09 February 2009

Recycled: Essay on Capital Punishment

Another old essay written back in my university days.

The Hand of a Killer -- An Essay on Capital Punishment

by Paul Gillingwater

for LLN210 Methods of Research (Webster University, Spring I) April 1995

"No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623-1624)

Last week, Nicolas Ingram was executed in Georgia, U.S.A., after 12 years on death row. Despite considerable publicity and appeals for clemency from secular and religious leaders, the electric chair was again used to end the life of a convicted killer. Is such state-enforced killing justified? When we are faced with this question, we are challenged to define our moral position in relation to society. To what extent do the laws relating to capital punishment reflect our individual ethics? Laws are formulated in Western countries to maintain civil order and to protect society from criminal behaviour. To this end, penalties are devised which are intended to punish those who break the laws. Is execution an appropriate form of punishment in modern society? There are many arguments for and against execution. This paper will review some of the important ones, and show that capital punishment is unjustifiable, not only because it is both ineffective as a deterrent and can cost more than long-term detention, but also because it is ethically wrong by the standards of developed Western nations.

Ethics is about the relation of human beings to each other, especially in the field of moral questions. John Donne's poem (cited above) about the interconnectedness of all humanity holds true in more than just a philosophical sense, as suggested by findings from the field of ecology which show how the actions of one group of pople can have their effect on another group. Each person in society contributes to public opinion, which influences the official attitudes to moral questions in a democracy. Any argument for or against capital punishment eventually arrives at the question of the morality of taking one life in exchange for another. My view is that the deliberate decision to end the life of a human being is equally wrong, whether made by an individual contemplating murder or by a court passing sentence, because life is inherently the thing that each one of us values the most.

A clear distinction exists between lawful and unlawful killing. Since modern society universally condemns murder as morally wrong, we'll confine our discussion only to that form of official penalty known as "capital punishment", (named thus because early forms of execution involved beheading.) Individually, most of us have never participated in a killing, however in a democracy, all citizens are responsible for the laws enacted by our representatives in government, so it may be said that we are all individually implicated in any state execution. To understand this, it may be useful to consider the analogy of the hand, that symbolizes how each member of society participates in the processes leading to an official execution. Whether the finger of a killer pulls the trigger to unlawfully end another human life; or the hand of a doctor administers the lethal injection during the state-authorized execution; the result is the same, and it is the human hand that carries out the intent.

Our hands, with their opposable thumbs, serve to distinguish us from, and elevate us above, the animal kingdom. Human beings rarely use anything else to kill. It is the hand which must grip the weapon, sign the death warrant, pull the trigger or administer the fatal dose. By way of contrast, in the wild no mediation is required between predator and prey, unlike in our human world, where most of us isolate ourselves from the reality of death in the slaughter-house by butchers and supermarkets. Similarly, those who favour executions are rarely willing to pull the trigger themselves, preferring that the State develop the mechanisms to kill the condemned: out of sight, out of mind. How and why did these mechanisms develop?

A brief consideration of the history of capital punishment shows that public killing has long formed a part of law, as early as the Code of Hammurabi (1750 B.C.E.) In early societies, the punishment of wrong-doers was the prerogative of the individual or the tribe, and was usually undertaken as an act of vengeance. It often consisted of forms of torture or execution, which today would be deemed excessive and disproportionate by most educated people. As society became more complex, the right to punish was taken over by the state, which used each execution as a public spectacle "to encourage the others." [1. Voltaire] Since the 1950's, many developed Western nations have joined an international convention against capital punishment. Even in those countries which continue the practice, such as the U.S.A., executions are largely private affairs with public participation limited to the trial and sentencing. It's interesting to speculate as to why executions are no longer held in public --- could it be that the sight of a deliberate killing is somehow deleterious to society? Regardless of the possible negative effects that public executions may have on society, it is clear that certain countries still consider that executions per se have a deterrent effect, as evidenced by their continued popularity; however most Western criminologists believe that there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty is any more effective as a deterrent than life imprisonment. [2. Microsoft]

