Disclaimer

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.

April 2001

Death Penalty

I'm against it, but you better read why before drawing any conclusions

Brief Description

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.

Full Description

Sections:

Introduction

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.

Logical errors

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.

The ultimate escape from justice

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.

I would really like to hear what people think of this. If you prefer private feedback, you can email me at kwiley@keithwiley.com. Alternatively, the following form and comment section is available.

Comments

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Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2012/10/23 18:43:49 GMT
Your argument wins the day, even before the exoneration rate is addressed, which is much higher than most would think, certainly greater than zero, as most people seem to want to believe.

Name:Keith Date/Time:2011/08/25
NOTE THAT ALL COMMENTS OLDER THAN THIS ONE PREDATE THE COMMENT SYSTEM. They originated as email feedback and have been retroactively converted to public comments to seed the new comment system. As such I have redacted them where appropriate for the purpose of preserving their anonymity.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2010/10/26
Greetings.

I was doing a bit of reading on Hammurabi's Code, and ran across your essay. You made some very good points. I work in the prison system, and see first-hand the life that inmates must lead. Even as watered down as it is today, thanks to our broken system, I would still not want to live that life. Your essay made me think about this even more than I have, and I agree with yuor logic. But there is also one more reason why I lean against the death penalty. I will quote your last paragraph as supporting evidence:

"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."

I can tell you with absolute certainty, what lies beyond death is not just "serene unconsciousness". Heaven and hell are as real as it gets, and it's going on right now, as I write. There is a specific reason why the Catholic Church has exorcism rites. If we execute someone, they may or may not have their pitiful excuse for a spiritual house in order. If they are doomed to a life sentence, they at least have a chance to get where they need to be spiritually. Yes, they need to pay dearly for what they did, but they also deserve a chance to find their way spiritually. And rest assured, they will pay in the next life as well.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and good luck to you.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2010/02/03
I read your paper on your opinion of the death pentalty and I just wanted to thank you for writing it. It is honestly the same exact way I feel about it, espeically the idea of murderers avoiding any real punishment by recieving the death pentalty.

My name is [...], by the way. I'm a senior in high school and I'm writing a paper about capital punishment. I wanted to request your permission to use your paper as a reference source. It has greatly increased my ability to phrase my ideas.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2007/10/25
Hello my name is [...]. I have been reading some of your Ramblings and find them very interesting. I do not totally agree with some of you writing, however, I do find it intellectually stimulating. As far as the death penalty is concerned, you say that the punishment should fit the crime, and death is too easy an escape. I'll by that, but, say you have a serial killer who tortured his victims cruelly. Would you be opposed to the continuous torture of this person as just retribution? We could blind,paralyze,and make them deaf and keep them alive with a ventilator and feeding tube for many years. Effectively imprisoning them in there own bodies. Is this fair and just, just a thought. Or what about banishment, say a 1000 miles north of the artic circle with just the clothes on your back. No imprisonment no care no nothing just you and vast nothingness. thanks I would really like to know your opinions.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2006/01/26
I am currently writing a college term paper on how the laws of Hammurabi's code have directly influenced the laws and judicial practices of the 21st century. One of the main topics that I am covering focuses on "an eye for an eye" perspective and how we relate it to the death penalty of our time. Do you think that the two have a strong connection? I am on the fence about what I am writing and what I really believe. I have never really thought about the death penalty before but now since I have done so much research for this paper my views have been swayed to a different view. Do you think that the laws really impacted those of Babylon as our laws do today in hindering us from things that we may or may not do in fear of the law? I would appreciate any information that you could send my way just to look from different perspectives.

Thanks

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2004/02/20
Hi Keith,

I came across your website when I was doing research on the Death Penalty to find out whether or not it is worth it and if it has served as a deterrent to crime. I must state your response to this issue is quite enlightening. I enjoyed every word of it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I found it quite interesting.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2003/06/09
I agree with your views on the death penalty 100%.

.. but ... :)

"There is no justification whatsoever for taking a person's life as a
form of communication to complete strangers."

