thought experiment is designed to make you ask yourself just how deep and sincere is your conviction that a life for a life is justice, and how much is it perhaps just a convenient moralistic justification for your punitive and pitiless desire to see a cruel comeuppance meted out to criminals?

If as soon as you realized where I was going with the above thought experiment your mind automatically began rationalizing and sophistically squirming its way out of the ethical bind I was attempting to put it in, well, perhaps you should examine how honestly committed you are to the core ethical logic of your advocacy of capital punishment. Perhaps all your Old-Testament ethical logic and lofty talk of justice is just a lot of sanctimonious smoke, perhaps hiding out behind it is just an ethically unenlightened hardness, harshness, vindictiveness, and viciousness?

Yep, maybe being a “civilized” citizen of an “advanced” society and a good, pro-life Christian, Jew, or Confucianist is not all that compatible with being a death penalty enthusiast? And while I’m getting a little personal and polemical, if you would not be willing to vote for capital punishment if doing so involved being held to your own lethal logic then perhaps you’re a bit of a hypocrite aren’t you? Furthermore, if you would be willing to vote for capital punishment only if doing so entails no risk for yourself then perhaps you’re also a bit of a physical coward to boot? A cowardly hypocrite, not exactly the self-image of the average stalwart supporter of the death penalty, but the only alternative would be to come clean and admit that the real reason you don’t have any qualms about executing prisoners is that you simply don’t hold the lives of people behind bars too dear. But if you make that admission then you don’t sound all that beautifully pro-life any more.

What’s a death penalty advocate to do? Well, he could summon the intellectual honesty and integrity to reexamine where his position on the issue really comes from! There’s that stand-up option, or capital punishment supporters can simply get testy when confronted with the ethical shakiness of their views and go on the offensive against their critics. To their discredit the latter is the option opted for most of the time by most pro-death penalty folks. Their anger at those of us who are on the other side of the issue is a response that reveals their subconscious awareness of the weakness of their position. People who are confident and secure about being right just don’t get riled up as easily as capital punishment proponents often do. Their emotiveness betrays their sense that their stance isn’t all that morally elevated.

As for the popular perception of death penalty supporters as the champions of victims, if they aren’t all that terribly concerned about the unfairness of frying the innocent every once in a while then one has to wonder how much they genuinely care about the whole principle of justice they claim to uphold. Perhaps it’s not overly cynical to suspect their pro-victims shtick of being mostly just window dressing on the shadow side of human nature that makes even nice, upstanding people want to hurt and dominate and kill. Pardon me for my pointedness here, but yes, maybe for many of us having the penal system kill “bad people” on our behalf is just a socially acceptable way of vicariously getting our cruel side off.

When enough of us come to terms with this psychological insight, when we face up to this unflattering truth about ourselves capital punishment should promptly fade into history. When we begin to see and cut through our lame rationalizations for allowing the criminal justice system to engage in legalized homicide our qualities of decency, honorableness, and fair-mindedness will not allow us to continue the practice.

But before the progressive and humane upside of human character can win through we have to recognize that there’s a pronounced power-tripping streak in our makeup that enjoys exercising the ultimate power over life and death. The problem of course is that we brighten up this dark drive with high-principled BS, legality, and by judgmentally targeting villains and portraying ourselves as caring advocates of justice for the victims of violent crime. That’s why I devised the gut-check thought experiment presented here, to bring home to pro capital punishment partisans that there’s really very little about their belief in “a life for a life” that’s authentically rational and ethical.

Ah, but isn’t the premise of my thought experiment a tad too harsh and farfetched? Well, in the movies individuals who carry out vigilante-style lynchings often end up paying with their lives, screen writers seem to be responding to our sense of justice by killing off these hands- on capital punishment activists who string up the wrong suspect. We do seem to think that the “life for life” principle should boomerang on those who execute the innocent, at least when they do it without the trappings of legal due process. Should those members of society who demand the death penalty be off the hook when the system, carrying out their will, legally extinguishes the life of someone who’s done nothing to merit such penal retribution? Shouldn’t their own quid pro quo logic come back to bite them in the behind?

