Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Two More Dead

There were a couple of executions in the United States last night. In Texas, convicted white supremacist, Lawrence Brewer, was given a lethal injection for the dragging death of a black man named James Byrd Jr. And in Georgia, Troy Davis was executed for killing police officer Mark MacPhail.

The Davis case has received a lot of press because many high profile protesters came forward to support the inmate after he claimed his innocence, and after circumstances of the case and trial brought his exact involvement into question. The Brewer case received some press as well, but mainly because of the brutality of what is considered one of the most heinous hate crimes in recent history, and the fact that Brewer stated to a reporter that he had no regrets and would do it again, given the opportunity.

I realize this could be an explosive topic for our afternoon discussion, but you all have always been great about staying civil and thoughtful. So the floor is open.

What are your thoughts about these two cases? What are your views on the death penalty in general? Do the circumstances of the case change your feelings about executing a man/woman?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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82 Comments

  1. I’m all for the death penalty in principle, and almost completely opposed to it in practice.

    In the case of Lawrence Brewer, he admits to everything and expresses no remorse and says he’d do it again. His only ‘defense’ is a claim that his partner in crime has killed Byrd before they dragged him around until his head and arm were ripped off. I’ve got zero problem with his execution. There’s no question of guilt, there’s no sign of rehabilitation or even understanding that he did something wrong.

    On the other hand, the Troy Davis case is filled with police misconduct, witnesses recanting, a lack of physical evidence, and other evidence pointing to a different suspect. That seems far and away too shaky a foundation upon which to base a conviction, let alone an execution.

    1. That, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the issues around having enough surety and evidence of guilt, and the problems with eye witness testimony, it’s really not worth having death penalty laws on the books..

    2. Improbable Joe:

      I’ve got zero problem with his execution. There’s no question of guilt, there’s no sign of rehabilitation or even understanding that he did something wrong.

      And yet there’s a serious problem with allowing even this kind of execution. I realise that “Economics 101”-type arguments should be taken with a skeptical grain of salt, but think about this for a moment.

      If you only execute people where there’s no question of guilt, there’s no reason to tell the truth. If telling the truth means you’ll be killed, and not telling the truth means you won’t be killed, then you’re giving a pretty strong incentive for a criminal to lie.

      This is precisely the wrong way around. If “closure” for families of victims means anything (admittedly, I’m not convinced that it does), knowing the truth, getting a confession, knowing where the body is… these seem, to me, to be far more important than revenge killing.

  2. I am 100% against the death penalty, despite my recognition that some people richly deserve death for their actions.

    I have two objections, the practical and the philosophical.

    The practical: mistakes cannot be corrected, and the justice system has shown that it cannot handle mistakes or misbehavior by prosecutors, parole boards, the police, governors, etc….

    The philosophical: I do not believe that the state should have the power to deprive its citizens of their lives, full stop.

  3. I found it interesting that Davis’ death was listed as homicide. That really struck me in a sort of “at least they’re admitting exactly what they’ve done” way. State-sanctioned homicide is still awful and I wouldn’t dream of supporting it. But at least they’re calling a murder a murder.

    Canadians don’t really hear much about death penalty cases unless they’re high-profile like this one. I’m sure we have lots of dangerous, unrepentant, violent offenders locked up in Canada. And knowing our judicial system, they may not be there forever. I still don’t think we’d be better off as a society if they all dropped dead.

    1. Just as a legal terminology aside (though IANAL), a homicide is technically just the death of any human by the actions of another human entity. Homicide includes capital murder, which includes intention and pre-meditation, down to involuntary manslaughter, which excludes specific intention to kill or pre-meditation.

      State-sanctioned homicide has intent to kill, but it is justified under the law. Murder has intent to kill but is unjustified under the law.

      /pedantry

  4. I can guess that most people who read this blog do not support the death penalty, and of course I am one of those people.

    I don’t support the death penalty because it’s not an effective deterrent. I will even go out on a limb and claim that there has never, ever been a single case where one person was planning to commit murder, but then changed their mind for fear of the death penalty. I don’t think there is a single case where someone would have chosen murder if they only faced life imprisonment, but chose not to murder because of the risk of the death penalty. And the reason for this is that we greatly misunderstand human behavior. We’re not little robots that analyze the potential risks and rewards of each action. Punishment obviously has some effect, but it saturates pretty quickly. We also have a very skewed view of what most murderers are like due to movies and tv. Most of them really aren’t cold and calculating. In fact, many death sentences are for crimes where the person never even intended to kill anyone, but ended up doing it as part of another crime. Of course this is still bad, but the threat of execution is especially unlikely to deter them when they caught up in the moment like that.

    Do it’s not an effective general deterrent, and I don’t believe vengeance is a synonym of justice or that it is worth killing someone over.

    That leaves it as a personal deterrent, and this is one case where I will make an exception. As a last resort, it is philosophically ok to use the death penalty to stop an individual who continues to murder or attempt to murder no matter what is done to stop them. Of course translating this into practice is much more difficult, but I know that some countries have a law that only uses the death penalty if someone commits murder while serving a life sentence for murder. This is exceedingly rare and as far as I know, has never actually come up in any of these places.

    But I don’t feel bad about killing bin Laden, for example. Of course he didn’t actually get the death penalty or any trial at all, so it’s not really the same thing. But there is a very high chance that he would have continued to attempt orchestrate the deaths of many people even if he were locked in solitary confinement, and he likely would have been a risk to any prison guards or other inmates. I think death was the only way to stop this individual, and in rare cases like this I don’t feel bad about doing it.

