Thursday, May 21, 2015

One of the Better Arguments Against Capital Punishment I Have Seen

I believe these are all lecture notes from Alexander Pruss (I don't want to give the reader the impression that this is Pruss's final, considered view on the issue; it's a sketch of an argument but a very clear sketch):

Aquinas on Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment #1

Capital Punishment #2 (there is some overlap with #1 at the beginning)

The last third of the third link gets to the crux of Pruss's argument.  His view seems to be that capital punishment is in-principle permissible (and perhaps in some circumstances obligatory.)  However, a society has no strict obligation to punish an offender by means of capital punishment.  Knowing that someone has (e.g.) committed a murder gives one a strong reason for capital punishment, but there might be overriding reasons for adopting lesser penalties such as life in prison in a society that has the money to afford prisons and can insure that offenders do not commit further capital offenses.  If there is no significant deterrence of crime from capital punishment, the (a) value of the offender's life and the (b) plausibility of the dehumanizing effect on the executioners (who kill guilty, but helpless humans) provide reasons for adopting lesser punishments.

A very measured argument.  I suggest reading the whole thing.  I find myself in agreement with almost all of it.  Yet I think there is a bit more to be said.  First, I think that capital punishment does deter crime, though it is notoriously difficult to provide hard, empirical data one way or the other. At any rate, I think that it certainly can deter crime if implemented in some ways rather than others.  I would need a great deal of empirical evidence not to think that speedy trials with public hangings deter crime more than lethal injections done in private quarters after multiple trials and years in prison or life imprisonment.  But more on this, perhaps, in the next post tomorrow.

Beyond the deterrence of capital offenses, it certainly prevents further capital offenses (the dead can't commit more capital offenses; to his credit Pruss rightly alludes to this in his final sentences about escape artists and poor countries.)   Moreover, it is good for societies to put their ultimate stamp of disapprobation on horrendous acts of injustice committed by hardened, unrepentant criminals, not merely as a matter of deterrence, but as an act of solidarity with the vulnerable.  Pruss is correct that the value of the life of the (e.g.) murderer and the potentially dehumanizing effects on the executioners do provide additional reasons against the practice of capital punishment.  At the same time, in eliminating capital punishment there is also the real potential that a society will find itself having less solidarity than is warranted with the vulnerable and more than is warranted with the worst capital offenders.  The primary role of the government is to insure justice to all of its citizens and the effect of removing capital punishment could have the effect of lessening the primary value of that role in the eyes of the citizens.  As well, abolishing capital punishment eliminates principled and meaningful acts of mercy as should be the end result in this case.  (Of course, cases like this where the execution goes through also give reason for eliminating the death penalty in practice even if not in theory.)
I'll have more to say about the issue tomorrow when I consider JT's interesting argument.

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