Proponents of capital punishment would argue that the deterrent effect of capital punishment, whether public or not, is far stronger than the threat of life imprisonment, a view which is shared by the majority of the U.S. public opinion. This view does not accord with the evidence. [2. Microsoft] In one study, it was shown that two adjacent states (one with capital punishment and the other with life imprisonment) showed no significant differences in the murder rate. In fact, states that use the death penalty seem to have higher murder rates than those which do not, (although this does not necessarily imply a reverse causal relationship, as many other factors are involved, including the influences of demography and poverty.) Similarly, no change was seen when one state first abolished then reintroduced the death penalty, and no reduction in murders has been found in cities where executions have recently taken place. Thus it may be seen that capital punishment has no statistically significant effect on the rate of murder in a state, from which we can deduce that the deterrent effect of executions is negligible. Unfortunately, neither capital punishment nor imprisonment seem to be capable of slowing the growth of crime in modern society.

Since deterrence is no longer a convincing argument in favour of capital punishment, we may turn briefly to consideration of the economics of death. At first glance, it would seem that simply killing an offender may be cheaper than keeping him or her in gaol for life. This is true in some countries, such as China, which has a policy of "one execution, one bullet." In Western countries, however, the extensive legal proceedings of indictment, trials, appeals and their associated expenses have been shown to cost more than the projected costs of life-long incarceration. This apparatus is necessary to reduce the likelihood of mistakes in the administration of justice, since more innocent people would be executed if matters were speedier. Advocates of capital punishment who claim that long-term use of imprisonment costs taxpayers more than executions not only fail to provide evidence for their arguments, but also commit the fallacy of an appeal to greed (lower costs may potentially mean lower taxes), at the expense of compassion. Such logic can lead to the view that public health services should be denied to the elderly or to smokers, because they're more likely to die than others on whom limited funds could more effectively be spent. A further danger of this type of thinking is that once capital punishment is commonly used for murderers, it may more easily be extended to other crimes. For example, China has recently begun a series of executions of people who have defrauded the government of V.A.T. (Value Added Taxes.) Should tax evasion also be considered a capital crime?

A third area which has been used to attack capital punishment is that of bias in its application. Although advocates of capital punishment would argue that there is nothing inherent in the laws of capital punishment that causes racist, sexist or class bias in its application, research has shown [2. Microsoft] that all of these biases have been demonstrated. For a start, women are responsible for 20% of all homicides, yet proportionally far fewer women are executed than men --- a bias which works in the women's favour, but discriminates against men. Secondly, when considering sentencing of convicted murderers, racism is clearly a factor in determining the death penalty, with statistics showing that black men are far more likely to be executed for similar crimes than white men. Finally, defendants without the money or influence to buy experienced (and often expensive) legal counsel are more likely to be executed than well-educated and wealthy murderers. From the above, it may be seen that any suggestion that capital punishment is unbiased fails to meet the same standard of evidence that might be applied in judging a defendant. Now let us consider the most abstract, yet to many, the most compelling argument against capital punishment --- the ethical one.

When we execute a convicted person, what are our reasons? Are we killing him or her to exact vengeance on behalf of those wronged? Such retribution does nothing for them --- it certainly won't bring back the victim of a murder. Do we want to remove the offender from society, eliminating any chance that he or she will reoffend? In this case, it could be argued that life imprisonment should be sufficient, especially when it is accompanied by attempts at rehabilitation. Admittedly, there are problems with this argument, for example, if a prisoner escapes, he or she often returns to a life of crime. Furthermore, some prisoners who are paroled lapse back into offending. Such failures, however, point more to a failure of the current system of rehabilitation rather than any fundamental error in the rationale for opposing capital punishment. Surely, each person deserves a second chance? When such persons reoffend, society has the right to deny them liberty, but not to deny them their lives.