  5. “2011 – As of 5 May 2011 executions have been reported in the following 9 countries during 2011: Bangladesh, China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, UAE, USA.”

    “But responding to killing with killing is by no means universal either” life imprisonment, banishment, whipping, ritual prostration, have all in various times and places presented themselves as adequate responses. To choose to respond to killing with killing, or even to hold that possibility open in principle, is to choose to be a certain kind of society.

    We are a society that sacrifices to the god of vengeance. We do this collectively, not in the heat of passion, but with somber premeditation and keen technical interest in the art of it.”
    Justin E. H. Smith

    1. 2011 – As of 5 May 2011 executions have been reported in the following 9 countries during 2011: Bangladesh, China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, UAE, USA.

      That list of countries really speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

  6. I’m with Improbable Joe.

    The White Supremacist admitted that he would do it again if given the chance. So screw him.

    Davis, on the other hand… the man was innocent. Yes. I said it. Georgia killed a completely innocent man. I really didn’t like Georgia when I grew up there, and now I can officially say I hate the state completely.

    Georgia’s entire government should be ashamed of themselves. In fact, they should be run out of the state, if not the entire US. Nearly all the witnesses recanted. Nearly all the witnesses noted police misconduct and pressure. Nearly all the witnesses admitted that they saw someone else do the murder.

    Georgia should be ashamed.

    I’m sorry… I can’t be rational about this right now. It’s disgusting… it’s *beyond* disgusting…

      1. To be fair, what SCOTUS actually decided was not that he should be executed but rather that there was not enough sufficient reason to believe the case was unconstitutional to warrant hearing the case. You may disagree with that, but that is what they ruled on.

  7. Even in a world where we could determine guilt or innocence with infallible precision, I would be against the death penalty. It isn’t a deterent and doesn’t undo the original offence. It provides little if any closure to the families of the victims. It is time to end this barbaric practice.

  8. I don’t believe in the death penalty as a practical matter. It hasn’t been shown to deter crime and it is more expensive than housing them for life. I would support voluntary euthanasia for people who have been sentenced to life. If you would rather check out than serve 30 years I think we should allow it.

  9. My immediate gut-reaction is that Brewer should die and Davis should not.

    But thinking about the implications of the death penalty as a whole, if Davis should not have been executed, neither should have Brewer.

    Brewer knew that what he was doing was illegal (he may have considered himself entirely in the moral right), and that the consequences would be dire if he were caught. And he didn’t care. That’s a terrific strike against the death-penalty-as-a-deterrent argument.

    Davis’s case is one that evinces the inherent flaws of the death penalty system. There is no greater injustice that in that of a judicial system punishing the innocent. Davis’s is a failure of every judicial review process we have, with the ultimate unjust consequence.

    I therefore cannot, in good reason, conclude that the death penalty should exist.

  10. I am one hundred percent against the death penalty, and it never ceases to surprise me that people, especially people who claim they are skeptics/critical thinkers, still support it.
    There are no evidence of the death penalty actually having any preventive effect on potential criminals, or any decreasing effect on the crime rates in general. (Actually it’s quite the opposite; countries that practice execution have higher crime rates)
    For a skeptic or someone who applies the evidence-based way of thinking, I think being against the death penalty is inevitable.

    It’s truly a shame that the US still allows for the death penalty to be practiced. You’re in the same boat as countries such as Iran and China.

    1. The flaw in your idea is that the “deterrent” factor is the only or main reason to have a death penalty.

      Personally, I believe that some people just need killing. I also think that throwing someone is a hole for decades is a fate worse than death, and execution would be more merciful.

      1. So you think some people “just need killing?” Which people? On the spectrum of horrific crimes, where is the cut off for execution? I also don’t know how many people on death row would grateful for the mercy of being killed. That being said, I only am 99.99% sure that I am opposed to the death penalty. I don’t know how I would feel if a loved one of mine was a victim of a convicted murderer.

        1. I think all sorts of people need killing. I’m not sure how far I want to extend that power to the government, but before you start down the slippery-slope path… don’t. :) I don’t know where the line is, but “dragging someone by a chain behind a truck until their body is torn apart and then grabbing some BBQ, admitting to it and saying that you’d do it again” is on the wrong side of the line.

          1. What does it matter if the person is mentally ill? If you are capable of doing such things AND having no remorse, you have given up your right to be part of my society.

      2. Please specify the “some people just need killing” part.

        And of course I wouldn’t want them to “rot in a hole for the rest of their lives” either, that’s just sadistic and silly!
        I believe in restorative, not repressive, court system. The primary reason of the punishment shouldn’t be to revenge those offended, but to rebuild or restore the criminals so that they can manage in society. (I realize that in very extreme cases his isn’t relevant)

  11. Not everything is 100% bad or 100% good. You can make very good arguments (all through this thread) for why the death penalty is bad but it stretches from only slightly bad (James Byrd) to horrific (Troy Davis). I think that’s what confuses people in these cases especially considering the strong emotional response we all get to hearing about something horrific like a murder. Less bad is still not good and you have to take the enterprise as a whole, there has yet to be a system set up that we could be confident would only give the death penalty to guilty people.

  12. I have a terrible example of why the death penalty is untenable.
    .
    I live in Illinois; between 1977 and 2000 when then Governor (and current inmate) George Ryan(R) instituted a stay on all further executions the state have executed 13 prisoners, in that same time 13 prisoners were found innocent with the use of DNA evidence. 13 – 13
    Those are odds that can not be overcome with arguments that are weak to start with. Our current Governor (Pat Quinn(D) ) just signed a law earlier this year to make the stay a permanent ban with an almost immediate bill being introduced to reinstate it for certain offenses. It will no doubt be used to make Republican hay in the fall of next year, the same Republicans who refused to allow the prisoners at Guantanamo to be moved to a prison in the state because is was “barbaric”.
    .
    I have little sympathy for Byrd, he was a unrepentant fucker, but a slight sense of moral outrage should not be allowed to overwhelm our need for moral justice; the death penalty is a brutal idea who’s time has passed.

