Death Penalty: Reason Has Nothing to Do With It

Power Line posts a provocative essay on the death penalty, using a column by George Will as a springboard:

He reaches this conclusion after juxtaposing the views of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (pro death penalty) and attorney-novelist Scott Turow (against it). Romney cites three reasons why the death penalty should be used in some instances — its deterrent effect will prevent some murders; it expresses and reinforces society’s “proportionate revulsion” against the most heinous crimes; and its presence can induce criminals to turn state’s evidence in order to avoid execution.

Deacon argues, in a dispassionate and intelligent manner, that the death penalty saves lives overall. After all, murderers kill in prison, and have been known to kill when released from prison. The death penalty removes that oportunity. In Will’s column, Governor Mitt Romney argues that the death penalty is a deterrent, which may have been true at one point but doesn’t seem like much of one in the past twenty years. Will goes back and forth but finally decides that since the system is imperfect, he cannot support the death penalty. Deacon decides that the death penalty is the lesser of two evils and supports it, but makes an excellent point when he says:

What I meant, though, is that there are reasonable policy and moral arguments on both sides of the death penalty debate, and that neither side can demonstrate that the other is morally or pragmatically wrong. Where one ends up on this issue depends on what one thinks society should look like. Reason can take us only so far in this debate.

I’m not going to make an argument stating categorically that anyone is morally wrong, but I will tell you why I believe the death penalty is wrong — not ineffective, not arbitrary, but wrong. As I’ve posted in the past, it’s my belief that life is holy and sacred and that most of the problems of the past century have followed from a general decline of this belief. Once we stop treating life as holy and sacred, we open ourselves up to all manner of life-disposal mechanisms: abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, pulling the plug on people like Terri Schiavo where people like the New York Times lecture us on “meaningful” lives as opposed to those not worth living, and the death penalty.
The reason people have trouble understanding the death penalty in the same context is because the people executed deserve to die for their crimes. Assuming that the system is perfect — which it demonstrably is not — and that the death penalty is equitably applied — which it also is not — these people would deserve to die for their crimes. But life isn’t given by the state, and therefore should not be taken by it either. Taking on the prerogative that the state can decide whose life is worth living, no matter what the circumstances, puts the state and individual humans in that position. It opens the door to allowing individuals to decide which other lives are worth living, in other circumstances. Life isn’t sacred or holy anymore; we start valuing life for its practical use only. It’s like the old joke about the guy who asks a girl if she will sleep with him for a million dollars, and she says she will. He then offers her a hundred dollars for the night. She says, “What do you think I am?” He replies, “We’ve already established what you are. Now we’re just haggling over price.”
Lock them away for life, throw away the key; I have no problem with that. In those cases, we’ve properly judged people for their actions. Don’t let them back out, build better prisons; I think incarceration is one of the few functions that governments rightly have. But if we expect society to treat life as sacred and holy in certain circumstances, then we’d better treat it that way under all circumstances. Otherwise, we’ve already established what we are, and now we’re just haggling over preferences.

One thought on “Death Penalty: Reason Has Nothing to Do With It”

  1. Reason, tradition, and the death penalty

    Deacon at Power Line writes:In the early days of Power Line, I wrote that the death penalty is essentially an aesthetic issue. … What I meant … is that there are reasonable policy and moral arguments on both sides of

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