Will executing criminals reduce crime? Unfortunately, as already argued, not even the threat of death is enough to slow the growth of crime in our increasingly sick society. Whatever the reason, it is important to consider the effect that the execution has upon those who carry it out. Given that the act of killing can desensitize the finer human feelings of compassion and forgiveness (as may be seen in times of war and in slaughter-house workers), society has a moral obligation toward those who carry out the punishment on its behalf. Someone has to pull the trigger, throw the switch or inject the poison that ends a life. The chain of responsibility continues back to prosecutors, judge and jury, through to the legislators who voted for capital punishments as an option, and eventually to each of us. Each person who supports, condones or does not actively oppose capital punishment is in some small way contributing to its continuation, and to the debilitating effect this has upon society. That this effect is real was shown by a recent Time [3] magazine article, in which a judge in the Philippines formed a club for judges who have imposed the recently reintroduced death penalty. He explained that some form of support group was needed by those who had to give such terrible sentences. How much worse must the effect be on those who have to carry out the execution? Moral philosophy might provide an answer to the question of whether we have an ethical obligation to our fellow citizens. Once such an obligation is recognized, we might then accept responsibility in a personal sense for permitting society to kill on our behalf, whether in time of war or through execution of murderers.

Recognition of personal responsibility for the death of others was first suggested by John Donne, who talked about no man being an island, existing apart and separate from society. Donne's view, although radical in his day, is now increasingly seen to be true. (Depth ecology [4. Lovelock] takes this idea further, suggesting that all life on earth is somehow interconnected by ties of mutual dependence, as demonstrated by environmental problems knowing no political boundaries.) Social philosophers such as Bertrand Russell suggested that each individual must participate fully in the life of society, and that personal ethical decisions should be made for the good of society. In a contrasting view, Hegel argued that moral choice was not the result of a social contract as outlined by Hobbes, but a natural outgrowth of healthy family life. In either view, human beings must make choices that dictate their place in, and the operation of, the society in which they live. Such a choice is made when we determine that people who seriously transgress our laws are to be denied their freedom. These choices link each of us in an inextricable web of moral responsibility, in which the serious offender may be seen as one who is threatening the health of society. A common analogy is that if we consider society as a single body, then criminals are similar in effect to disease organisms, which can cause suffering to the whole body. (Of course it must be acknowledged that criminals are often a product of illnesses that afflict the whole of society, such as poverty, racism and poor education.) When something threatens our health, we generally act to destroy it, isolate it or control its effects. In the case of habitual criminals, we seek to reduce their negative impact on society by denying them freedom.

In the past, this denial of freedom was achieved in one of several ways: either by imprisonment, mutilation, banishment or death. Today, banishment is no longer practical, and mutilation by the state is considered cruel and unusual punishment by all but the most fundamentalist of Islamic states (although the senate of one U.S. state has just allowed for the surgical castration of sexual offenders), leaving us with two options --- imprisonment or death. Incarceration alone, however, is not sufficient for an ethical society. Penal science advocates rehabilitation --- the training and reeducation of offenders so that they may potentially contribute once again to, and enjoy the privileges of, a free society. Such a choice means that a price must be paid, in the form of higher taxes to pay for the construction and maintenance of prisons --- but greed should not be an acceptable argument for the use of capital punishment, as earlier discussed.

In summary, I have dealt with capital punishment in terms of its failure to deter, its economics and its inherent unfairness. A serious consideration of the ethical basis for eliminating execution as a means of combating crime has shown that there is a wider picture that must be grasped. That wider view may be analogous to the holistic view of medicine, which states that when an individual part of the body is sick, then the whole person is ill. Similarly, when an individual chooses to commit crimes such as murder, this is a sign that the whole of human society is somehow sick. If it is your finger that pulls the trigger, is it enough to simply cut it off? No, because the whole person is responsible. By analogy, when one person runs amok, we need to look at all of the factors influencing this behaviour, including education, racism and poverty.

Just as the hand may be seen as symbolically responsible for killing, it may equally be used to prevent death. If you feel as I do that termination of human life is wrong, then pick up a pen and write a letter --- to your congressman, political party, newspaper or judge. Make your feelings known, that every time a state chooses to end someone's life, such an act is against your will. Eventually, public opinion may be educated to the point when it recognizes that executions are both barbaric and unnecessary, in the same way that we now condemn slavery, torture and murder.


1. This is a quote from Voltaire, who wrote of England that "it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others." (Pour encourager les autres.) The reference is to Admiral John Byng, who was executed in 1757 for failing to relieve Minorca.
2. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, article on Capital Punishment.
3. Time Magazine, March 1995
4. Lovelock, J. The Gaia Hypothesis

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