Capital Punishment

milesian's picture
Submitted by milesian on Fri, 2005-12-02 12:24

As the old SOLO was closing, there was a long exchange on "Crime and Punishment." I paid special attention to the posts by two law students. Last night, in a college class that I am taking in Law Enforcement Ethics, we examined capital punishment. I found that much of the vocabulary of that SOLO forum topic was right out of the textbook. "Retribution" and "deterrence" are to law as "empirical" and "rational" are to epistemology. (Retribution includes recompensation. Deterrence includes incapacitation and rehabilitation.) These debates are ages old.

Last night, also, we watched an A&E Investigation video called "The Executioners." It sealed my evaluation against capital punishment.

Objectivists know that Ayn Rand's judgment was that the death penalty is moral, but perhaps not practical. She said that it was a proper subject for jurists at some later time. The dilemma is this:
(1) It is morally proper that someone who wrongfully takes a life should forfeit their own.
but
(2) The chance that an innocent person might be executed causes us to err on the side of caution.

Last night, after the video, the in-class assignment was to explain why capital punishment is consistent or inconsistent with your personal ethical system. (We are close to the end of the term here.) Stopping to think, I realized that according to Objectivism, there can be no dichotomy between the moral and the practical.

1. If the death penalty could lead to an unremediable injustice, then it is wrong.
2. No form of execution actually used is humane.
3. The violence against the accused is bad enough -- even if it could be excused; it cannot be justified -- but the real violence is against the executioners. Wardens quit their jobs after these killings. The prison staff, the news media, other witnesses, families of the accused and of the victims, all suffer from this.

Regarding Point 1:

A. We talk of execution as being appropriate in response to murder. However, as you know, the death penalty was applied to heresy and treason. (Counterfeiting was considered treason.) The death penalty was the hstoric punishment for most felonies. The idea of a "penitentiary" -- a place where penitents repent and are saved -- is a 19th century invention.

B. That fact points to the consequences of capitalism. Just as capitalism outlawed slavery, it ended capital punishment. Michigan gave it up in 1847. Most of the civilized nations of the world abandoned it through the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the USA follows China, Iran, and Nigeria, and about 50 less distinguished states, in executing people for capital crimes.

C(1). Capital punishment is unevenly applied. It always has been. However, in our world today, in the USA right now, whether or not you are executed for murder correlates most highly with the race of your victim and then with your race. If the victim is white and the accused is not, the death penalty follows easily. You can say that this is wrong -- and it is -- and that in an ideal Objectivist utopia this would not be the case because people would be rational rather than racist. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it is not.

C(2). How do you define "race"? I refer to the fact that even Objectivists -- and we have seen this on SOLO -- fall into collectivist thinking. Anyone who is different can be the victim of collectivist thinking by a jury. Objectivists are atheists. Many SOLOists are gay. Can you assure yourself that no jury would judge you on the basis of your ideas or your lifestyle, even if they ignore the color of your skin?

C(3) New DNA evidence has liberated people awaiting execution. It has also exonerated some already executed. Those people all got fair trials.

D. The criminal justice system is a conveyor belt in which the accused is encouraged to confess to something they did not do, in order to minimize the risk of being found guilty of something they did not do. Turning state's witness is an old custom -- Sir Isaac Newton used the option when he prosecuted counterfeiters -- and there are cases where two murderers, equally culpable will get widely different sentences (death versus 15 years), depending on who talks first.

It is a principle of Objectivist metaphysics that contradictions do not exist. If an idea is workable, then it is moral. A scientific fallacy (the atomic weight of gold is 12) cannot be supported by any argument or evidence because it leads to bad consequences in every direction. So, too, with capital punishment. It has not just a few technical difficulties, but a fundamental flaw.


( categories: )

"It's a high pay just for

Robert's picture

"It's a high pay just for simple foolishness. :-/"  

 

Bit like serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. (I've just watched Les Mis again.)

 

I concede that my judgement was clouded by my frustration with the media's case and my distain for drugs (yes it's a victimless crime, but that doens't mean I have to respect someone that fries their own brain in search of a buzz.)

 

My problem with the problem is that those who want to change Singapore's laws from without had better remember that the people of that region are heartily sick - after many years of colonial rule - of being told what to do by the British and their commonwealth. And it would be hard to convince the Singaporeans that drug-taking is a victimless crime when our own countrymen don't even get it.  Instead of waggling fingers at the Singaporeans, I wish the pundits would (as you did) appeal to the Singaporean's common sense using legal & moral lessons from Britain's & Australia's history. 

 

It seems to me that the only time that the self-proclaimed defenders of human rights in the western media actually kick up a real stink is when some citizen of a 1st world country is caught in the same legal net that Malaysians, Indonesians and Singaporeans dodge every day. Thus giving the impression to me and probably to Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians that the West and her mouth pieces consider execution to be OK so long as only Asians face the noose and not Australians etc.

