The Philosophy of the Death Penalty Part 2 – Revelations

Click here for part one.

In this part, we look at the question I believe everyone thought/wanted answered in the first part; who has the right to take away a life? Is it the governments (both state and federal), the people, or is there a point in society where such a process should be illegal?

Now, before anyone prejudges things, let me flat out say that I support capital punishment. Yes, I know, strange to hear a liberal saying that. I do, however, have some cognitive dissonance when it comes to considering what sociopaths/psychopaths undergo in their childhood, but like I said in the previous article, that’ll merit its own page later.

I’m going to, and I know it’s a little judgmental on my part, but I’m going to remove the idea of “the people” having the right to deal capital punishment. It’s not that I think the masses are uneducated (save Fox News viewers), but it’s the fact that emotion often gets in the way of logic and reasoning. I’m looking specifically at the Salem Witch Trials and post-Civil War lynchings. Of course, someone’s going to point out the Red Scare to me as proof that this same illogical mindset can take over the government, but the Red Scare was a nationwide phenomenon that effected Democrats, Republicans, and Independents equally. “People shouldn’t be afraid of the government, the government should be afraid of the people.” Henceforth, the federal and state governments were only reflecting its citizen’s concerns as it should do.

So, we’ll only debate the idea of the state having the ability to execute criminals. The easiest way to see this is to take a look at the due process clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, which states “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The due process clause is also in the Fifth Amendment, but it’s the Fourteenth that specifically addresses the state’s role.     

I’d like to note something about the wording of this clause. It’s saying that the state cannot take away someone’s life, liberty, or property without the due process of law. Well, rephrasing it, the clause is essentially saying that the state can take away someone’s life, liberty, or property with the due process of law. This is what the Supreme Court acknowledged in Gregg v. Georgia and it’s what we’ll have to accept for now. What’s the philosophy behind this thinking you ask? Why should I give the state permission to possibly take away my life? It all goes back to the social contract that we all know and love. For those who are unaware the social contract is a theoretical agreement we make with the state wherein we give up our right to live completely free in exchange for the safety of our remaining rights. So while we still have our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property (reworded as happiness in the Declaration of Independence), we have agreed to place limits on them so that the state can grant each of us equal protection.

Some of you may be thinking that this is a little unfair, but keep in mind that the social contract is the reason we have firefighters and policemen and other community services, alongside the military.

Even though I’ve covered the basics of the philosophical implication of capital punishment, I know many of you would be upset if I didn’t address any other stances opposing the institution. Rather than present my own set of arguments in favor, what I like to do instead is analyze the legitimacy of the other side’s platform and either counter it with my own theories or a pre-established case.

I’ll take the majority of the arguments from the American Civil Liberties Union since they have a staunch stance on the topic. The ACLU actually provides a large list of reasons as to why the death penalty shouldn’t be existent in the United States anymore. I’ll respond to each statement after posting it:

“Capital punishment is cruel and unusual. It is cruel because it is a relic of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding, and other corporal punishments were commonplace. Like those barbaric practices, executions have no place in a civilized society.”

– Does anyone else remember watching The Dark Knight Rises and thinking that Ra’s was a jerk for kicking Bane out of the League simply because he was a reminder of the prison Ra’s had left his wife in? Because that’s exactly what I’m thinking when I read this “talking point”. It’s like you have a present from your ex-lover that you’re going to throw away due to the fact that your relationship turned negative.

“Capital punishment denies due process of law. Its imposition is often arbitrary, and always irrevocable – forever depriving an individual of the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or new laws that might warrant the reversal of a conviction, or the setting aside of a death sentence.”

– The only thing true in that statement is the arbitrariness of the death penalty, and I’ll be the first one to agree with that. This is a system that is corrupt, and that applies to all types of cases; murder, petty larceny, etc…However, the idea that the death penalty is irrevocable couldn’t be more inaccurate. While every inmate should theoretically only get one appeal, appeals through habeas corpus (writs that require a judge/court see an accused) can stretch the tenure drastically. And this isn’t even counting the fact that any new evidence found restarts the whole appellate process. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that the average time an inmate spends on death row is 178 months (about 15 years).