        1. Something else weird. I reloaded the page before replying to Mrmisconception, and there were no replies to his misconception. I replied, the page reloaded, and suddenly there were 4 other replies, some of them dated yesterday! Is the server broken, or is it my browser?

  13. For the record I am against capital punishment. I do not believe any state should have the power to kill, and mrmisconception’s example illustrates that point. But I am comforted slightly by the fact that executions in this country are rare and offer plenty of opportunities for the defendant to appeal his/her sentence. Davis had 21 years and his execution was stayed 3 times if I’m not mistaken. And then there are people like Byrd, or McVeigh, or Dahlmer, Hitler, Saddam, etc., where it feels like humane execution is simply too good of an outcome when you factor in the heinousness of their crimes (I know Hitler and Dahlmer weren’t executed, just go with it).

    And hopefully I’m not being too pedantic, but it’s simply not correct to say that there is ‘no evidence’ the death penalty isn’t a deterrent. There are plenty of studies pointing to a deterrent effect. There are plenty of studies which either critique those studies or say there isn’t an effect as well. If you’re against the death penalty, as I am, the best case scenario in terms of the scientific evidence is that it’s mixed, and no clear consensus exists either way. But its simply not true to say no deterrent evidence exists.

  14. I think my biggest problem with the death penalty is the idea of handing power of life and death over to the State. That’s what really gets me about it. There’s like a million other ethical issues too, but I find the idea of placing that kind of power in the hands of a powerful non-entity that lacks any personal moral center or accountability is a nice place to draw a very hard line. It’s the one aspect where I don’t feel I have to argue the details or hypotheticals, and where I don’t end up feeling there’s any gray area. I’m also very strongly against people taking other people’s lives, but that gets more subjective, and I’m open to the shades of gray. But the state being given the power to take people’s lives? I’m 100%, completely opposed to it.

    1. P.S. What really, really saddens and angers me about Troy Davis’ execution is that there were definitely plenty of good reasons to suppose that he may have been innocent. I’m just as opposed to the execution of Brewer as I am that of Davis, but the fact that people would allow the execution to go forward when so much doubt existed as to his guilt… that really bothers me and gets under my skin. Personally, I think if so much as ONE innocent person ever ends up being executed, the system has failed and become unjust… no matter how many lives are theoretically saved by its “deterrent” influence.

      1. Except … this has already happened actually.
        Where one particular man convicted of setting his house on fire – which killed his kids – was found to be completely innocent before his scheduled execution.

        But maybe the governor didn’t want to pick up the phone when they called with that news, or maybe he didn’t want to do the paperwork. Either way, the guy was proved innocent and executed anyway.
        This same governor is now one of the republican presidential candidates IIRC …

        1. He wasn’t really “proved innocent”, but it was clear that there was, like in the Troy Davis case, insufficient evidence to convict a man, let alone execute him.

          What’s even more frustrating is that Rick Perry, who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old, would call this exculpatory evidence “junk science”.

  15. I also believe that Capital Punishment is a terrible practice.

    You could make an evolutionary argument for it. In that case the purpouse would be to erase “criminal” genes from the genepool (then you’d have to execute people before they have kids). It’s a more radical view than Baba Brinkmans “Don’t sleep with mean people”. I don’t think such an argument would be succesfull. But it would be interesting to explore the argument to see where it leads.

    I haven’t hear any of the arguments for the execution Troy Davis. I haven’t looked for it either. But I would be interested to hear them. Have anyone found any articles or blogs that make a good (or “less bad”) case for it?

  16. Everything that can be wrong IS wrong with the death penalty.

    It says a lot that “they still even have the death penalty!” is something said about a country to show how fucked their human rights recognition is. “Everybody has a fundamental right to life.” See. EVERYBODY. A subjective moral judgement doesn’t give a right to kill. Even if were safer, cheaper, etc (which it is NOT) it would still be morally wrong.

    I don’t know, maybe Human Rights aren’t treated as such a big issue in the US, I can see no other reason why anyone would support it who gets what Human Rights are all about.

    Do I want a murderer next door? No. I do understand the want to have them far away, that’s why the invented prisons. That’s not a good argument to have everyone you’re scared of killed though. Right-wing idiots and warmongering gits (who do kill thousands, but yeah, “different citizens” so apparently it does not count) scare me, too and I want them gone, but I still recognize
    And despite being molested as a child whenever I hear someone say “child rapists should be killed!” it just makes me want to recoil. Whoever gets a kick out of the death of someone else really needs some help.

    “You will not find conservative European leaders (outside perhaps the racist fringe parties and perhaps not all of them) who will back the U.S. on capital punishment.”
    http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2011/01/24/the-u-s-death-penalty-a-european-perspective/

  17. I’m absolutely, unquestioningly 100% against the death penalty.

    I’m not going to say that I don’t think that somebody like Lawrence Brewer deserved it. He probably did. On the other hand, although he showed no remorse, we can’t rule out that he may have done so a few years from now, had he been allowed to live.

    I don’t want to decide who should live and who should die and there’s nobody I’d trust to do it more than myself so I don’t want anybody else to do it either.

