Death Penalty: 49-51

Brett Knowlton brettk at
Fri Mar 5 15:35:50 PST 1999


Thanks for the excellent post.

>Morally, I have no problem with the death penalty, and
>have written before on this list, that the state seems
>to have power of life and death over its citizens in a
>wide variety of arenas. It makes life and death
>decisions when putting citizens at risk in war, and
>also sometimes delegates decisions. "The mother's
>right to choose" is an example of a delegated
>decision. Automotive safety design is partially
>delegated (manufacturers can do more than they are
>required to do) but also partially mandated (safety
>belts and air bags). The state also exercises life
>and death decisions over non-citizens, in acts of war,
>but also, in deciding who does and does not qualify as
>a "political refugee" (for example). Viewed in this
>way, citizenship means the state has life and death
>power over citizens in a wide variety of contexts and
>makes political decisions as to how to use that power.
>That's just the way it is.

I don't think these examples are appropriate as analogies to the death penalty. When it comes to other issues, such as automobile safety regulations or limits on toxic waste emissions, etc., society tries to strike a balance between the costs and benefits of each option in order to maximize social welfare. For example, if we want fast microprocessors for our computers, the manufacturing process requires the use of highly toxic materials (acids and deadly gases, etc.) which pose serious health risks, both during the manufacturing process itself and after disposal.

I understand that there are other problems in the real world, such as all citizens are not usually afforded an equal voice in reaching such decisions, but that is a separate topic. Assuming for the moment that these decisions are reached in a fair and democratic way, it makes sense for society to find the point at which the social utility is maximized, and this might easily entail the choice to produce lots of Pentiums (or, if you prefer, Alphas or K6's) knowing that this will lead to a certain number of additional accidents and deaths.

Getting back to the death penalty, there doesn't seem to be any derived social benefit, short of the gratification associated with the "eye for an eye" mentality, from the death penalty. Virtually everyone agrees society should be protected from people who pose a danger to others. Imprisonment already satisfies this demand, and the death penalty is simply unnecessary violence, from society's point of view.

Perhaps the perceived need for retribution is enough justification for the death penalty after all. The thirst for revenge is a real and powerful human emotion, and if someone I love were murdered, particularly if they were killed in a gruesome manner, I'm sure I would want to see the murderer suffer. But the whole justice system is based on the idea that vendettas should not be carried out - the state needs to be the arbiter of the nature of any alleged crime and what, if any, action should be taken as a result. So, I don't find this argument compelling.

In fact, I don't like the notion of punishment itself. I don't see incarceration as "just desserts," but simply as an unfortunate but necessary means of removing dangerous people from society. The goal should be to reform criminals as best we can, to help them become capable of reentering society. Everyone wins if this can be achieved, and no further harm is done by leaving incorrigibles in prison.


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