“The death penalty violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. It is applied randomly – and discriminatorily. It is imposed disproportionately upon those whose victims are white, offenders who are people of color, and on those who are poor and uneducated and concentrated in certain geographic regions of the country.”

– I can’t really speak about this, but based on statistics I have observed, it is, more-or-less, true. But as I said before, this applies to all crimes. Singling out capital punishment for following this trend is ignoring the problem at large. The legal system needs to be cleaned up, with better regulations implemented to prevent/reduce racial/socioeconomic discrimination.

“Capital punishment wastes limited resources. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and law enforcement personnel. It unduly burdens the criminal justice system, and it is thus counterproductive as an instrument for society’s control of violent crime. Limited funds that could be used to prevent and solve crime (and provide education and jobs) are spent on capital punishment.”

– This is one of the more stronger arguments, but it should be noted that prices differ among states. However, using California as a base example, the cost of managing a death row inmate is about $90,000 a year, compared to that of a normal inmate, which is a little more than $47,000 a year. So it’s about double. These costs really have to do with all the resources it takes to support/fund all these appeals that death row inmates get. But, couldn’t the same be said about giving a criminal life in prison? If an inmate is spending about 15 years on death row, then the cost estimate is 1,350,000, which is probably a little generous, so I’ll bump it up to $2 million. Contrast this with a regular inmate spending let’s say 50 years for life imprisonment charge. The math comes up to be 2,350,000. I feel I am being altruistic with this number as well, but we’ll leave it at that. As you can see, the price is about the same between the two. The fact remains that both processes need to be cleaned-up so that all the confusion that currently plagues many state legal systems disappears.

“Opposing the death penalty does not indicate a lack of sympathy for murder victims. On the contrary, murder demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. Because life is precious and death irrevocable, murder is abhorrent, and a policy of state-authorized killings is immoral. It epitomizes the tragic inefficacy and brutality of violence, rather than reason, as the solution to difficult social problems.”

– I’m sorry, is it just me or do those first two sentences seem to contradict each other? It seems like they’re saying we have sympathy for the murder of your loved one, however we respect the life of their murderer. Ignoring that point though, we again come to this emotionally-charged argument that has no real grounds. I could very well claim that slaughterhouses have no place in our civilized society and remain as a brutal reminder of our bloody, “savage” ways as hunters and gatherers. But you see how that comes off as just an opinion? There is no entry point from there for a better debate.

With all the ACLU’s major points addressed, I’m going to move into a more philosophical realm on this topic. One of the biggest advocates against the death penalty was the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria. Unlike most who argued on the basis of ethics and morality, Beccaria instead stated that life imprisonment was a superior alternative to capital punishment when it came to deterrence (a punishment meant to dissuade others from committing a crime), due to the fact that the idea of rotting in prison had a greater toll on the mind. To paraphrase, “There are many who can look upon death with intrepidity and firmness; some through fanaticism, and others through vanity…but fanaticism and vanity forsake the criminal in slavery…and despair seems rather the beginning than the end of their misery.”
I like this position a lot, because it really addresses what the death penalty is about; deterrence. It’s always been about dissuading people from committing crimes. Yes, there was always that secondary undercurrent of “justice”, but the long waiting times for execution have since deprived that a lot (I may explore this idea in another article).

Deterrence is a failure in capital punishment because the death penalty used to be issued quite liberally (or should I say conservatively?) with the use of public hangings and whatnot. Public executions are at a minimum these days, and even the public ones usually receive a small audience. Most Americans (including the President) are fine with this policy continuing, but a deterrent effect among them isn’t really observed. I mean really, ask yourselves what’s more scary when you commit a crime; going to jail, where the poor conditions are made blatant, or being executed?

Also, there’s the fact that nearly 99 percent of serial killers are sociopaths/psychopaths. While they certainly don’t want to be caught, I can tell you from a psychological perspective that they have a death-wish.

As I said before, I support the death penalty on the basis of the archaic “justice” platform. However, if I had to pick between reform in our legal department or keeping capital punishment, I’d certainly seek the former. Be aware that, despite my stance, I have given progressives/liberals who support abolishing it a real angle from which to attack, as the economics are about the same as life imprisonment and the ethics/morality are in a very grey area, at least in the United States.

About Red Stewart

Big liberal and gamer.


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