    What we need to do with people like Lawrence Brewer isn’t to kill them – it’s to try to keep them from becoming like that in the first place. Ultimately, killing a murderer doesn’t bring the victim(s) back to life. Preventing people from becoming murderers, prevent people from becoming their victims. And we already know that capital punishment isn’t an effective deterrent.
    What does appear to be effective in preventing crime is education and social equality.

  18. The problem is that we can not always see all ends, to paraphrase someone. They’re starting to think that line up aren’t very reliable, eye witness accounts can be ‘lead’, and technology isn’t always the best available at the time, and nor is evidence – they never found the gun in the troy davis case. So how can we in all conscious put someone to death, knowing that?

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2011/0920/Police-lineups-are-flawed-New-study

    1. “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” — JRR Tolkien

      I always think of this quote when discussing the death penalty.

        1. I dunno… seems like a lot of them already buy far too much into the idea of “good” vs “evil”, and a lot of the War On Terror was sold to America as being like the noble good guys going off into Mordor to fight the evil dark armies of the false god… so…

          And then there’s how executing people can be justified by people buying into the notion that there’s such a thing as “bad guys”.

          In fact, it seems like a lot of the worst, ugliest mentalities I encounter in InternetLand (including justifications for the death penalty) seem to be the result of not developing one’s moral views beyond the black/white level of things like LotR or Star Wars. I love both those things, and they do have moral complexities, but nowhere NEAR the level of complexity in real life.

          Not trying to troll or hate on Tolkien. And I know your comment wasn’t ultra serious or anything. It’s just a thought I felt like throwing into this. It seems appropriate… a huge issue with the death penalty is precisely the fact that real life doesn’t have irredeemable, totally evil beings like Sauron or even Saruman.

  19. I guess I’m the voice of dissent here, but I’m all for the death penalty and think it should be used more often. I’ve never thought of it as a deterrent, but more like taking out the trash.

    People die in shitty ways every day. Decent people starve and yet convicted murderers are fed three squares a day. Decent people are homeless and yet convicted killers have a roof over their heads for life. Some have better health care than poor children! I feel if you’ve been convicted (and had a fair chance to appeal) of a horrific crime, you forfeit your rights to be here. Waste of space, waste of money, waste of time and energy.

    People die every day, some at the hands of others. We’re still animals albeit more intelligent than other animals (still under debate) and believing in the sanctity of one human life over another to me is absurd. You should think of what is better for the group, to keep around a scrounging-killing-useless member or shake him off to die. If you’re not contributing to the better good, you’re a waste of resources. I have no patience for waste.

    No I don’t know where to draw the line. Charles Manson should be dead, serial killers should be dead, anyone who kills more than one person should be dead. Anyone who has literally made a “life of crime” should be dead.

    Good thing these decisions aren’t left in my hands.

    1. That is a relentlessly Utilitarian argument, but I’m not confident there is justification for cause and effect there.

      It’s true that good people starve and otherwise suffer needlessly. Are they suffering because of state resources spent on prisons, though? In order to complete the logic, one has to show that increasing the rate of execution would reduce costs and redistribute money to social welfare. However, executions tend to cost more due to the very expensive appeals process (and I haven’t found many people authoritarian enough to declare that appeals should be eliminated). Further, it’s a misconception that the federal government needs money to spend. We could, actually, spend more money on social welfare without cutting prison budgets or the military or whatever other ‘waste’ one may identity. The reason we don’t is because powerful people think restraining inflation is more important than improving employment and social well being.

      Supposing that I were made benevolent dictator of some country, I wouldn’t eliminate the death penalty outright. However, I would reserve it to the most egregiously damaging crimes. Among those would be serial murder, serial rape, and serial torture. A single criminal event like the ones we commonly see in death penalty cases in the United States are not sufficient justification for execution in my view. Rather, one must look for a trend.

      There are also “non-violent” crimes which are so devastatingly destructive on the whole that they really ought to be open for consideration of execution. One would be repeated acts of financial fraud impoverishing, probably permanently, millions of people. Considered in terms of net effects, the total loss of such a crime is far greater than what any single murder could possibly be. Similarly, if you run a company that works in a dangerous industry (say, mining) and knowingly ignore or weaken safety regulations, then when dozens of people die in an entirely predictable ‘accident’ later you ought to be held severely accountable for it.

    2. Who decides who is “trash” that needs to be taken out? Who is “waste”? Who needs to be sloughed off for the good of the group?

      How about we take all the homeless, and everyone on welfare, round them up, and put them in death camps? because they’re clearly not contributing anything, and are just parasitically leaching off of society. “If you’re not contributing to the better good, you’re a waste of resources.” “Waste of space, waste of money, waste of time and energy.”

      Either we believe that human life has intrinsic value and worth, or we don’t. If we believe that a life’s value and sanctity, and a person’s “right to be here” is conditional on their worth or contribution, then you open up a lot of doors to some very, very dark places. And it’s all about the issue of worth to WHOM. And remember, execution is carried out by those in power… and those in power are going to be deciding who is and isn’t valueable, and therefore who does and doesn’t have a “right to be here”…

      1. How about we take all the homeless, and everyone on welfare, round them up, and put them in death camps? because they’re clearly not contributing anything, and are just parasitically leaching off of society. “If you’re not contributing to the better good, you’re a waste of resources.” “Waste of space, waste of money, waste of time and energy.”

        Bravo,if read straight this reads like Ayn Rand, if subverted it reads like Jonathan Swift. I wonder how many industrialists even know who JS is.

      2. “Who decides who is “trash” that needs to be taken out? Who is “waste”? Who needs to be sloughed off for the good of the group?”

