Many of my essays are quite old. They were, in effect, written by a person who longer exists in that my views, beliefs, and overall philosophy have grown and evolved over the years. Consequently, if I were to write on the same topics again, the resulting essays might differ significantly from their current versions. Rather than edit my essays to remain contemporary with my views, I have chosen to preserve them as a record of my past inclinations and writing style. Thank you for understanding.
The two standard arguments against the death penalty are: one, that no one has the right to kill someone else, even as retribution for a crime, and two: that, should a person later be found innocent, the death penalty is an irreversable form of punishment. I believe these are both very good arguments, but there is another one which only a nonreligious person such as myself can embrace. If the point of criminal punishment is to punish, I believe death simply doesn't qualify, while life-imprisonment qualifies extremely well.
Society has contrived a range of punishments to fit a range of crimes, the premise being, as the old axiom states, that "the punishment should fit the crime." The origin of this idea is not in the bible, as many people choose to believe, but almost 2000 years earlier than Christ in the truly ancient city of Babylon. Babylon's king was Hammurabi (1792 - 1750 BC) who unified the multiple city-states that made up Mesopotamia into Babylon and ruled for forty-three years. Hammurabi conceived of a code of laws popularly called Hammurabi's Code, and law 196 (of a whopping 282 precepts) states "If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out." It is this phrase, approximately 3800 years old, which in the old testament became the present-day cliche "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." The idea was that when a crime is committed against someone, the same act should be committed against the original offender. It seemed to make sense. Break a window, lose a window, ruin a crop, lose a crop, steal an item, lose an item. In 'ol Babylon, with all the simple pleasures of life at that time, this must have seemed an indisputably logical and fair form of punishment indeed. No wonder it has lasted so long, at least in philosophy if not always in practice.
We actually don't practice this sort of law anymore. The most common forms of punishment are financial fines and prison terms, neither of which in most cases resemble the crimes they are attempting to equalize. Instead we act as if there is a "currency" of value that can be translated between crimes and punishments. Crime 'A' is assigned an equivalent value of fine 'B' or prison sentence 'C'. Just who gets to makes these qualitative judgments is frankly, quite beyond me. Nevertheless, the basic idea is still there. Simply put, the punishment must fit the crime.
If you think about it, there are actually three goals of punishment. It the past, in Babylon for example, there were only two goals, retribution and deterrant, both served by Hammurabi's code. As to retribution, in return for a crime, revenge must be enacted so as to make the offender pay for their crime. The idea was that the crime had consisted of taking something away from someone. In the case of theft, this "taking away" was a literal object. In the case of other offenses, the thing taken away could be dignity, life, or perhaps the right not to be abducted, raped, humiliated or otherwise hurt. By taking the same thing away from the criminal, the table was balanced, the situation was equalized, and thus everyone could move on with their lives. We certainly still take this approach today. If you steal a car, you pay with an arbitrary amount of prison time which is assumed to equalize the loss of the victim, afterwhich everyone, criminal, victim, judge, etc. can move on.
As to deterrant, simply having laws which prescribe punishments for crimes serves the purpose of convincing some people not to commit a crime in the first place, quite purely out of fear of the punishment. There is no notion of morality here. When this factor is in play, criminal behavior is not prevented out of a moral obligation to do good, but more simply out of a desire to avoid being chastized, kind of like a child. It's pathetic really.
However, in present day society we at least convince ourselves of the illusion that there is a third goal in punishment as well, that being rehabilitation. We hope that a criminal, having committed a crime and thus demonstrating a tendency to commit crimes (does this really make sense?) can be helped, can be healed of their wrongful ways, will learn to behave legally and appropriately, and after release or after paying a fine, will then be able to continue living in society without further incursions.
I have ventured pretty far off the original topic, so allow me to snap back on target. The death penalty quite clearly only satisfies two of these goals. There is no attempt at rehabilitation in play. The goals are purely to equalize the situation so that the victims will feel that the crime has been paid for and can thus move on with their lives, and to scare future potential criminals away from the prospect of commiting the same crime.
