…satisfy your blood lust, and tell yourself you were good to the victim because blood atonement remitted the sin. You gave the fellow a chance to get to the hereafter, after all. This business of living for eternity certainly contributed to capital punishment, brutality and war.
– Norman Mailer
The Executioner’s Song
It is easy to make arguments from emotion, that should be remembered; but to begin, a person should decide which side they are on, and this is the question they should answer to decide their side.
Do you think it is better to have societal norms, rules and laws based on reason, logic and utility, with all three anchored to the assumption that excessive power over the citizen by the state is axiomatically bad, or do you think what a just society needs to function, and function at its best, are laws and practices which are based on the human animal’s base nature, and which in turn, therefore, allow the state to have the ultimate power over the citizen?
Or, to put the same point another way, do you prefer liberty or security?
To condense the two positions on capital punishment down to a choice between two words is not to attempt a simplification of the topic; it’s just to state that such a reduction can be done. When an argument is followed right to its bedrock, there’s usually not much more than a word or short phrase at the bottom. The entire Christian position can be reduced to Idealist, for instance, and that is what is waiting for the supporter of capital punishment; or, to give the death penalty its real name: Religious Human Sacrifice.
Liberty and Security are like the two ends of the playground see-saw, when one is up, the other is always down. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. To say your preference is for equal weights of both is to reveal you don’t care much, or know much, about human nature – or the nature of the human.
There are examples from history and literature which suggest that humans, when in possession of power, position and authority over other humans, sometimes use it in a way which doesn’t always benefit the majority. There are many examples from history and literature of the State making and passing laws which benefit and protect it, not the citizen.
(That the State is made up of humans makes this a fascinating thing to consider. Why would a single person, or a small group of persons, make decisions which benefit the whole state, even while they know that under certain circumstances, they could suffer under the very rules or legislation they are proposing? Perhaps these drops of lubricant in the machine are truly selfless, or perhaps bureaucracy has a way of bringing out the inner sadist from a person?)
This might not worry the person who values security over liberty, because such a person’s mind has not enough live wires to be worried to begin with. I have no compunction in smearing or insulting the supporter of capital punishment. I actually enjoy doing so because their position is a contemptible one.
The supporter of capital punishment is the enemy of liberty.
There’s a scene I want you to create in your mind and it will be mentioned later. I want you to imagine you are walking back to your car, and you take a shortcut through an alley. In that alley you find the body of a child. The child has, obviously, met a violent end: the head is bashed and smashed; there are bits of blood, skull and brain splattered on the walls. Lying next to the body is a hammer with bloody fingerprints on the handle, and you see bloody footprints leading away from the scene.
Let’s say the child is a ten year old girl.
Do you think any wrong has been done to the little girl? You think yes? I’d guess most people would.
Now here’s the thing: anyone who thinks that the little girl has had wrong done to her should not support capital punishment.
Now I know that might sound odd. It seems obvious that the person who bashed her head in deserves to swing, but I’m afraid things are not as simple as they seem, and the arguments for and against capital punishment are not as simple as the simple feel they are.
Leave that scenario in the back of your mind while we flash-forward in hypothetical time and create another scenario.
You’re watching the evening news and the story comes on about the person accused of killing that child. It’s the story that’s been all over the news recently. The cameras have captured the following: the convicted is making his way to court for sentencing, and a crowd has gathered, waiting just for this moment. They cannot put hands the guilty, and lucky for him, because he is locked safely in the armoured police-van which drives slowly through that crowd.
The persons gathered shout and scream at the van, some throw things, some spit at it and some rock it in an attempt to tip it over, before the officers pull the mob from the vehicle and it drives through.
Then we cut to a shot from on high, where the handcuffed child-killer is lead from the rear of the van into the building. Next we’ll be shown an artist’s colour-pencil sketch of the beast in the dock, and we’ll be told he spoke only to confirm his name, and some other details, and we’ll be told what the judge had to say as he passed sentence. Usually at this point we cut to the reporter whose voice has been heard over the pictures: she will be standing outside the court, microphone in hand, having a chat with the news presenter in the studio.
Whatever is said the by reporter or the presenter, the behaviour of the crowd won’t be condemned. If it’s mentioned at all it will be to offer the banal observation that feelings were ‘running high.’
I wonder what number of us, watching such a thing in our homes, secretly wishes the mob could gain access to the vehicle, and get at the killer? And I wonder what might happen if such a thing occurred?
Perhaps one of the mob would drive the vehicle to waste ground, where the guilty could be taken to task, and some collective need in the mob could be satisfied while the helicopter cameras captured the celebration in high definition?
What is that need or urge which drives the mob to picket the court, waiting for the guilty? What motivates the van rocking mob? What do they want?
Their behaviour could be described as odd, possibly stupid, because they know their missiles – their eggs and rocks – won’t penetrate the armoured vehicle, they will never get at the man inside. One can’t help but wonder why they bother.