        That would be me. Hi, I’m Joe and I’ll be your global judge, jury, and executioner. I’ll be here all week, and don’t forget to tip the wait staff. :)

        To be fair, I don’t suggest we kill the homeless… although if we do, we should eat them as well as long as we’re being utilitarian, right?… but I think a case can be made for executions.

        Also, I’m not sure about this “intrinsic value of human life” business. Maybe a baseline minimum value, but then I think you can get points taken off for bad behavior.

        1. But what is and isn’t “bad behaviour”? How many points is each action worth? How many points do you need to lose before your life no longer matters and you get to be executed? And, as always, who is making the decisions?

          Nobody should be given the power to decide when another person “deserves” to die. States and other committee’s even LESS so.

          I mean, right now, the USA has a judicial system that supposedly only executes the people for the most heinous, unquestionable cases of violent murder with malice of forethought. And yet we still have people like Troy Davis getting executed. That’s the problem with giving anyone that power. They won’t always draw the line where they “ought” to. They’ll draw the line as they see fit.

          And then there’s the subjectivity of human belief and morality and opinions of who gets life… lots and lots of things I do, have done, and continue to do, and certain aspects of who I am, are thought of as sinful, wrong, immoral, or whatever, and there’s lots of folk out there who think people like me (for reason X, Y, Z, or all of the above) deserve to die. I’ve had several good friends die and subsequently heard arguments that they deserved it or had it coming. For me, that’s a very good reason for not wanting anyone to have that kind of power. Humans aren’t always kind, rational and merciful. They’re often self-righteous, vindictive, angry, narrow-minded and they love power and don’t like letting it go. Big groups of people, like mobs, committees and *governments*, where no individual has to take accountability for the group’s actions, are even worse.

        2. P.S. When I ask “who makes the decisions”, it’s okay to joke “I do!”, but the question is actually totally rhetorical. The answer is obvious: whoever is in power will end up making those decisions. The trouble with that is that the people in power have a vested interest in maintaining status quo (because they’re the ones who are benefiting the most from it; you don’t re-roll the dice after rolling a six). And so it will be in their interest to say anything that threatens the status quo or their power is “bad behaviour”. We already see this happening all the time under present judicial systems. Giving them power over life and death? Not a good idea.

    3. Also. this is really interesting…

      you say: “believing in the sanctity of one human life over another to me is absurd”

      Yet that’s exactly what you’re doing in saying that criminals have forfeited their right to be here, that their lives aren’t worth anything and are merely trash that needs to be taken out.

      So… which is it? Are human lives universally and equally sacred, or is that variable depending on their worth to the group?

      1. Does anyone really behave as though they think all lives are equal?

        Chances are if you live in a first world nation in this age you have various luxuries in your life. Whether it be a large house, exotic food from distant places, jewelry, pets, or something else. Is there something that justifies possessing these things in the presence of severe poverty in many parts of the world, other than treating selfishness as a virtue?

        I doubt it. Yet people behave that way in any case.

        Reality is harsh. It’s easy to declare that others should help; far more difficult is sacrificing oneself for others.

        1. A failure to help is a very different thing than a decision to kill.

          My enjoying privileges that others don’t does not make me responsible for that disparity. (It’s my responsibility to acknowledge it, and not deliberately perpetuate it, and to do my best to not knowingly take advantage of it… but I didn’t create the situation I benefit from).

          There are people who have much harder lives than me. There are people who have much easier lives than me. But that has nothing to do with the fact that our lives all have the same *value*, and it has nothing to do with the ethics of execution.

          1. That’s boolean categorization and a severe oversimplification. Responsibility isn’t a binary state, and not taking an action to help is still a decision and an action itself.

            It is dodging the question to define inaction as having no moral component. Most moral philosophers would question that assumption. Many ordinary people do, too, when the situation is made clearer.

            The key characterization here is that if all lives are actually equal, then it makes no difference whether someone is right in front of you or thousands of miles away. What carries moral weight into the situation is the fact that we have the ability to help and do not.

            I don’t think you’ll find many people who would argue that standing around while a child drowns right in front of you is morally acceptable. However, there’s hardly been a care in the world for all the children who have drowned and starved during the floods in Pakistan over the last two years. How do you explain that, if people believe that everyone is equal?

          2. No. There is a difference. My “ability to help” is vague and conditional, and there ARE different degrees of weight to immoral actions. Killing someone is FAR worse and far more direct and premeditated an act than, I don’t know… not buying free trade coffee? Not ‘adopting’ one of those African children on TV?

            All lives are equal, but not all actions (or inactions) are equal. That’s clear as day from where I’m sitting.

            And the fact that I’m not out there independently saving the world from poverty (somehow?) doesn’t mean I value the lives of the poor any less than anyone else’s. The two issues have nothing to do with each other.

            The fact that there are other terrible things going on in the world doesn’t excuse us from doing terrible things (like executions).

            And I’m not a bloody superhero. There is only so much within my (highly limited) range of abilities. I’m not a rich, powerful person. I’m damn near the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy in my own country (really), and it takes enough work just to fight for my OWN rights and to be treated as a human being. So back off. The fact that someone, somewhere has a worse life than I do? Yeah, I’m sorry. That sucks. But it doesn’t put me on the same ethical level as a murderer or executioner.

          3. I agree. Your degree of power (that is, “ability to help”) is limited and temporary. There are different degrees of moral weight to different actions. If you’d like, review my comments and discover I said nothing to the contrary.

            Further, I didn’t say anyone valued the lives of the poor less than an arbitrary stranger. The point is that they value themselves, their friends, their family more. This isn’t meant to be some kind of indictment. It’s a statement of the truth.

            Once again, I said nothing like one bad action excuses another. That’s not the case.