First of all, as to the deterrant argument, while the threat of execution may be a fair deterrant, the publicity that often goes along with execution obviously suggests that we like to show one person's punishment off to scare others. Let me quickly state the absolute and total immorality that results from killing one person in order to send a message to other people. This is an undefendable form of behavior. There is no justification whatsoever for taking a person's life as a form of communication to complete strangers. I am through with this point. It is so solid, so absolute, I can't imagine an argument against it.
Now, as to the argument of retribution, it is important to analyze exactly where the sense of comfort for "moving on" comes from because it is fundamental to the main point I will make in this article. I believe people are extremely confused about exactly what it is that is out of balance in such a situation, and thus execution serves absolutely no logical purpose. The idea people have is that someone has lost their life and therefore the criminal must lose his or hers. This would seem to be an equalization but it is utterly pointless given the assumption that there is no awareness after death. Assume for the moment that you can view the world through my personal eyes. In my view, there is no afterlife, there is no consciousness after death, no awareness, no awakeness, simply void. As a result, the victim has experienced no suffering. Likewise, the criminal will experience no suffering. The situation is still equalized, but it is still pointless. Since the criminal will experience no awareness, there is no regret, and thus, no justice.
Another point of view is to state that the direct victim is not the only victim. Perhaps we don't punish murderers for the sake of handing justice to the unconscious and utterly unaware deceased (who of course cannot appreciate the justice since they are unconscious of transpiring events). Perhaps, instead, we do it for the sake of the survivors who must grieve the loss of a loved one. The irrationality of execution becomes only more pronounced in such a case. Once again, the offender will experience no awareness after death. They will have no opportunity to regret their crime, or to feel the loss of their own life that they can no longer live as a result of the crime that brought them to their fate. In fact, in terms of balance, the people who are hurt by execution are the equivalent of the people seeking equalization, the friends and family of the murderer. What sense is there in punishing them? They are innocent.
In essence, not only has the offender not been punished, but the offender has in fact escaped punishment. By denying the murderer the time to experience and feel the loss of something valuable to them (say, their freedom), they have essentially dodged the punishment. If I were the family member of a victim I would be appalled that the killer would be afforded an opportunity to duck their just reward.
You doubt the logic of my statements perhaps. Let's consider some elements involved. It is not altogether rare for prisoners, especially those facing serious punishments, to take their own life in a variety of ways (the common cliche is that of hanging oneself in one's prison-cell with one's own bedsheets). Death row inmates, in the days leading up to their execution, are put on "suicide-watch" in which they are carefully observed and denied any opportunity to take their own life. Now, if death is such an excellent form of punishment, then why do we have offenders leaping at the prospect? To deliver a criminal into his or her desired state of being is not punishment, it is a gift.
If the only goal in execution is to simply sweep murderers under the rug, then it is hard to argue with the death penalty. There is no better way to get rid of people than to kill them. Nazi Germany had no interest in punishing or hurting the Jews. They simply wanted them out of the way, and were incredibly efficient in their methods. However, if the goal is to perform some kind of punishment, to, as I have stated throughout this article, equalize an unbalanced situation, then the death penalty does worse than to serve no purpose, it serves a purpose directly antithetical to its intended goal.
I believe that murderers should pay dearly for their crimes, and I can imagine no worse fate than to be forced into a lifetime of imprisonment, conscious and aware day in and day out of lost freedom, of lost opportunities to do fun and exciting things with all that life has to offer. That is a bitter punishment indeed. Such punishment borders on torture and certainly delivers the pain and suffering that such a criminal should receive under the argument that a situation must be equalized, the same suffering and revenge that the victim's family seeks so strongly. I have trouble advocating the intentional suffering of another person, but I must admit that a need for revenge would play strongly into my emotions in such a situation. I would be sickened that the murderer was going to be handed a free pass out of justice. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
The strangest thing about this whole issue is that the very people seeking such dire revenge, such justified payment, in the form of execution, those people who support the death penalty so strongly for its "precisely vengeful" tactics, are the very people who are missing what they demand so fervently in the first place. They insist that the murderer pay, that the murderer suffer, that the murderer lose something dear to them, their life, and yet it is these same people, fraught with wrath, who never receive the equalization that they seek so avidly while the murderer quietly slips away into serene unconsciousness, never to feel pain or regret again.
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