When a state has chosen to take anothers life, there is no sense in not
using it as a deterent or even profiting off it after the choice has
been made however wrong it may be(its relative). The act has been done,
why not use it for more than one purpose, I mean its not really a
deterent anyway(the death penalty on its own that is) why not broadcast
it. Why dont the victims wear branded clothes. Im from Ireland .. no
death penalty .. do they actually show it on TV or just have relatives
to view it , like in the film ,the long green mile

Also .. would you agree with it moreso , if it were a form of torture,
if their death was on a equal/similar to the one they committed, on a
level of fear, unhumaneness etc... ? ( im thinkin no from what I've
read)

And just another wee note. Im not religious in anyway , despite the
fact that I should be considering my uncles a priest and both my
parents families are big into it(It is a 2000 year fad). I believe the
Bible(or similar books) are stories to communicate ideals and morals.
Like a policing system that works on a "prevention is better than
cure" .. which in my opinion is the only good than can come from a Cult
despite how famous a cult it may be. I doubt it ever meant to get
people into believing life after death is better, heh, good thing ol'
instinct attempts to prevent suicide, or people would switch themselves
off(Its mentally possible).
Which is what I think will happen when/if IA is ever perfected. To a
machine life is much worse than "void" as you put it. I recon death is
simply the off of on.

oh man, thought this email would be a sentence or two, you got me
rambling :)

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2003/05/30
I don't necessarily agree with you on this issue, but I like one this that you say on your main page:
the stupidity of others concerning most of these topics. Does that make me arrogant? No, it just makes me right and everyone else in the world wrong.
I think more of us need to think of ourselves as always right. This gives us a sense of responsibility for the things we say. It forces us to think, then speak; not just parrot whatsoever is politically correct.
I know you said you were just kidding but I'm not. I'm always right. Otherwise I don't speak. If someone can show me through new data or an argument based in logic why I was wrong, then I quickly adopt the correct point of view. From that moment on I am once again always right. Damn, I'm good.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2003/02/13
Dear Whomever reads this,
I am a student doing a speech on the death penalty. I strongly agree with
everything you have said. You even made me think more deeply about things.
I think it is totally unethical! Thank you so much for what you wrote

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2002/10/10
hi,i need to kow if u know the different ways people were put to death, th different ways hammurabi put people to death. as much as possible. please answer back, a.s.a.p.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2002/04/19
I liked one movie I saw a few years ago, I forget what it was, but they were in China – and according to the movie, executions were swift, the bad guy was shot to death and they sent a bill to the family for the bullet. It's expensive to keep people in prison. Life is not a commodity, and food is. Laugh.. Although I'm not strongly in favor of the death penalty, I think that China does have a point. It will be a long time before we have a perfect legal system. People die every day. If we spend all our time trying to make a perfect legal system, we will surely be letting a lot of killers out of prison on ‘technicalities' to kill other people. So, if we kill fewer ‘innocent' people than the bad guys that get let go on ‘technicalities' we are ahead of the game.

Also, the deterrent effect doesn't hurt either. Also, governments and other organized groups of people have gone a little overboard on the meaningless execution side too. I just wanted to give a little bit of devil's advocacy there.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2002/01/29
Keith,

I found your web site and congratulate you on such eloquent and thoughtful writings.
With respect to your death penalty thesis: you mention "deterrant" as one of
the goals of the death penalty.

[ QUOTE:
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.
]

Whether or not a threatened penalty can provide a deterrant to future crimes
can be debated, but I think you will agree that the death penalty is the perfect
deterrant to repeat offenses! You also don't discuss how to imprison someone
violent enough to kill someone, when they effectively have nothing to lose.
That is, if life imprisonment is the ultimate punishment, and if you have been
so sentenced, you can basically do anything you like, because there is no further
punishment (given the limitations of the eighth amendment).

I favor the death penalty, but only if a higher standard of proof is applied.
I don't think "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a high enough standard to impose
the death penalty. I believe it must be "beyond any doubt".

I look forward to reading more of your writings. Feel free to respond with
your thoughts.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2001/05/11
Speaking as an atheist myself, I think your argument makes good sense.
Death is not, in fact, the worst possible fate -- something that many
people today don't seem to understand.