            Moreover, my response isn’t about you, personally. Taking it personally and claiming that I believe you should be a superhero and resolve all the world’s problems is a huge misunderstanding. I know you have limited power. I have limited power. It’s a harsh and dark world out there, and every person has only so much time, money, and influence. All of my statements were compatible with this.

            My intent was only to correct your misconceived premise that people behave like everyone has equal worth. They don’t behave that way. It’s an observation of reality. There are functional, practical, and even evolutionary reasons for it.

            People behave as though self-interest has moral value. I think they’re right; it does. Another’s observations of the world may differ, but I felt the contradiction between statement and behavior was worth noting. It has nothing to do with particular people; it’s closer to human nature.

            There are pragmatic and factual reasons to oppose the death penalty and they’ve already been described in detail. The ideal of “human lives universally and equally sacred” is not such a reason. If people don’t act that way, and nothing else in the world works that way, using it as a premise for an argument is not compelling. That’s it. That was the whole point I was making.

            It was evidently very offensive. Equivalent to placing you on a moral level of a murderer. Sorry about that.

          4. Indeed. The purpose of the question was to broaden the discussion into an analysis of why there is a gap between what people believe and what they do. It’s an important topic that illustrates the difference between people and angels with perfect moral principles.

            We should ask people not to pledge themselves to an ideal, but to do what they reasonably can to help.

          5. The fact that we aren’t “angels with perfect moral principles” doesn’t mean we give up on our moral aspirations, and is certainly not a reasonable justification for immoral actions. Yes, we’re a flawed and confused and irrational species. But the fact that we *try* to be good anyway is one of the most beautiful things about us, IMO.

            And, you know? The fact that we’re as flawed as we are is an excellent reason for both not giving people the power of execution AND for offering forgiveness, understanding and mercy to criminals. Even murderers.

            I honestly have no idea what your argument about the moral relativity of human beings, the fact that some people have harder lives than others, or our failures to live up to absolute moral principles has to do with the death penalty.

            Like, yes, there are lots of iffy and terrible things about humanity. But that’s not an excuse, and doesn’t mean we should condone execution or abandon our principles. Whether or not people consistently live up to the idea that all lives have value doesn’t undo the validity, beauty and decency of that idea.

            It’s sort of like saying… I don’t know… “People love their own children more than other children. Therefore they act like their own DNA is more valuable then other bloodlines. Therefore we’re all racists and all act like races aren’t equal. Therefore races AREN’T equal and Lawrence Brewer’s ideology is justified”

            Unless, of course, you’re NOT trying to make the point that the way people sometimes fail to treat all lives with equal value means all lives don’t have equal value. But if that’s not the point you’re making, then… what is your point? What does it have to do with the death penalty? How does *any* of what you said undermine my principle that all lives are of value?

      2. “So… which is it? Are human lives universally and equally sacred, or is that variable depending on their worth to the group?”

        How they contribute to society. Homeless people have potential. Children have potential. Old people have proven their worth. Die-hard criminals have also proven their worth – none. A single human is no more worth than any other, it’s their contribution that matters. Even the poorest of the poor can

        1. (EDIT FUNCTION WOULD BE NICE HERE)

          Even the poorest of the poor can contribute to society by raising decent children. It’s been done. But a hard-core multiple-conviction criminal or someone who kills without a thought doesn’t deserve to breath the same space as decent people.

        2. You think criminals have absolutely no potential for redemption? That it’s absolutely impossible that a murderer could ever again do *anything* good or valuable? That they have no worth at all? How about their worth to their families, friends and loved ones?

    4. As a critical thinker you should be wary of people in power consider you “trash” … You can’t have moral judgments on one side and then have moral relativity arguments (believing in the sanctity of one human life over another to me is absurd).

    5. The thing is, even if, for the sake of argument, I were to accept the idea that there are some people so heinous that we’re really better off killing them, we still need to ascertain with 100% certainty that the people we’re killing are the right ones and we generally haven’t any way of doing that.

      I’m a human being and by no means above feelings of vengeance (or even of feelings that somebody can only be of harm to society for as long as they live) but the state isn’t a human being and it should be above it.

      And with the expensive appeals processes surrounding capital cases in the US, it’s almost certainly cheaper to keep them alive and feed them three square meals per day and it definitely has the advantage that if we later find out they really didn’t do what we convicted them of, we can let them back out and give them a big apology and while they’ll likely be justifiably quite upset about that, that’s still better than if we’d executed them.

      1. If absolute certainty were required to enact punishment, we’d either have to eliminate the legal system (anarchy) or take someone’s word for fact (authoritarianism). The standard is reasonable doubt, and that standard did not emerge based on arbitrary whim.

        1. Moving goalpost. The issue is not punishment but the death penalty. If someone is unjustly imprisoned, they can be released. If someone is unjustly executed, they can not be resurrected.

          It’s also a false dichotomy. If absolute certainty is required to enact capital punishment, there are still punishments short of capital punishment that can be enacted under the present system. Neither anarchy nor authoritarianism are the only options.

          1. Well said. I agree. Just wanted to add, though, that even the standard of “reasonable doubt” can be twisted to suit a hanging judge. There was PLENTY of what most people would consider reasonable doubt in regards to Troy Davis’ case, but did that spare his life? No. “Reasonable doubt” is vague and subjective, and can end up meaning something very different for a merciful court than for a court that’s out for blood.

          2. That’s missing the point. You say imprisoned people can be released, but the time they lost in prison can never be returned. You need to explain first why you think depriving someone of part of their life is so dramatically more preferable to depriving them of all of it. Certainly all the more so in cases where we are comparing life in prison to execution.

