Monday, January 07, 2008

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

News item for the day is the "cruel and unusual punishment" case in front of the Supreme Court: Supreme Court takes up major death penalty case

Now, I'm still up in the air on the whole death penalty. The jail system doesn't rehabilitate, so for lifers that have done really heinous murder/rape crimes, perhaps it's better to just apply the death penalty. But the system is also brutally unfair to minorities and has some very obvious cases that have been turned over by DNA, so I question the practicality of putting anyone to death.

Either way, I don't understand why any of the states stick by the 3-drug cocktail used to put people to death now. At least use the same thing we've deemed best for our most cherished pets - an overdose of a barbiturate.

8 comments:

czrpb said...

I think you are in favor of the death penalty abstractly/morally from this line:

The jail system doesn't rehabilitate, so for lifers that have done really heinous murder/rape crimes, perhaps it's better to just apply the death penalty.

The logic in that statement seems to me to be saying: If the person is "evil", eg. un-rehabilitatible, then they ought to be killed.

Is that true?

BFW said...

I guess I am for the death penalty, when the crimes seem too heinous and the person "evil."

But I readily admit that this is not something you can objectively determine.

And as a matter of practicality and fairness, our system is way too broken to believe we can actually determine someone to be that "evil."

czrpb said...

2 questions:

1. Can you imagine that human's will attain an error rate that you consider small enough that would allow you to be for it practically?

2. So, your belief is pretty much an eye for an eye on this? If so, does that extend to pretty much the whole of a legal/justice system?

BFW said...

I do believe it is possible to get the error rate low enough to make capital punishment feasible. I seriously doubt we can do it in the US any time soon.

And I'd hardly say that applying the death penalty to people who commit a heinous crime (such as 20 rape/murders of children, for an example) as eye for an eye. If someone is seemingly beyond rehabilitation, I can't see myself arguing against using the death penalty. In other words, I think I could be a part of a jury that sends a person to death row.

I'll flip-flop on my previous answer, I'm not pro-death penalty, I'm just not against it. I'd never execute someone myself or be a part of the physical process of execution. But I don't see the death penalty as immoral (of course I don't believe in absolute morals, but that's a different post).

Back to practicalities, if it's more expensive to apply the death penalty than to jail them for life, then I'm all for keeping them in jail for life. I'd rather see us spend the money on something positive.

It's kind of like abortion - the real debate should be how we can prevent the situation from arising (family planning, sex education, ...). By jailing people we're just admitting we've failed (as a society) in nurturing this person into becoming a contributing member to society.

czrpb said...

Hmm, thanks!! Now I love long philosophical discussions so tell me to shutup whenever you want! grin! In the end, we may disagree in the abstract, but both agree as to the practical problems.

1. I personally believe 1 mistaken death is too much, so this is one reason I am for life in prison.
2. "Eye-4-eye" is shorthand for the punishment must be equivalent to the crime. That seems to be a fundamental belief of yours?
3. Why does the possibility or lack of have any impact on deciding on the death penalty? It actually seems irrelevant to me.
4. You say you would not physically participate in executing someone convicted but that you would "vote" (say as part of a jury) to have someone executed. Not meaning to be rude, but that sounds like admitting a principle you would not live up to?

BFW said...

Regarding 1 innocent life lost being too much. Sure. But that somewhat presumes that a life in solitary confinement, or being brutally raped by other inmates is "better" than being put to death. I think many would say that being put to death is more dignified/humane than solitary confinement for life.

Regarding #3, I'm missing a word - the possibility and/or lack of what?

Regarding eye4eye and living up to principles. I just think I can live in a society that punishes certain crimes with death - if everyone said no to the death penalty I certainly wouldn't argue. Back to abortion analogy, does someone who is pro-choice but would never have an abortion believe it is OK to have an abortion? I happen to think that it is reasonable to have a society that has chosen that drastic a punishment for some crimes (where some is really nasty things like mass murder, multiple rapes, etc. - not a single murder, certainly not for theft).