The explanation needs to be that the spitting and throwing things, and trying to tip the van over, are not considered actions but a spontaneous expression of rage. That would make some sense. But consider the behaviour of the crowd before the police van shows up. The crowd is still a crowd at this point, not yet a mob, and we’re meant to believe they turned feral at the site of a vehicle they could never gain access to? What next, try to tip the building over because the guilty is in there?
No, the mob’s behaviour upon the arrival of the police van is a considered action, certainly not ‘spontaneous’ and the reporter is right in a sense, feelings are running high. Years ago, there might be some point in forming a mob and going after a suspect, flaming torches in one hand, bible in the other, while others in the mob ran with dogs straining at the lead. That made some sense because there was a chance they could catch the suspect and lynch him. The mob around the police van can’t do that – they know they can’t, therefore their behaviour is posturing and an expression of vanity.
The mob believe that they are safe to show this side of human nature, not only to each other but to the cameras, because the crime, the murder of the child, is vile enough that the normal standards of conduct don’t apply, and they have numbers on their side if you disagree. The options with such a running mob are to join in or step aside; trying to reason with them is a waste of time, trying to stop them is dangerous.
That humans can be violent when emotional is not interesting, but it is interesting to consider the lynch-mob mentality, and to conclude that it takes not so much to bring that part of the character of the human animal to the surface.
The argument about capital punishment usually begins with the supporter arguing for deterrence and the opposer claiming execution of the innocent is the unanswerable position. Both are the first arguments either side deploys. When my side of the house – the side which believes in liberty over security – mentions the innocent it’s common for the supporter to play the ‘accident’ card.
‘Yes,’ they say, ‘an innocent person executed is a terrible thing, but terrible things happen all the time, should we reject or abolish everything which causes accidental deaths? We’d have to abolish cars and planes and all sorts of things.’
But of course such a person is being slippery. They are suggesting an accidental death is equivalent to a deliberate death, which it isn’t and they’re missing the point into the bargain.
No person sacrificed by the State is killed by accident. No prisoner ever walked along their landing, tripped, fell into a noose and got hanged.
Every execution is a deliberate act.
The argument about an innocent person executed is airtight; it cannot be met by anything from the other side. In addition there is no answer to the charge that, by executing the innocent, you have by default freed the guilty – so it’s a double outrage.
But arguments from ‘body-count’ miss the point, too. The enlightened side of the house reject the idea of capital punishment; reject the idea that the state can have this power over the citizen; and contend that, when the capital punishment option is retained, the state has too much power over the citizen by definition, and the relationship between the two is ultimately totalitarian in practice and religious in theory (which just means totalitarian in theory, too.)
Often the supporter will cling to the idea of deterrence and not be swayed by logic. In a debate, formal discussion or even just a conversation, there are some things a person should not do. They should not claim something is true when they don’t know it is, and they should not claim something is true if they can’t know. This is the problem with deterrence. The only thing which can be known is that capital punishment is not 100% effective as a deterrent. There’s no way to calculate what number of persons have been deterred from doing something. It is not known if capital punishment is a deterrent: its supporters just claim it is because they think it’s a safe claim. But how can a claim for something be safe when those supporters can’t know if it’s true?
If state-backed religious human sacrifice was an effective deterrent then this suggest that there wouldn’t be murders within jurisdictions which had human sacrifice as the punishment for a qualifying crime. But there are plenty of murders within jurisdictions such as these and always have been. This suggests human sacrifice is not a deterrent, and it’s probably not because most murders are not carried out in ice-man assassins. The majority of murders are emotional acts driven by money and sex and jealousy and other base drivers.
There are many positions taken by those who support religious human sacrifice. They talk about justice for the victim without considering that the victim can’t receive justice because the victim is dead and can’t receive anything. They then change their minds and claim and they want justice for the family of the victim. Bereavement requires justice, but not when the killer’s family are bereaved. For some reason they don’t count.
They argue that the cost of keeping murderers locked up is too high and executing them saves the tax-payer money. This argument is one of my favourites. It is simultaneously the stupidest and most dishonest argument:
Imagine two cells next to each other. In one is a murderer, serving twenty years, in the other is a non-murderer serving twenty years. Now consider the argument is supposed to be about the saving the tax payer money. Do I need to explain further?
Another stupid argument, one which leads to hilarious (and unintended) consequences for the death penalty supporter, is the argument from mercy. This argument claims that because decades in prison are a cruel, sadistic and barbaric punishment, the death penalty is justified because it is kinder to the murderer.
This is an absurd argument just on the surface of it. It leaves the supporter of human sacrifice arguing for punishment and mercy at the same time. But things get worse. There is a way to check if the person who makes this ‘argument’ actually means it. They should be asked if they would extend this ‘mercy’ to the terminally ill. Many Christians and Conservatives reject the idea of ‘mercy killing.’
Death is either a mercy or a punishment to be inflicted: if the former, then why don’t the terminally ill qualify? If the latter, then how can it be merciful to begin with?
If the supporter claims that, yes, the terminally do qualify, are they not punishing the terminally ill if death is a punishment?