            There is strong potential for a slippery slope in arguing that the inability to reverse a punishment is sufficient reason not to enact it. That is wholly independent of justification for punishment.

            Separating capital punishments from all other types of punishments without any reasoning is simple question begging. Only evidence can separate them (and does, for instance, in statistically clear racist application of the death penalty).

            Now, I would argue that the more severe the punishment, the stronger the evidence ought to be. The greater the consequence of being wrong, the more carefully we should consider it. However, that’s not how the law works. Furthermore, it’s not at all specific to the death penalty. All punishments would need to be reconsidered in that framework, and it would probably mean a restructuring of the courts themselves. (After all, it doesn’t make much sense to use the same courts to decide crimes with differing criteria of evidence, any more than it would to have civil courts ruling on crimes now.)

          3. “You need to explain first why you think depriving someone of part of their life is so dramatically more preferable to depriving them of all of it.”

            Maybe you need remedial first grade math. 1 is more than 0. QED. Strike 1.

            You are the person making the slippery slope argument that if the fact that the death penalty is irreversible means it shouldn’t be employed, then any penalty is in some sense irreversible and shouldn’t be employed. Strike 2.

            “Begging the question” means to assume the conclusion as part of the argument. There is no question begging in separating the death penalty from other punishments. Strike 3. I’m done with you.

            Then in the last paragraph, you move the goalposts again.

          4. Buzz, you don’t appear to have understood what I said.

            (1) Dramatically. Why is life in prison dramatically preferable to execution? What value system are you using to make determinations as to the exact calculation here? Utility-wise, I would regard life in prison as a huge reduction in happiness. Execution, more so. How much more? Why so much to justify, by itself, an outright ban in all cases or an impossibly high standard of evidence?

            (2) So, imprisonment is a fully reversible punishment? I’d like access to your time machine, as it is a stunningly useful device.

            (3) Assertion isn’t argument. The conclusion you assumed in your first reply is that there was one or more elements to the death penalty which automatically distinguish it from other punishments. You didn’t show it, and didn’t even try in this second reply.

            My last paragraph doesn’t “move any goalposts” in the context of the discussion unless the distinction between talking about your specific points and talking about reform of the legal system was lost.

            Troy Davis shouldn’t have been executed. Many others shouldn’t have been executed, whether for lack of sufficient evidence or for insufficient severity of the crime(s). That doesn’t demonstrate that execution is never a legitimate punishment under all circumstances.

            I understand that people become very emotionally engaged with subjects of life and death, but that’s not reason to read ideas that aren’t there and dismiss people out of hand.

          5. Replying to kagerato again, even though I said I wouldn’t…

            The death penalty is dramatically different because it is totally irreversible. If someone is imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit, they can be released. They can be compensated for the time they’ve lost. Neither is possible if they are dead. This is a huge binary distinction: dead or not dead. I don’t think you get any more dramatically different than that. (BTW, “dramatic” was your word, not mine.)

            Of course, the time lost can’t be returned, but the point is the time that has not yet elapsed when they are release can be returned, since it hasn’t been lost yet. If they’ve been executed, then no time can ever be returned to them.

            No one has ever said imprisonment is fully reversible. (That’s a straw man.) It is partially reversible. The death penalty on the other hand is fully irreversible. (Unless Miracle Max is available.) That’s the binary distinction (0 and 1) that I was referring to: irreversibility versus any degree of reversibility.

            As to your 3rd point, you claim I failed to state what the difference is between the death penalty and other forms of punishment. I said in my first comment “If someone is unjustly imprisoned, they can be released. If someone is unjustly executed, they can not be resurrected.” What part of this do you not understand?

          6. I understand your position fully. We simply have different values and draw the distinctions in different places.

            To me, taking part of a person’s happiness, freedom, or whatever else is proportionally as bad as taking all of it. The two are morally comparable just as much as it is possible to compare the difference between stealing fifty thousand dollars from someone and stealing two hundred thousand. One is worse than the other, but they are not so far outside the same ballpark that we would ever dismiss the harm of smaller thefts outright.

            As I mentioned in an earlier comment, our society is not exactly consistent about punishments for harm. Ruining people’s lives by gross negligence, malice, or personal greed is equally bad to me regardless of the means. If a corporation ruins a thousand people’s lives permanently by fraud, or pollution, or repealing basic labor protections that is at least as bad in my book as a typical murder. You won’t ever see anyone get the death penalty for it, though, no matter how obvious the causal chain might be.

            This connects quite directly to the point I mentioned to Natalie about people’s lives not being treated equally in practice, as well as my paragraph about reforms to the legal system. There’s no process in the existing courts whereby, no matter how strong the evidence you have, you could bring prosecution for murder in a case about the mass dumping of carcinogens into the environment. However, what is the moral difference between cutting ten lives short by ten years and an individual murder?

            The law does not really even pretend to be consistent about judgments. There isn’t a moral calculus there to be examined. The law is simply a tool that people have manipulated to accomplish certain ends, with more powerful people having a larger say as to what those ends are.

            We can talk about high ideals all day and night, but it takes more than that to generate fundamental reforms and genuine change to people’s lives.

  20. Davis had 22 years and many appeals to clear his name. The system did as the system does. It is impossible for us armchair quarterbacks to know all the ins and outs of this two decades old case. My bet is that most of you (me included, and I live in Georgia) had never even heard about this case until two weeks ago. There is no way you can know all that has transpired since you were in first grade.

    Charges of racism of the Georgia justice system need to stop. Our appeals courts are multi-racial and multi-gender, as is the prisons and parole system who ultimately had the authority to grant clemency.

