A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

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”.

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8 Responses to “A New Argument against the Death Penalty”

  1. What about the viewpoint of Philip Zimbardo and others that a person’s situation can have a large effect on the way they behave? He puts together fairly striking evidence that perfectly ordinary people can commit crimes if put into the right (or perhaps I should say wrong) situation, and no amount of analysis of their personal disposition can predict it beforehand. In light of that, it might be difficult to understand what causes people to commit crimes if we are only observing them outside of the situation in which they commit them.

    Of course, there are people whose disposition can predispose them to commit crimes (sociopaths etc. would be the most obvious example). The question is how common this is, and how useful that kind of understanding is in general as compared to an understanding of how situational factors change things.

    If we want to learn to rehabilitate people, we could argue that until we get better at it, such techniques are best practiced on less violent criminals; it’s not like we’re all that good at it in that case, either.

    That said, I’m against the death penalty, too — a life is a big thing to take from someone, and, like you say, it’s irreversible.

  2. I admire your ability and desire to tackle the big issues, Tobe. First abortion, then the death penalty. Good for you.

    Me, I’m still a bit ambivalent about it. I can see both sides, and depending on the situation, empathize with both. On the one hand the most persuasive argument against the death penalty, for me, is the possibility of executing an innocent man. The work of The Innocence Project here in the US has made it abundantly clear to me that the American judicial system consistently convicts innocent men, especially if they are black. We had two high profile cases here in my hometown (Central PA) where innocent men spent significant time in jail on murder charges, based on flimsy evidence. One of them, a black man, was in jail since he was a teenager, and was only recently released now that he’s in his late 40s or early 50s.

    On the other hand, if a man is clearly guilty (and yes, it’s never clear) and he killed a loved one of mine, I would feel the need to see him dead. I recognize that the first is a logical argument, while the second is extremely visceral, which is why I tend to lean against capital punishment, when I’m using my brain. But I can’t say that given the right circumstances, execution would not be appropriate. It just might be.

    F. Lee Bailey, a famous criminal trial lawyer here in the US (last seen in the OJ trial, but not as a major player) represented the Boston Strangler (Albert DeSalvo) in the 60s for part of his march through the judicial system on his way to jail. (He was not sentenced to die, but he did die in prison, killed by another inmate). I read a memoir of Bailey’s when I was a kid, (when I was still thinking about becoming a lawyer) which included a chapter on the BS. I was impressed that Bailey decried the conviction and sentencing of DeSalvo, rather than accepting the defense of innocent by reason of insanity. He thought it was a huge opportunity missed for society, that we did not put him in a mental institution for the rest of his life and study him, rather than throw him into the meat grinder of prison, where he was eventually chewed up and spit out.

    I think that’s what you’re suggesting, Tobe, and I have always seen a lot of merit to that contention.

  3. 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.

    First let me state that I am not against the death penalty, BUT, this is a very strong argument against it, in practice. The appeals system (here in the US) being what it is, a convicted murderer has many chances and sometimes decades to make his/her case, repeatedly.
    As for rehabilitation, I think it’s a dangerous experiment to release murderers back into the population. And, let’s face it, why else would we reform anyone? Certainly not to make them contented prisoners.
    I could support life in prison over death, if that really is what happens. But, resources are already strained, and sometimes criminals are released or paroled due to lack of space. Nobody wants to spend money on supporting mass murderers. So, when the funding dries up, less-secure alternatives to incarceration will inevitably be examined.
    Innocent young men are sent to their probable deaths every day. We call it the military. Why should we waste any more resources on those who’ve already committed the most heinous crime?
    You may think my talk of resources is cold-blooded, but resources are life: including emergency services, better armor for soldiers, law enforcement, agencies that work to protect consumers and citizens, medical care for the poor, etc.
    We have a duty to life, but we should prioritize innocent above criminal.
    I agree with you in principle, but I wouldn’t vote for such a proposal.

  4. I have a very clear view on the death penalty, and it has nothing to do with the state’s right to kill someone. I simply don’t think that the punishment for a crime should be the crime itself. The government doesn’t steal from thieves. And the government doesn’t rape rapists. I don’t think they should kill killers. Enacting the same crime on the criminal means you are stooping to their level, and I just don’t think a civilized society should do so.

  5. tobe, once again a well-thought-out post. But I think you’ve gotten too hung up in philosophizing on this issue. Reform, deterrence, public protection, and correction are all beside the point.

    Me, I’m totally against the death penalty in all circumstances because I can’t come up with a moral system that allows it. If we live by a code of ethics that tells us we may take another’s life merely because we’re angered by what he or she did, we’re savages. Institutionalized vengeance should not be one of the proud accomplishments of humanity.

