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Friday, December 16, 2005

Is the Death Penalty Just?

On December 13th Stanley “Tookie” Williams, cofounder of the Cribs gang, was put to death for the murder of four people. Many opponents of the death penalty say that we shouldn’t use capital punishment because in most cases we just “cannot know for sure” that people are guilty. But Williams openly admitted to his crimes. So was justice served on December the 13th?

I would argue that it was not. And furthermore, I would argue that what we term as “justice” is a nebulous and poorly understood word much as society is in economics. We always hear lawyers and politicians hoping for a sound bite on the local news saying that, “Justice must be served.” But what is justice? Surely, it isn’t the blind lady with the scales.

Libertarians have a much more concrete idea of what justice is. Libertarian justice centers on personal property. According to Murray Rothbard, if a person’s property is infringed upon, then the victim is entitled to restitution by the aggressor in the amount of what was lost. This logic seems to run aground when it comes to murder. After all, if a person is dead, who will benefit from any restitution? Perhaps their family, perhaps no one at all. The point is that justice should be about the victims and not about the state and some arbitrary notion of justice.

The other argument in favor of the death penalty is that it deters crime. According to Locke, the government is justified is using the threat of coercive power to prevent crime. However, studies have shown that capital punishment is no more effective at deterring crime than a sentence of life imprisonment. I think this is an example of a corrective state rather than a protective state. Capital punishment is “an eye for an eye” – a way to correct and balance the all important scales of justice. But individual liberty is not served by capital punishment. And we are no safer today than we were on December the 12th.

You raise interesting and relevant considerations. I don't think you offer an explicit answer. Specifically you suggest justice should be about the victim and not about the state, but you don't then describe what this means.

If my memory serves me well, we read a paper by Barnett in which he said justice was about the acceptable use of coercion. Your post certainly seems consistent with Barnett's suggestion because you assert that government's use of coercion to execute a person for murder is unjust.

But, you don't seem to notice there is another question here regarding the unjust use of coercion. The murder of 4 people seems unjust.

How should we think about a situation where one person intentionally kills another person, much less 4 other people? How should we think about such injustice? Is there any act by an individual that is more unjust than the murder of another?

Can the injustice of murder be balanced or "made right" by a life-time of incarceration?

Can the injustice of murder be balanced at anything less than life-time incarceration?
My post was intended to show why I think tht the death penalty is wrong from two perspectives. First, the death penalty is touted as serving the victim and their family. I don't think this is the case. From a liberty perspective, I don't think that the death penalty serves the needs of the victim's family. That's not to say that the family may not receive some psychological benefit from the death of some one who murdered their loved one. They may well get some benefit from that - I cannot say. But I tried to thinkk about how liberty might answer the question of the death penalty.

Since liberty is about personal property and murder deprives a person of what is his and his alone - his person and the fruits of his labor - I think that a victim centered theory of justice would have some way that a murderer made reparations to the victim's family. Perhaps the murderer could be coerced to work for the rest of their life in prison and their wages would go to the vicitm's family. The life of a murdered person can never be replaced, but the fruits of their labor can be.

Secondly, I looked at the death penalty from the perspective of a corrective or protective state. I posited in my final that a corrective state is inconsistent with liberty. Studies have shown that the that the death penalty is is not protective. It is not an effective deterent. Therefore, its persistence must be due to some desire to "balance the scales." But this is not the purpose of government

Nothing is more unjust than murder, but I think we are arrogantly mistaken if we think we can "fix" this problem by killing another person. I wish I knew how to make the murder of an innocent person right. Unfortunately, I don't think there is a way to make it right. But I am pretty sure that more killing is not the answer.
Thanks for your response.

"I don't think there is a way to make it right. But I am pretty sure that more killing is not the answer."

I would like to be able to say this as well. This is my intuition, I think. I'm not sure it offers an answer we can end with.

If we say that government cannot make execution the penalty for murder, can we then say that the penalties we have left to us are adequate?

You may suggest that it is not possible to make the murder of an innocent person right. I'm thinking this may be correct. I'm not sure you can make any of the crimes against persons right.

Would you say that in general, that murder should result in no less than life-time incarceration without parole? It seems to me that "rehabilitation" has little relevance to consideration of adequate penalties for murder? Perhaps we could go a step farther, and make the penalty life-time incarceration at hard labor?

Murder is a pretty cruel act against another. Perhaps the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment would allow penalties that were more creative than "hard labor", given the cruel nature of the murderous crime itself? Perhaps we could think of a penalty that would lead many murderers to wish they too were dead? If so, would that be an adequate answer to the problem of penalizing for the crime of murder?

As you can tell, I don't think it is sufficient to say the death penalty is wrong. I would like to say this as well. But, the alternatives to the death penalty we seem to consider today, also do not seem clearly sufficient to the crime of murder.

Since we likely both agree that we cannot make murder right, perhaps we should also consider what sorts of penalties would reduce the incentive to commit murder. You seem to suggest you think there are no such incentives. I'm not sure that can be correct in general. Certainly some murders are committed regardless of penalty and circumstances. But some murders are also calculated and well thought out in advance. While penalties might not provide sufficient disincentives for all murders, I'm guessing there are penalties that would provide sufficient disincentives for at least some murders, and perhaps many murders. Do you agree?

Thanks for your post and response. You have encouraged me to think I should look again at these issues. Please think about my comments here, and let me know what you think might be an adequate response to penalizing for the crime of murder.
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