    I am agnostic about this case since I don’t everything about the case, and those of you who supported Brewer’s execution and not Davis’s should probably feel the same.

    In the Big Picture, I’m not sure how I feel about the death penalty. As mentioned above, I don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. It might be a bargaining tool in pleas and sentencing, but I don’t think it prevents white men from dragging black men behind a truck or a black man from killing a white cop.

    As a punishment – again, I’m unsure. Yeah, a crime of the magnitude of Brewer seems clear and unarguable, yet even though Davis killed a cop, I don’t see that crime as severe as Brewer’s.

    And, by the way, Manson never actually killed anyone. Do you execute someone who have never taken a life?

  21. My position would be similar to that of Catgirl….and yet I have doubts.

    I wonder how many of us who are against the death penalty would make an exception in certain instances?

    For instance the general in charge of the Bataan Death March in WW2 could have been one?

    In fact I have just been reading about the trial and execution of Japanese General Homma.

    It was “Victor’s Justice” at its worst:

    http://www.pegc.us/_LAW_/Volume172Herman.pdf

    In these troubled times, history is repeating itself.

    So yeah, I agree with Buzz.

    There is another apt Tolkein line from “The Hobbit”:

    “I will tarry long ere I begin this war for gold”

  22. As soon as I saw the “death penalty” subject for this AI, I knew I would see 2 arguments against it that have never made any sense to me.
    The first is that it’s not a deterrent. I think you could say that it’s a 100% deterrent, since no one who’s ever been executed has ever committed a crime again. You would also have to make the same argument against incarceration, since the jails are filled to over-flowing nation-wide.
    The second is that “killing the criminal will not bring the victim back to life.” Who ever said that it would? Is this really what the anti-death penalty people think the outcome is supposed to be? If so, then incarceration also fails once again, and we should neither execute nor incarcerate since no one ever seems to come back to life as a result.

  23. I don’t believe the death penalty is ever right.

    For me clearly, the single most important reason, no matter who you are, whether you believe that murderers should get the death penalty or not is: what if you have made a mistake? You can release someone from prison, you can pay them compensation, you can help them reintegrate into society. Although you can’t give someone back those years, you can at least attempt to make up for the wrong you have done them. No justice system is infallible and there’s no taking back death.

    But even if someone is absolutely 100% guilty, I still don’t believe the death penalty is the correct response. The state taking a life just feels wrong to me. Showing that murder is wrong by murdering someone, just doesn’t make sense. It is saying that the ‘right’ person, in the ‘right’ circumstances CAN commit murder. What if I wanted to decide what the right circumstances were? Is it ok to leave that up to politicians and judges? They are people too, they are not geniuses who can’t make mistakes, who can’t be driven by anger, or greed, or fear, or revenge. They are not in actual fact, any better that you or I. How many of us are arrogant enough to believe that we should have the power of life and death? Hopefully not many, and if that’s the case, then why would we entrust that huge responsibility to others, who are, in reality, just people like us?

    The closest example I have to whether I can stand by my beliefs in the face of a real, and difficult, example is this one. I live in Scotland, the country that not too long ago gave a convicted mass murderer the chance to go home to his family to die. I know that many people cannot understand that, and I can absolutely see why they feel that way, but I agree with the decision our government took.

    Many people here believe the man to be innocent, as do I. That is obviously the main reason that I had no objection to him being released. But then I had to ask myself: this man is a convicted murderer, if I believed he was guilty would I feel the same?

    I cannot be 100% sure, but I believe the answer is yes. He was sent home on Compassionate Release. I am proud of a justice system that can look beyond the crime and look at a person, look at his family and say that it’s time to be merciful. Even in the face of ‘evil’ acts.

    My thoughts on this are wrapped up in the belief that we shouldn’t just talk about being better, but actually show we are. Show we are better by our actions, don’t just talk about it. Be a morally better example even when it’s difficult, especially when it’s difficult.

    It all sounds naive, but I don’t think it’s unobtainable, and I don’t think the sky would fall in if we actually stuck by the principles we claim to have, rather than only the convenient ones.

    Back to the point though. Ultimately, in agreeing with the death penalty, you tell your leaders they have the right to take your life in whatever they consider to be the ‘right’ circumstances. And any citizen of that state is effectively a ‘human error’ away from execution.

    Just a thought, and a genuine question: Do you think the death penalty could be (perhaps subconciously) part of the reason many Americans are still so keen on the idea of bearing arms? If the state can kill you given the right circumstances, maybe it’s best to be able to defend yourself, even if it’s not realistic? I wonder if there is any correlation globally between gun control and the death penalty?

    1. Interesting point about the relationship between the death penalty and an armed citizenry. Of the top 25 states ranked by murder rate, only 3 don’t have capital punishment (Michigan at 11 and New York and Alaska at 24 and 25), where as in the bottom 25, only 14 have the death penalty. According to this study from the Harvard School of Public Health, gun ownership correlates with murder rates. Searching quickly, I couldn’t find anything recent comparing rates of gun ownership and capital punishment, though the abstract of this paper from 1979 is consistent with your hypothesis, I think. Someone ambitious could crunch the numbers to see how well gun ownership correlates with capital punishment.

      However (as we all know) correlation does not equal causation. But a lot of gun advocates claim that a major reason to own weapons is as a last resort to protect yourself from an out-of-control government. Perhaps without the threat of capital punishment, this fear would fade.

      I don’t know how you could adequately test it, though. You would somehow have to answer these questions: Are people who most fear state power more likely to own guns? Are people who live in death-penalty states more likely to fear their government?

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