This nonsense argument is taken by supporters of human sacrifice because they are attempting to hide their real views under the veneer of intellectual compassion. They make themselves look extraordinarily stupid when they do this. This is what happens when paw-licking vanity and self-denial is valued more than intellectual honesty.
For most, the real motivation for their support of human sacrifice is no more than an emotional jerk of the knee. They imagine how they would feel if a person killed a member of their family. Then, feeling these unpleasant feelings, argue that human sacrifice is acceptable.
There are some, however, who support religious human sacrifice and who actually understand what they are talking about. I’ll mention these persons later.
For the moment I’ll just put the basic argument against the death penalty which seems to me to be quite hard to refute.
The argument goes like this:
Capital punishment is always wrong because we can never know if the victim’s life was of sufficient value to justify executing the killer.
It cannot be denied that value judgements underpin the crime / punishment question. If a person is convicted of stealing a packet of biscuits from a shop they would not be given the death penalty for this. (Not in our European culture, that is.)
That punishment wouldn’t ‘fit’ the crime. The value judgements we make about fitting punishments are mysterious in their origin, but we certainly make them.
(It doesn’t matter that Islamic State will execute you for being homosexual. A lack of proportion doesn’t mean a value judgement hasn’t been made.)
But staying within our enlightened culture, we tend only to hear arguments for capital punishment for the crime of murder. I’ve never heard even the most reactionary, the most crusty and dusty conservative, argue for capital punishment for anything other than murder. And, curiously, that is a problem for their argument. (Islamic State doesn’t have the following problem because they’d kill you for pretty much anything.)
When a person argues the death penalty should be imposed only for the crime of murder, they instantly grant that human life has a unique value or worth. Human life, on their account, has a special status and the only way justice ‘can be done’ is to take from the killer what they took from their victim.
(The meme ‘a life for a life’ is popular, but the memes, ‘a rape for a rape,’ and ‘a punch in the face for a punch in the face’ haven’t caught on quite as well.)
Smarter supporters of human sacrifice will try to claim that value judgements have nothing to do with the calibration between crime and punishment, and how we decide that x deserves y or it doesn’t. I understand why the smarter supporters will try to avoid the concession that value judgements are what we use, because immediately they know that value judgements are subjective: there’s no over-arching objective standard we can all agree on. And it’s that fact which underpins my argument: how do we know the victim lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer?
This is where the dead little girl in the alley comes in.
If you think value judgements have nothing to do with deciding what’s right or wrong, you are left with the conclusion that nothing ‘wrong’ has been done to the little girl in the alley. Until a trial has happened and evidence has been heard; until a jury has reached a verdict and ‘justice has been done’ the girl in the alley, to you, is no more than rearranged organic material.
So value judgments can’t be denied (or avoided) and it’s that underpinning subjectivity which makes capital punishment wrong because – and allow me to repeat it – who says the killer lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer?
There’s more to the opposition to religious human sacrifice than the inescapable impossibility of justifying it.
Which supporter of human sacrifice doesn’t want to punish murderers?
Those who argue in favour of capital punishment want murderers to be punished (except the ‘mercy merchants,’ that is.) It is odd, then, that they argue for the thing which makes punishment impossible: death.
A dead person cannot receive punishment for the same reason a dead person cannot receive justice. They are dead. They cannot receive anything.
The supporter, without realising it, is arguing for the incarcerated murderer’s punishment to come to an end. Why they do this I don’t know.
There is no escape for the supporter of human sacrifice by saying that, they know the dead person can’t receive punishment, that’s not the point, (and who ever said it was!) they want the murderer to feel the fear and stress as their execution date approaches, and then the fear and stress on the day itself and so on. This makes some sense – but not much. If that’s the case then the murderer need only be subjected to mock-execution – but would the supporter of capital punishment want that?
I think not.
Once this point has been made then the supporter should see what they really are arguing for is a form of torture where the victim suffers not the ‘death penalty’ but the ‘punishment penalty’ where the victim is punished to death.
You can make a person dead by punishing them, but you cannot punish them after making them dead.
As I said, there are persons who understand what they are arguing for: they understand that the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice require a belief in the afterlife to make even the slightest sense – and they really require a belief in God. As someone once said, this business of living for eternity contributes to capital punishment.
What’s odd is that, on atheism, a belief in God is required for the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice to make sense, but that means, to make sense to an atheist.
There’s a dizzying, circular paradox at the heart of the human sacrifice question.
If the person making the case for human sacrifice believes in God then it’s them who should be the first to argue against capital punishment.
Assuming a Christian worldview for the sake of argument: what happens to the soul of the murder victim? Where does it go?
Let’s say the victim is the little girl in the alley.
Someone as innocent as a little ten year old girl is, on the Christian worldview, going to spend eternity with God in heaven.
Let’s put it another way: on that Christian worldview, by murdering her, the killer has delivered his victim to the greatest possible bliss imaginable.
And for this he should be punished?
It’s too easy to support capital punishment. When something is so easy to support a person should become immediately suspicious and begin questioning their motives, and asking questions about the motivations of others.
It’s only when we begin to question our beliefs, and the motivations we have for them, does the conversation become interesting.