Furthermore, as a member of a society that has made such a choice, I can live by those standards and do my civic duty by participating on a jury who might have to decide on a penalty of death.

Am I a hypocrite because I couldn't pull the trigger? Well, I don't know that I could kill a cow or pig with my bare hands, yet I'm happy to eat meat. I drive a car, but I think global warming is a big deal. I think it's wrong to level hills and pollute streams with heavy metals, but I use electricity (coal - well, actually I don't, but I work for someone who does).

I also think you pick your battles, and given that only 53 people died due to the death penalty in 2006 in the US... I find it difficult to get too worked up about it. :)

czrpb said...

Oops!
3. Why does the possibility or lack thereof of rehabilitation have any impact on deciding on the death penalty? It actually seems irrelevant to me.
i. Hmm, this: solitary confinement, or being brutally raped by other inmates is "better" than being put to death is an empirical claim. Know of any studies? Perhaps interviews with prison inmates, death row prisoners, etc?
ii. You say: it is reasonable to have a society that has chosen that drastic a punishment for some crimes. This sounds like retribution. Why is that "reasonable"? It may be human "nature", but I do not believe we ought to institutionalize all or much of "natural" human impulses.
iii. With a couple of college friends, we had many long discussions about eating meat. The main conclusion we came to was that IF people had to kill the animal they wanted to eat there probably would be WAAAAY less meat eating. It certainly resolves any charge of being a "hypocrite". As for cars and electricity and pretty much everything else, all one has to do to relieve any cognitive dissonance is to attempt to reduce your environmental impact.
iv. As for getting worked up, the problem I have is that the neo-con/Right, such as (without evidence) people like Justice Scalia believe that somehow the death penalty is actually an affirmation of our value in the "sanctity of life". Gag. I think that is just the rationalization they use to justify their retributive impulses. (Though the neo-con/Right is not beyond just coming out and saying "fry 'em", which is my view is almost proof dispositive that the death penalty is wrong!)

BFW said...

Re old #3 I guess I was thinking that if one thought anyone could be rehabilitated, then that might lend weight to their argument against the death penalty. But it is orthogonal to the argument.

Regarding the empirical claim of solitary confinement better/worse than death, I know of no studies and I wouldn't give any weight in them. I would think most people accept both situations as "bad". I simply want to raise the possibility that some might prefer death to a life of solitary confinement, and therefore the possibility that a "life" in prison could be judged as worse than a death sentence.

Re "reasonable" to have a punishment for crimes (retribution). I think that jail is punishment/retribution (as it certainly isn't rehabilitation). Once jail is seen as retribution, it's just a matter of degrees between that and death penalty. I'd prefer we didn't jail people but, instead, somehow (magically) rehabilitated them. But that's pie-in-the-sky dreaming, we've got jails today.

Maybe you (or someone) would argue that jails aren't retribution, they're supposed to provide (dis)incentive. Well, that clearly doesn't work. Or, perhaps they're simply there to keep the bad folks away from the good ones. That doesn't hold up b/c people are regularly released. I conclude that they're punishment for bad deeds/mistakes/whatever. Are jails not reasonable? Are they not retribution?

Re iii and (not) living up to principles. I don't see any difference between my being able to vote someone to death but not being able to pull the trigger, and someone's decision to eat meat but their inability to kill the animal. Only that the former (death penalty) is viewed as not living up to principles and the second is passed off as "well, you gotta eat" (or drive a car).

I'd like to look at all one has to do to relieve any cognitive dissonance is to attempt to reduce your environmental impact - if that's all I have to do for the environment, then I should have no problem rationalizing a death sentence - after all, I'm not killing anyone. I guess that phrase seems like pretty weak justification for not living up to principles (be they for the environment or for death penalty).

Lastly, I hear you on iv. I think the distinction (one of many) between the neoCon position you paint and mine is that I believe: 1) jail and death penalty only differ by degrees, 2) society has deemed both as "reasonable" (for whatever reason). I'm against jail to begin with, but we've got it and I don't have a comprehensive answer to getting rid of it (and am sure I couldn't convince enough people to go along with my position).