Moving on, the cold as the grave, hard as a rigor-mortised corpse fact that not everyone on death row actually did the deed they were sent there for and that there’s really nothing you can do to make it up to them once their unrighteous sentence has been carried out is of course not the only reason why capital punishment is distressingly unjust. The system seems to be decidedly biased in favor of executing people of low income and color. A poor or ethnic defendant is far more likely to get convicted in a capital case. Unless you think that blacks and Hispanics are genetically or culturally prone to perpetrate the sort of crimes that get you condemned to death in this country you have to admit that capital punishment raises a class and racial justice issue. Which side of that issue you come down on will probably depend on your degree of empathy for our society’s victims of economic and ethnic inequality.

Alas though, it’s sad commentary that a great many people today are so fed up with crime and the criminal element that they’re simply are not terribly concerned about questions of justice and concepts such as “a life for a life”. There are those who would actually like to expand the list of crimes for which (mostly ethnic) convicted criminals are subject to the death penalty. Everything from drug dealing to sex crimes to embezzlement would be treated as punishable-by-execution capital offenses if some staunch law & order folks had their druthers.

This is quite disturbing indeed. Pushing the application of the death penalty outside the envelope of the “life for life” rationale that currently keeps our impulse to seek lethal legal retribution in check would put us, as a society, on a slippery slope back to the mentality that in the Old West saw hanging as the due and proper punishment for such violations of the law as horse stealing!

Cowboys had no problem rationalizing that it was perfectly fitting to kill a lowdown horse thief because horse jacking in those days was considered an especially despicable crime that cruelly deprived the victim of an item that was critical for his livelihood and well-being. The reasoning that justified the lynching of horse thieves was valid, you can always find valid reasons to kill criminals!

The “good people” and legal authorities of the past also had their valid reasons for wasting cattle rustlers and cutting off the hands or heads of offenders found guilty of petty theft. If we allow our contempt for and outrage against sex criminals, for example, to place us on the slippery slope of bloodthirsty punishments and legalized vengefulness do we gradually slide all the way back to routinely rubbing out people for non-capital crimes, for crimes that aren’t even felonies?

This would actually regress us back, ethically speaking, to a primitive time before the whole “eye for an eye, life for life” understanding of justice. Once upon a time in mankind’s barbaric past people were chastised for their crimes with penalties whose viciousness was completely out of proportion with the severity of the transgression being punished. If you caused someone to lose one of his eyes in a fight you might be blinded, or if you lived in Athens when the Draconian code was the law of the land death would be the punishment for your crime regardless of its nature.

“An eye for an eye” was actually intended to moderate punishments and restrict the use of the death penalty, it meant that if you cost someone one of his eyes you would only have to forfeit one of your own, not both. And if you stole your neighbor’s sheep you would pay a price but not with your life. The Biblical emphasis on proportionality and restitution replaced the knee-jerk death sentence of the ancient Assyrians and others.

Yes, “an eye for an eye” was an ethical step up from the unfair cruelty of ancient law codes. The commonly heard, lethally no-nonsense attitude that all “predators” should be given the needle would throw us back to a very dark pre-“eye for an eye” place in the evolution of our thinking about crime and punishment, we would go back down to the level that humanity was at before it took this progressive step up in its journey of social enlightenment.

That so many citizens of modern societies talk as though they’re perfectly ready and willing to return to practically stone-age punishments, to severing the hands of shoplifters and executing their fellow man and woman (or minors) for a laundry list of legal infractions, really is a sign of the social dysfunctionality and moral crisis of 21st century civilization. A healthy society that effectively socializes the majority of its members and that doesn’t subject them to desperate and dehumanizing economic conditions does not have the kind of crime problem that envenoms the hearts of good people and makes them dream of lifting the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment”.

People become harsh in their attitudes about crime when they find themselves living in fear, and they find themselves living in fear of their neighbor when things are profoundly socially, morally, and spiritually out of kilter in their society. Does this sound like any society you’re familiar with? Here’s a less rhetorical question you might want to ponder, what’s happened? How has society become so badly broken? And how do we make society a safe and sane place to live in? Is passing a boatload of zero tolerance laws that turn every judge into a literal hanging judge and upgrading the electric chair to electric bleachers the most effective and brilliant countermeasure against crime we can come up with?

Well, everyone is an armchair social critic with a pet theory about what’s caused our civilization to take a downhill path to acute anomie, alienation, and aberrancy, everyone has his own opinionated diagnosis and cure for the social pathologies plaguing us today. And there’s some truth to all their theories, there’s no single factor that sweepingly explains all of our screwed-up society’s screwiness.

