A New Argument against the Death Penalty
I am opposed to capital punishment. That is not to say I don’t think strong arguments can be made in its favour, on the contrary, I think it is a very difficult dilemma to decide, and by no means clear cut.
Personally, I find the idea of an innocent man being executed in error so repugnant, that for most cases, I just don’t think it is worth the risk. There may be some cases where we can be almost completely certain that we have the guilty person, but I still oppose the state’s right to take his life. We are not simply protecting the public by executing him, as we would by destroying a dangerous, rabid dog. By executing, we effectively ‘give up’ on that person. As a humanist, believing that nobody is absolutely evil, I find that hard to do. Even a convicted murderer can contribute something to society, if he can be rehabilitated.
I know what you’re thinking: that’s a big ‘if’. Indeed it is. It is not my intention to argue that all criminals can, at least in theory, be reformed (although that may be the case). I do contend, though, that ideally we should aim to reform all criminals, whether we think success is possible or not, and that it is in our interest to try, whether we succeed or not. We should always aim high, and the best target we can strive for is to regard every criminal as a human being and attempt to make them a better one.
There are four objectives of the prison system: punishment, deterrent of others, protection of the public and correction. Personally, I think it does a very poor job of deterring other would-be criminals, but that is a discussion for another day. Although we can boast some success stories with criminal rehabilitation, I think, at the moment at least, we have a very poor record of reforming offenders as well.
However, it is something that we’ve slowly got better at, and I think we can continue to get better at it. If we have a convicted mass murderer, we may well be almost certain that he will be incarcerated for the rest of his life and that even in prison, we will never be able to rehabilitate him into a better person. Here’s the main point of my argument – by making an honest attempt to reform him rather than just executing him, we may just learn something that will help us in the future when we are trying to reform someone who can still be reached. If we want to get better at reforming criminals, and I think that we can, we need to practice. By providing us with a training model, something akin to the dummy used to teach new first-aiders CPR, a convicted mass murderer may be making a far greater contribution to the future of our species than we can currently measure. The difference here, is that we are all new first aiders, and we’re trying to find out how to really get it right for the first time.
I realise that there are problems with this hypothesis. I know that it would take a great deal of tax payers’ money to fund. I also acknowledge that it is very difficult to really know for sure that a criminal has been reformed until they are actually released back into society, at which point it may be too late to do anything if we are wrong. For example, many experts believed that Myra Hindley had completely reformed prior to her death in prison, but others hotly disputed this, claiming that her devious skills of deception which had aided her despicable crimes had been exercised once again. I also recognise that if, for example, we were to capture Osama bin Laden, there would be great opposition to any decision not to execute him.
But just imagine what we could learn from analysing a man like that for the rest of his natural life. It is often said that reforming a criminal doesn’t bring back the people they have killed, or reverse whatever crimes he has committed. Well, neither does executing him, and nor does incarcerating him, for that matter. That is not the purpose of the justice system. My point is, that nothing we can do will bring back the people who died in the 9/11 attacks, but maybe we could learn something that would save many lives in the future.
Richard Dawkins offered a maxim in The God Delusion (p264), “Value the future on a timescale longer than your own”. I regard this to be among the most profound things Dawkins has ever said – and it’s up against some pretty stiff competition! Imagine that two hundred, or three hundred, or six hundred years into the future, our descendants have developed a highly successful, efficient system for reforming criminals. Picture a world where 95% of first time offenders don’t re-offend. Visualise a society where even the most cold-blooded killers are reformed and released back into society as good people. They may read their history books, look up to the stars and thank our generation for investing the time and money into laying the foundation for their systems. “They hated their worst criminals, mass murders and the like. But even though they wanted to just execute them and be rid of them, they had the foresight and presence of mind to try and learn something from them, to help people in the future”, I can imagine them saying, “and look at what we have now”.