  6. @ Lynet

    He puts together fairly striking evidence that perfectly ordinary people can commit crimes if put into the right (or perhaps I should say wrong) situation, and no amount of analysis of their personal disposition can predict it beforehand.

    This is also true of people who have never offended before. We’re never going to be able to legislate for every possible situation that could lead to a crime.

    If we want to learn to rehabilitate people, we could argue that until we get better at it, such techniques are best practiced on less violent criminals; it’s not like we’re all that good at it in that case, either.

    It’s a good point, but it also stressed the dilemma. It’s likely that the more time and money we put into getting better, the quicker we’ll actually get better. There are risks as you say, though, and there’s no way to know up front if they’ll pay off.

    @ John P

    On the other hand, if a man is clearly guilty (and yes, it’s never clear) and he killed a loved one of mine, I would feel the need to see him dead. I recognize that the first is a logical argument, while the second is extremely visceral, which is why I tend to lean against capital punishment, when I’m using my brain. But I can’t say that given the right circumstances, execution would not be appropriate. It just might be.

    It is a very emotional topic and difficult to be objective about. For example, had the gunman survived the Virginia Tech Massacre, it would have been very difficult not to want him dead. Of all my principles, this is one that really gets tested when I see what human beings are actually capable. If someone killed one of my loved ones, again, I can’t say for certain that my principles would hold up. But from where I’m standing, I think these arguments have to be based on evidence and reason, not emotions.

    He thought it was a huge opportunity missed for society, that we did not put him in a mental institution for the rest of his life and study him, rather than throw him into the meat grinder of prison, where he was eventually chewed up and spit out.

    I think that’s what you’re suggesting, Tobe, and I have always seen a lot of merit to that contention.

    Yes, it pretty much is what I’m suggesting (so I suppose it’s not a completely new argument 😉

    @ Polly

    As for rehabilitation, I think it’s a dangerous experiment to release murderers back into the population. And, let’s face it, why else would we reform anyone? Certainly not to make them contented prisoners.

    That’s not necessarily the case. We could practice rehab techniques on murderers, but only use what we learn to help less violent criminals, and only release them back into society. But if we could actually consistently rehabilitate murderers and put them safely back into society, wouldn’t that be an amazing achievement for mankind? It is dangerous, but we’re doing it now anyway. In the UK at least, where capital punishment is already illegal, convicted murderers are frequently released back into society, whether they are deemed to be reformed or not!

    Innocent young men are sent to their probable deaths every day. We call it the military. Why should we waste any more resources on those who’ve already committed the most heinous crime?
    You may think my talk of resources is cold-blooded, but resources are life: including emergency services, better armor for soldiers, law enforcement, agencies that work to protect consumers and citizens, medical care for the poor, etc.
    We have a duty to life, but we should prioritize innocent above criminal.

    I do recognise the problem of funding. All I can say, is that if the work paid off it would help society and save tax money in the long run. But I agree, it’s not easy to make this propisition really attractive in light of the points you’ve raised.

    @ David W

    I simply don’t think that the punishment for a crime should be the crime itself. The government doesn’t steal from thieves. And the government doesn’t rape rapists. I don’t think they should kill killers.

    To be fair, I don’t think the death penalty in the US is supposed to constitute an “eye for an eye” policy. Western judicial systems are based on punishment being proportional to the crime committed. I think the death penalty is seen as the only way to match the severity of the crime, or that it is protecting the public. I don’t agree with either of those arguments though.

    @ The Exterminator

    once again a well-thought-out post. But I think you’ve gotten too hung up in philosophizing on this issue. Reform, deterrence, public protection, and correction are all beside the point.

    I essentially agree with everything you said, but when it comes to convincing people who support the death penalty, it may not be that simple. You’re right, that in an ideal world, the argument I’ve made would never be needed – it wouldn’t get that far!

  7. As we have just been discussing my friend, the notion of a future-society with 95% reformation etc is stretching our hope just a little, but I totally agree that we have to act AS IF it were possible to achieve.

    David W sums up the argument against the death-penalty perfectly: justice is not predicated on revenge or an “eye for an eye”; if killing is wrong, then killing is wrong. You can’t say “…unless you’re in a position of power, e.g.: god, or government.”

    I’ve seen my parents (one is a theist) watch the news and declare that murderers and rapists etc don’t deserve to live. But these are arguments from anger and revenge, not justice.

    I’d find it very hard not to kill someone who ‘wronged’ my friends or family, but that’s EXACTLY WHY the judge and jury are independent people with no personal bias, so that emotion does not cloud the issue of justice.

    Compare this with the Old Testament, where a wrongdoer is thrown to the members of the family of the person he/she wronged, and they were the ones to throw the first stones at him! We’ve come a long way eh?!

  8. And the government doesn’t rape rapists.

    Well, technically…what’s the worst fear about going to prison? (hint: it ain’t the metal bars) 🙂


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