But that being said, the simple reality is that the picture-perfect affluent and outwardly successful family living in a big house in a high-end neighborhood whose maid lives in a slum and sometimes succumbs to the temptation to pilfer, whose teenagers drink booze and have unprotected sex because no one has bothered to teach them how to live skillfully and find fulfillment in a healthy way, and whose mom and dad are completely and one-dimensionally preoccupied with their high-powered careers and making a six figure income, such a golden family that’s well-to-do on the surface but dying a slow death from spiritual hunger on the inside is a microcosm of what’s so poignantly wrong with society. It’s a scaled-down example of what happens when people try to live without graciousness, wisdom, life skills, a sense of meaning, and deeper values than making money. If you’re looking for answers you need look no further.

As a society we’ve chosen to be the materially prosperous but morally miserable family I’ve just described on a massive scale. And as a society we take the same un-proactive approach to dealing with our issues that dysfunctional families are known for. Like a clueless modern nuclear family that waits until one of its members develops a substance abuse problem and then ships him/her off to rehab, society waits until its members get busted on drug charges and then sentences them to treatment or jail. And like a latchkey household in which kids are raised in a haphazard fashion with the predictable result that some of them will end up inmates of juvenile hall, society permits socio-economic conditions that turn neighborhoods into breeding grounds of gang bangers and criminal activity and then after the fact uses the police and penal system to try reign crime in.

And when crime seems to be spinning out of the system’s control and the evening news bombards the public with sensational stories of unspeakably heinous acts we the people cry for sterner punishments and more executions to bring back order. Voters demand that society’s leaders ramp up their band-aid MO of locking up thugs and crooks after they’ve become thugs and crooks. We want the instant gratification of seeing a killer put to death or a molester castrated.

More long-term thinking about solving the underlying problems that produce our high crime statistics is pooh-poohed as ivory-tower daydreaming. And it certainly doesn’t win votes and elections if you’re a politician, consequently legislators aren’t very inclined to adopt a genuinely thoughtful and penetrating perspective on crime. They’re much more inclined to pander to people’s angry desire to see the death penalty enforced with greater frequency and a shorter appeals process to protect the innocent.

The more society and its criminal justice system caters to the “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” attitude that Joe Sixpack spouts after he’s swilled down a few brews the greater the probability of executing people who will be posthumously exonerated. And when this inevitably happens will we contritely shut down the death penalty for good, or instead transfer our feelings of guilt to all the outlaws, felons, and evildoers we love to hate? Will our outrage about the execution of an innocent person ironically lead to a proliferation of executions?

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of society getting locked into this vicious cycle and blood feud with the criminal element is not the occasional execution of a guiltless individual but rather the lessening effect it has on our humanity. The way it pushes down our qualities of forgiveness, compassion, and benevolence. The way it brings us down to the crude level of street gang culture where every transgression is punished with a beating or “green light”. When society permits the physical abuse of human beings behind bars and allows courts of law to decide that some offenders are “life unworthy of life” (to use a Nazi legalism) it’s poisoning its own soul.

If we want our civilization to grow in all those lovely moral traits that we profess to value, if we don’t wish to hand the “bad guys” a victory to gloat over by lowering ourselves to their primitive plane of behavior and ethics, if we care as much about the quality of our character as we care about our physical safety and protecting ourselves from predators then we’re going in the wrong direction by supporting and sanctioning capital punishment.

If you’re a concerned citizen who wants to do something real to make a constructive and life-affirming difference in society get up out of your armchair, stop grousing about how much tax money it costs to keep killers alive in prison, and start helping your dysfunctional society function better. Get involved in a mentoring program for at-risk youth so they don’t go from being poverty statistics to prison statistics. Or donate some of your time and money to a battered woman’s shelter so abused families can get away from domestic violence that will eventually spill out onto the streets. Etc. At the very least cast your ballot for progressive candidates, not punitive politicians whose only ideas about how to reduce crime would have fit right in in the Middle Ages.

If we sincerely desire to live in a society whose members have a sensitive appreciation of the sanctity of all life then we must lead and teach by example and begin looking for other ways to come to grips with the problem of crime than subjecting lawbreakers to degrading prison environments and death.

If you would like to explore this and related topics in greater depth please visit my new website, The Total Revolution Just click on or copy & paste the address below. Thanks.