Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Death Penalty: Bad Arguments on Both Sides

I just learned that Troy Davis has been executed by the state of Georgia.  The last time there was a wave of public discussion of his case, I wrote this. It still makes sense to me, though as I point out here, this is only half of the story.

In the wake of the Troy Davis (pictured) case a lot of people are thinking about capital punishment, including some arguments that seem silly to me. I just read a column by Jonah Goldberg that gives an argument for the death penalty that I find stupefyingly unconvincing.

Before I get to that, I want to point out that he says something about arguments for the other side that is simply not true:

Opponents of the death penalty believe that no one deserves to be executed. Again, it’s an honorable position, but a difficult one to defend politically in a country where the death penalty is popular. So they spend all of their energy cherry-picking cases, gumming up the legal system, and talking about “uncertainty.”
Well, I'm against the death penalty and, to be blunt, the idea that "no one deserves to be executed" has never made any sense to me. It seems to mean that nothing a human being can do is bad enough to deserve death. There seem to be so many obvious counterexamples to that claim that I would feel like I am taking cheap shots by citing one. I'll tell you what: please think of the most loathsome murder you have ever heard of. Surely if the person who did that were to be put to death as painlessly as possible, it would be no more than they deserve: in fact, a lot less.

If it can be just for the state to punish someone at all, if they may rightly in some cases take away all of a person's liberty and property, and for the rest of their lives at that, and subject them to the degradation of life in prison, then why on Earth is it necessarily unjust if they also take a person's life? If they can take away everything that makes life worth living, what is so special, as far as desert is concerned, about taking that extra step? I have never understood that.

... So why am I against the death penalty? And what is the argument of Goldberg's that I think is so bad? I'll try to post about that tomorrow.

BTW, you can find my reply to Goldberg here.

1 comment:

Nat said...

The fact that your argument involves conjuring up the mental image of something thoroughly repulsive suggests to me there's something wrong with it. The decision to execute someone shouldn't be based on violent emotions; the very idea is barbaric to me. It's natural and maybe even healthy to *want* vengeance for heinous things, but that doesn't mean we can get it.