The So-Called “Reasons” for the Death Penalty

A recent poll (done for Quebecor – parent company to Sun News – so maybe we shouldn’t take too much stock out of the results) found that the majority of Canadians want capital punishment reinstated. This brings up the interesting question of whether or not democratic majorities should be the final arbiter on policy decisions; however, that’s not what this post is about.

I have observed many debates on the topic and involved myself in many as well. What I have come to realize over the course of these debates is that I have never actually heard a logical reason for capital punishment. Seriously. There are no facts, evidence or reasoned dialogue that can defend the merits of capital punishment. It always comes down to vengeance. It comes down to the point at which people feel okay about killing a criminal. Defenders of capital punishment will say that they feel okay with executing someone if they committed the most heinous of crimes. Okay. But that’s not a real argument; it’s just an explanation of your blood lust’s tipping point. I may feel okay about running naked down the street, but that’s not an exceptionally good reason to do it. There has to be a reason.

Therefore, I would like to counter three widely used arguments in favour of capital punishment. They simply do not stand up to reasoned debate.

 

Deterrent

It is often said that the death penalty will deter criminals. If I know that killing someone will land me death instead of life in prison, surely I’ll refrain. However, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the capital punishment acts as a deterrent. None.

A report conducted for the UN concluded that, “research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis.”

Evidence shows that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent. Heck, it could even be argued that it increases the murder rate. If I shoot someone and know that I will be executed anyway, there is really no reason for me to not take out a dozen more people. With any other sentence, there is at least some difference in its severity.

 

Safety

This is a pretty bizarre argument, but I’ve come across it more than once. Essentially, the point is that the death penalty permanently removes the threat from society. Okay. But isn’t that the point of jail? If someone gets probation and reoffends, that’s not an argument in favour of capital punishment; it’s a failure of the probation system. And if someone escapes prison and reoffends, well, that’s a failure of our construction industry. Neither justifies state-sanctioned homicide. If a criminal is actually a danger to society, then you keep them in prison. Problem solved. It removes the threat. And surely the amount of innocent people that have been wrongfully executed should move this “argument” even further into the realm of absurdity.

 

Economics

The argument here is twofold. First, people feel uncomfortable that their taxes are paying for a criminal’s housing, meals and other needs. Second, the thought is that killing the criminal would save the country money. These economics-based arguments are particularly frustrating to me, and they fail on multiple fronts.

Economics should not drive every decision. Capitalist societies inevitably move in this direction, but there needs to be some restraint. When money is the basis of every decision, especially ones involving a human life, society has lost its moral foundation. Should a country save money by killing babies born with developmental disabilities or other complications? Should ten-year-olds be forced to work during the summer? Should “productive” members of society be pardoned of all crimes? Money should not drive every decision, nor would we want it to.

The above scenarios would make anyone uneasy, and yet with criminals it’s different. For some reason, people make the argument that capital punishment is justified because of cost-effectiveness. The argument simply doesn’t stand. If killing is immoral, doing it for money doesn’t magically make it okay. Heck, it seems to make it even more immoral – reducing a person’s life down to nothing but dollars and cents.

If – and that’s a mighty big if – it could be shown that capital punishment is justified and reasonable, then saving money would simply be a nice side effect. But saving money can’t be a reason in and of itself.  That necessitates the government directing all decisions on that basis, which is a place that no person with any moral fiber would want society to move.

Not only is the economics argument morally and logically bankrupt, it turns out that it’s factually inaccurate as well. In reality, executing criminals turns out to be far more expensive than locking them up (about $10 million more per year).

Still, people are uncomfortable with the idea that their tax dollars are feeding convicted murderers. But that’s really looking at the issue in a backwards way. Your taxes aren’t providing the criminal with life and luxury; they are providing you with justice and security. It’s the price we pay to see justice served and to keep society safe and functional. It’s exactly the type of thing that taxes are perfect for; it’s not something that can be done on the free market.

 

So it’s not a deterrent, does not make society any safer and does not save the country any money (even though this shouldn’t even be an argument to begin with). Explaining this to people in favour of capital punishment does little to change their minds. Even those who are aware of these realities still argue in favour capital punishment. That’s because it is never about reasoned arguments. It is not about facts and it is not about evidence. I have come to conclude that for people in favour of capital punishment, it comes down to revenge and it comes down to blood lust. 

There is no reasoned or factual argument to be made for capital punishment, only emotions. It feels okay to have someone killed for the most heinous of crimes. But why? For what good reason? If killing is wrong, then state-sanctioned killing is wrong. No one has yet to provide me with any convincing arguments otherwise. Because, in my opinion, there aren’t any.

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One thought on “The So-Called “Reasons” for the Death Penalty

  1. For the most part, Graeme, I agree with you. I have never understood the concept of the death penalty. In fact, when teaching Hammurabi’s law (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…) to my grade 7’s this past year, one student actually asked about whether or not this is essentially what the USA does in regards to murder (obviously referring to the death penalty). It prompted a fairly interesting conversation, albeit not overly involved as they are, for the most part, only twelve. The argument was made that this law was written in approximately 1772 BC, so why would we still be following a law set out so long ago. One could also think about this in regards to some of what is addressed in the Old Testament. We live in a different world. Although the laws of the time made sense, in our world they need to be adapted.

    I think the biggest issue that I have with this topic is not actually the is it wrong or right. (As previously stated, I am against the death penalty). My issue lies in the consequences that are given as a response to said crime. It makes me so angry when a convict is given a period of time to serve and then gets out 10 years early and then just ends up right back in jail. I think that our prison system (and please keep in mind I don’t know a lot about how it works) needs some work.For those that would find themselves on such a list to await their impending death, I think there needs to be some severe counselling over the entire duration of their time in jail. Despite given charges, although I do think they should be served in full, I do not think they should be released without full consent of the Dr. working with them and they should have to continue counselling again once they are in public once again.

    I particularly liked your point about if killing is wrong, then so is state sanctioned killing. It doesn’t matter what your religion is, valuing life is a basic moral that should be ingrained into all of us.

    Good post 🙂

    ~Sarah♥

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