My original plan for this week was to write about spending cuts and the right’s hysteria over government debt, but after Touchstone, Seumas Milne, and especially Duncan’s recent posts did a much better job than I could ever hope to, I decided against it. So, after seeing this story in today’s Independent, I’ve gone for capital punishment instead. On balance, I’m fairly definitively against the State having the legal power to execute people, but there are some pretty unconvincing arguments on both sides of the debate.
First, let’s look at the pro-death-penalty case. Proponents of the death penalty often claim that if a loved-one of ours was raped or murdered then we in the ‘anti’ (or should that be ‘pro-life’?) camp would abandon our smug liberal ways of thinking and come round to their point of view pretty quickly. This might or might not be true but either way it misses the point; if someone I loved had just been the victim of a terrible crime then I’m pretty certain that clear-headed reflection on complex ethical issues would be quite some way beyond my capabilities. If I want something (vengeance, in this case) as the result of severe emotional trauma, it doesn’t follow that I should get it. Someone who’s just had a loved one raped or murdered should get a lot of things – grief counselling, for one – but a change in the law according to how distressed or angry they feel isn’t one of them, no matter how justifiable the anger and distress they’re feeling might be.
Then there’s the claim that it acts as a deterrent. If this was true then the pro-death-penalty cause would have some merit, but from a few quick searches on Google and Wikipedia there really doesn’t seem to be any consensus either way. (Moreover, as that Wikipedia link points out, it’s also possible that capital punishment could have precisely the opposite effect, “brutalising” society and making killing less taboo.)
Finally, there’s that perennial favourite, Old Testament-style retributivism: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life. But no system of punishment could possibly work like this. Murderers face the death penalty, fine. What about someone who commits assault? Do they get a state-sanctioned beating? And how would any punishment at all make sense for conspiracy to murder? Or perjury? Or indecent exposure? The whole idea is farcical.
The case for the death penalty, then, seems to amount to two arguments which don’t stack up, and one which is totally unproven either way. But opponents of the death penalty don’t have it all their own way. This is the justification Amnesty International gives for its opposition to the death penalty:
The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state. This cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is done in the name of justice.
It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I’m not a lawyer, so anyone who knows more about this is welcome to correct me, but I find that last claim unconvincing. The right to life is mentioned in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration, which reads:
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
If the right to liberty isn’t infringed by legally-sanctioned imprisonment then I really don’t see how the right to life can be infringed by capital punishment. The claim that it’s cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is perhaps more plausible, especially when you consider the gruesome description of execution by lethal injection in the Independent story I linked to above. But does Amnesty intend that as a claim just about certain methods of execution like lethal injection, or as a blanket claim about capital punishment per se? If the former, it stands just as well as an argument for more humane methods of execution as it does as an argument against capital punishment. If the latter, is capital punishment really any crueller than keeping someone in prison until they die of natural causes? It’s hard to judge which would be a worse punishment.
Another argument (implicit in the Amnesty quotation above and explicitly stated by other death penalty opponents) is that there’s something inherently wrong with the State having the power to take someone’s life. But the State can take life pretty uncontroversially in ways that have nothing to do with capital punishment – by the action of armed police, for example. Certainly there are any number of controversies about whether particular killings by police are justified, but I’m pretty confident most people support the general principle that officers of the law may on occasion have to take the life of a criminal to protect their own lives or those of the public. And once again, I still don’t see why it’s morally any worse for the State to take someone’s life than it is to keep them imprisoned until they die.
The important difference, of course, (which the Independent article highlights) is that no justice system is infallible. If someone’s discovered to have been wrongly imprisoned, they can be released. Sure, they can’t get back the time spent in prison, but some form of redress can be made. If that same person is instead executed, there’s absolutely no way to correct that. This, in my view, is by far the most convincing argument against capital punishment. Humans are fallible, so when we design our institutions there should be as much scope as possible for us to rectify things when, by malice or incompetence, they go wrong. It goes without saying that this is particularly important when it comes to questions of life or death. That really is all the argument we should need.