 

By arguing the point that capital punishment can not be retracted or set right (and doing so everytime Singapore does this), nothing is conceded anything about the rights or wrongs of a Van Nguyen's activities.

Bidinotto on Capital Punishment

Jeff Perren's picture

For those debating this issue, I have just completed reading Bidinotto's essay:

Crime and Moral Retribution

http://www.econot.com/page15.html

Though there are parts that one could reasonably disagree with, and many questions raised (some, perhaps, answered in the full length treatment of his book), I second Michael Moeller's recommendation of this essay. It discusses at length many of the topics raised here and addrsesses many of the questions raised about retribution vs. restitution vs ....

And for those who might be influenced by Mr. Reed's expressed opinion that Mr. Bidinotto's views are not worth hearing, or presents views inconsistent with Objectivism, because of his alleged consorting with conservatives.... well, all I can say is: read it for yourself and see to what degree or in what ways he does or does not agree with conservatives' views.

True

Peter Cresswell's picture

Robert, you said, "Van Nguyen and his supporters have to acknowledge that his actions were tantamount to standing on a motorway and playing chicken with on-coming cars. He was the dumb-arse who, of his own free will, went onto someone else's turf and smuggled drugs - knowing full well that if he was caught he risked execution. The reason I'm more than a little miffed about this instance is that there are victims of capital-punishment far more deserving of pity than this bozo."

And all that is true. Van Nguyen's unfortunate death however is what has made this issue much-discussed, at least in this hemisphere, and was the proximate cause for my piece. Silly he was, but dead he now is. It's a high price to pay just for simple foolishness. :-/

True, but...

Robert's picture

"My conclusion then is that capital punishment for murder is wrong. And capital punishment for drug smuggling is immoral. Those perpetrating that barbarity themselves deserve to die."

 

 

 

 

 

 

I agree, except that in Van Nguyen's case I find it hard to be sympathetic. Van Nguyen and his supporters have to acknowledge that his actions were tantamount to standing on a motorway and playing chicken with on-coming cars. He was the dumb-arse who, of his own free will, went onto someone else's turf and smuggled drugs - knowing full well that if he was caught he risked execution.

 

 

 

 

 

The reason I'm more than a little miffed about this instance is that there are victims of capital-punishment far more deserving of pity than this bozo.

 

 

If you want to argue about the injustice of capital punishment, how about using examples that would penetrate even the skulls of even the hardest-hearted anti-drugs, pro-death penalty advocate. Let's actually get the damn thing abolished by pinning our opponents to the intellectual floor for a change, rather than letting them wiggle free by distracting us into arguments about victimless crimes and drug legalisation in other countries!

 

 

 

If you want ammunition, how about this case from Britain.

"John Reginald Halliday Christie was a 54 year old mass murderer and sexual psychopath who murdered at least 6 women. He also gave evidence at the trial of Timothy Evans, who was executed (later posthumously pardoned) for crimes almost certainly committed by Christie..."

For the full story see http://www.stephen-stratford.co.uk/evans_christie.htm

FWIW...

Peter Cresswell's picture

FWIW, I just blogged on this very subject:

[Cartoon by Nick Kim, courtesy of 'The Free Radical.']

The execution yesterday of twenty-five year-old Australian drug smuggler Van Nguyen by the Singaporean state has re-opened the debate on capital punishment. At the same time we have the news that an innocent young Texas man was executed in 1993 on the basis of a verdict "that seems to have been built on omissions and lies."

I won't talk about the young Van Nguyen's 'crime' -- I've talked anough here about the 'War on Drugs' -- but my own view on capital punishment, since you asked, is that some crimes certainly do deserve the death penalty.

As Robert Heinlein observed, "Waking a person unnecessarily does not merit capital punishment--for the first offense." Playing ABBA or Westlife at loud volumes also qualifies. Most importantly, murderers morally deserve to die. There is no question but that if you coldly and calculatingly and with pre-meditation snuff out someone else's life and their future, then there's no reason anyone should recognise your right to life -- your right to life is negated by your refusal to recognise that right in others. No question at all. Mercy to the guilty is injustice to the innocent.

The chief problem I have with the death penalty is not a moral one, it's an 'epistemological' one, and a judicial one. My epistemological objection is that error is possible: the method of judicial inquiry is good but not foolproof (even eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable), and as it's hard to pardon an innocent person after their neck has been snapped or their head cut off, I would prefer to keep 99 evil bastards alive just to ensure that 1 innocent good guy doesn't get topped by mistake. The judicial rider to this is that law and punishment need to be consistent: punishment should fit the crime -- that means that even in cases where guilt is overwhelmingly certain, the punishment should be consistent with the punishment meted out to those whose guilt has been decided on the basis of a lesser certainty.

My conclusion then is that capital punishment for murder is wrong. And capital punishment for drug smuggling is immoral. Those perpetrating that barbarity themselves deserve to die.

[UPDATE: I'm reminded that I participated in a good discussion of capital punishment at SOLO. Here's a link.]

Linked Articles: State Killing an affront to humanity and justice
Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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