I was reading on NPR this morning that the Death Penalty is in decline, both in the number of people who support it and in the number of people actually being sentenced and executed.
I think that’s fantastic news and it made me want to sit down and organize my thoughts on the Death Penalty.
Exploring The Death Penalty Against My Moral Foundation
As a secular humanist, I believe that every human has inherent worth and intrinsic dignity. Taking the life of another human can only be justified, in my view, when that act would somehow increase human happiness.
When police kill an active shooter in a public area, they have committed a moral act. That situation seems quite black and white. Kill one person right now, or watch as many individuals are murdered.
When a citizen kills an intruder during a home invasion, there’s a little more gray area. We might want to know the specifics before we pass judgment. We may, for example, want to know exactly how much danger the homeowner was actually in. Either way, it’s reasonable to say that one individual could morally take the life of another individual, given the right set of circumstances.
But once a criminal has been taken into police custody, their immediate threat to society has been neutralized. Taking their life (today, in 10 years, in 20 or 30 years) becomes an arbitrary thing. Inmates can and do sit on death row for an excruciating amount of time, and they can do it safely because they are not a current threat to society.
Killing an incarcerated individual is not the same thing as killing an active shooter. For me, both of these situations seems black and white. One person poses an immediate threat to humanity that must be shut down as quickly as possible. The other is an individual who has already served decades of time in prison and rehabilitation for a threat to a society that has long since ceased. They are not moral equivalents.
On Wasting Tax Money
There are two main objections to abolishing the Death Penalty that I have encountered. The first is related to the “waste of taxpayer money” involved in life sentences.
If a person is sentenced to life in prison, we are committing to paying for their care as a country. Taxpaying citizens are funding the room and board for criminals that can’t even contribute to society. It seems intuitive that the Death Penalty would be a better use of our tax dollars so that we do not have to foot the bill for inmates to age gracefully behind bars.
Never mind the fact that prison conditions across the country are appalling. We are certainly not allowing prisoners to maintain any semblance of a lavish or comfortable lifestyle.
More importantly, the facts have demonstrated state by state by state that cases involving the death penalty are more expensive than cases asking for life imprisonment.
For me, I’m an American Taxpayer. But my belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual is much more important to my identity. Even if it were true that efficient use of tax resources are more important than a moral government, the Death Penalty is still a bad choice.
The second main objection I often hear is rooted in revenge. If my family was brutally murdered by a madman, it is argued, I would want that asshole dead. Anyone can stand back and talk about morality and justice, but in the face of senseless violence, I will undoubtedly feel different.
I think that’s probably true. I don’t know and hopefully will never know what it is like to have someone I love brutally murdered.
When I think about headlines I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listened to, particularly where child abuse is concerned, I can already feel the flames of retribution igniting.
When I hear about a child shattered by the people who were supposed to love and care for them, my morality screams for a more violent sort of justice. What is the point of talking about rehabilitation, about contributing to society, for a person convicted of murdering their own child? My instincts defy my logic. These people should die.
AND THAT IS THE REASON that justice is not doled out by the individuals who demand justice the loudest. Victims do not sentence violent criminals.
We have an imperfect system in place, but the system exists for cooler heads to prevail. Our police, our judges, our lawyers, and every other cog in the criminal justice and legal system work together to insulate victims and the perpetrators of crime.
While victim statements can have a profound effect on the sentencing phase of a trial, it is ultimately up to the judge’s interpretation of the laws in place as to how any particular individual is sentenced.
Our laws define the scope of the decision the judge can make. Our appellate courts check the power of the judge. Lawyers fight the case in a well-practiced dance.
Together, it culminates in an (imperfect but always evolving) system that we place our trust into. We must, with clear minds and logic, at a time when we are not suffering a tragic loss, agree that the system we have is the best we can do to ensure all Americans have the rights guaranteed in our Constitution.
The victim does not get to administer the lethal injection. The victim does not get to throw the switch on the electric chair.
If they were given the opportunity, it wouldn’t be for decades after the horrible act was committed. It would seem more productive to me to offer the victims any kind of support they need in the interim to move on from tragedy. To a place where 30 years later, they wouldn’t feel the same intense anger, wouldn’t feel that same need for retribution.
Holding onto that level of grief and anger for 30 years seems far more detrimental to your mental state than accepting that you cannot extract an eye for an eye justice.
So Much More
There’s much more I’d like to dive into, but this has been a long enough post as is. I haven’t even started to mention the racist history of the Death Penalty or the many times that individuals have been exonerated in crimes for which they were put to death. How many times do we have to put innocent people to death before we accept that the solution is far too final?
Especially considering the ways that our justice system is NOT perfect and ought to be amended.
I’ve also listened to a lot of what Sam Harris has to say about free will, and it has profound implications for the immorality of the Death Penalty. I can’t do it justice in one sentence, but he suggests that we don’t really have as much control over our actions as we think we do. This opens up a whole fascinating world of questions like whether anyone is every truly deserving of the death penalty or whether we could learn to predict violent behaviors before they manifest. And of course, should we? Maybe a post for another day.
Do you think I’ve missed the point of capital punishment along the way, or do you agree with me?