02
Feb
11

A very short death penalty argument (that got longer)

After some helpful discussions (thanks Mike and Alex) I have cleaned up some of my thinking on the death penalty.

One might believe that the death penalty is justified on utilitarian grounds. The argument would go this way: because it deters more harm than its use causes, it is a justified punishment. This argument for the death penalty requires that utilitarianism be correct as a moral theory and that it, in fact, deters crime. I think both are false, and so, in a previous post, I looked at a different argument which claims that the death penalty is needed to fulfill the moral goal of keeping punishments proportional to the crimes they are aimed at.

Such a view, if used to justify the death penalty as an acceptable punishment for first degree murders (which is how it is often used in this country), would face the following argument, which I’ll give in three ways. Technically, with words and then with symbols (help me fellow philosophers to make this precise and as clear as possible), and then less technically in summary form for those of you aren’t interested in philosophy but nonetheless might be interested in the intuitive contours of this argument. I go in that order (hint: skip to the end if you don’t like philosophical jibber jabber).

1A. Proportionality Thesis*. The most severe, (morally) acceptable type of punishment may be used to punish some crime if and only if the crime being punished is a member of the set of the “worst crimes.” (and the second most severe type of punishment should be used if and only if the crime being punished is a member of the set of the “second worst crimes” and so on…)

2A. Ultimate Punishment. The death penalty is the most severe, (morally) acceptable type of punishment.

Conclusion A. Death Penalty Justification (from 1 and 2) The death penalty may be used to punish a crime if and only if the crime being punished is a member of the set of the “worst crimes.”

1B. (from conclusion above) The death penalty may be used to punish first degree murder if and only if murder is a member of the set of “worst crimes.”

2B. Murder is not a member of the set of “worst crimes.”

Conclusion B: It’s not the case that the death penalty may be used to punish first degree murder.

Now in logical notation.

Let the domain be individual crimes.

Let WAP(x) = x may be punished with the most severe, morally acceptable type of punishment.

Let WC(x) = x is a member of the set of worst crimes.

Let DP(x) = x may be punished with the death penalty

Let m= murder

1A. Proportionality Thesis*. (x) (WAP(x) <–> WC(x))

2A. Ultimate Punishment (x) (WAP(x) <–> DP(x))

Conclusion A:Death Penalty Justification: (x) (DP(x) <–> WC (x))

1B. DP(m) <–> WC(m)

2B. ~WC(m)

Conclusion B: ~DP(m)

In less technical form.

If proportionality says that we may only use the death penalty (the most severe punishment) for the most severe crimes, then we may not use it for murder, because we must reserve it for crimes worse than murder, such as war crimes and genocide — the so called “crimes against humanity.”

Briefly I’ll defend the premises. Premise 1A is assumed by my opponent, the person who believe in proportionality. Premise 2A is substantive, but the argument is that anything that is more severe than the death penalty as a form of punishment is immoral and unacceptable (like torture). Premise 1B is just the application of conclusion A to the specific case of murder (filling in m for the variable).

Premise 2B is again substantive (and perhaps the most controversial) but the argument is that genocide or crimes against humanity fall into a separate class of crimes that are worse than first degree murders and even very brutal, callous murders. As international law says, genocide or war crimes are “crimes against humanity.” I also think these crimes are worse than murder because they are ethnically targeted or require the mobilization of entire populations to do evil with the use of poisonous ideologies.

This argument does not show that the death penalty must be used or that it may never be used. It does show that the proportionality argument does not support capital punishment as it exists in the U.S.

* This is the strong form of the proportionality thesis. A weaker form would say not that you must use the strongest punishment for all and only the worst crimes, but simply that you are only ALLOWED to use the most severe punishment for the worst crimes (you could go easy on the person and forgive them maybe). This would mean that the proportionality thesis should be rendered as (x) (WAP(x) –> WC(x)). The rest of the argument still goes through.

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