Thursday, June 27, 2013

The morality of capital punishment

My friend Ilion has a post about my statement of opposition to the death penalty. I wrote, in a comment about the Spanish Civil War,

[Franco's] methods were wrong, in many cases (I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances), but the people he was fighting were ruthless monsters, and most deserved worse than they got.
Ilion replies:
Michael Egnor: "... I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. ..."
Just to start, what you have truly said is that you oppose any laws under all circumstances. For, all law which commands, "Do this" or "Don't do that", is always at least implicitly backed up by the threat of sudden and violent death at the hands of State agents. Moreover, the death meted out in those circumstances tends to be far less judicious than the capital punishment sometimes handed out by a justly functioning court. I have written about this here, and earlier here, so in this post I'll only touch upon my reasoning. Those interested in understanding are free to read the earlier posts.

To say, "I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances", is to say, "I will not concern myself that my policy preferences would make an ordered civil society impossible." I could put the meaning of this much less charitably.

But, there is an even worse thing you have said -- which is that the criminal, the one who deserves death for, as an example, viciously murdering a member of our society, has the moral right and the legal ability to expel his victim from our society, such that we can hold ourselves to be not duty-bound to seek and apply justice on behalf of his victim. I have written about this here.

To say, "I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances", is to say, "I will not concern myself that my policy preferences would make a just civil society impossible." Likewise, this can be stated in even more stark terms.
 
To say, "I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances", is to say, "I will not concern myself that my policy preferences would make an ordered civil society impossible." I could put the meaning of this much less charitably. 
But, there is an even worse thing you have said -- which is that the criminal, the one who deserves death for, as an example, viciously murdering a member of our society, has the moral right and the legal ability to expel his victim from our society, such that we can hold ourselves to be not duty-bound to seek and apply justice on behalf of his victim. I have written about this here. 
To say, "I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances", is to say, "I will not concern myself that my policy preferences would make a just civil society impossible." Likewise, this can be stated in even more stark terms.
Ilion is right.

The death penalty is a completely moral option in some circumstances, specifically the circumstances he points out. It is morally licit to take the life of a convicted criminal if it is necessary to preserve public safety and civil society. That is very clear in Catholic moral teaching.

There is no equivalence between abortion, for example, and capital punishment. Abortion is always and everywhere wrong. Capital punishment can be either right or wrong, depending on the circumstances.

The applicable moral standard is the principle of double effect (pde). Executing a convicted criminal has two effects-- the bad effect of taking a human life and the good effect of enacting justice and protecting society. According to the pde, capital punishment is a moral good if:

1) The intention is to do justice and protect society. Intending to make the criminal suffer simply out of sadistic lust, for example, would be immoral.

2) The good (protecting society and administering justice) outweighs the bad (killing a human being). Capital punishment for shoplifting would violate this requirement.

3) The good (protecting society and justice) is not the direct result of the bad. This principle is the reason that Robin Hood was wrong to steal, even if it was to help the poor. One may not use an intrinsically bad act (theft) as the means to a good act (giving money to the poor).

So does capital punishment violate the third precept? Aren't we accomplishing the good by doing the bad?

Not necessarily. The licit goal is to incapacitate the criminal-- to stop the criminal from offending and to impose a just punishment. This can commonly be accomplished without killing. But in some situations, indeed through most of history, lifelong incarceration was not available or practical. Prisons are a relatively modern invention of affluent societies. Where there are secure prisons capable of incarcerating murderers for life, one can protect the public and apply substantial justice without killing. I believe that that is the moral choice for societies who have such an option.

In some situations, the third precept is not violated, because the licit goal is to incapacitate the criminal, and capital punishment is the only option.

There are situations in which secure lifelong incarceration is not an option. In those situations, capital punishment is licit. Examples would include poor countries in which secure prisons do not exist, or countries in which government is so corrupt or weak that security of the prisons cannot be assured, or in situations involving terrorists in which it is likely that hostages would be taken by the terrorist's allies to secure release. It is on this basis that I believe that capital punishment for some terrorists may be a moral option.

When I wrote that "I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances", I misspoke. I do oppose capital punishment under nearly all circumstances in stable modern affluent societies, with the possible exception of some terrorists, because justice and protection can be accomplished without killing. I believe that killing a human being is a major wrong, and can only be justified under exceptional circumstances.

But Ilion is right, in my view. There are circumstances in which capital punishment is moral, and administration of justice and protection of society is paramount.

19 comments:

  1. How do you feel about capital punishment for child-abusing priests in third-world countries?

    I say kill them all - let God sort them out.

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    1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 12:32 PM

      A former Michigan middle schoolteacher, Elizabeth Miklosovic, 37, taught for three years and was praised by school officials for her help in raising the test scores of her students. Then in January 2005, she was fired after being arrested for molesting a 14-year-old student. The victimized student told friends the relationship with the language arts teacher began when she was in the seventh grade...

      In June 2004, the victim's parents granted permission for their daughter to go camping with Miklosovic believing Miklosovic was a trusted mentor to their daughter. However, while camping the two lit candles, chanted and exchange vows in a pagan wedding ceremony. To solidify their union, they traded a piece of braided cloth. It was after the "wedding" that Miklosovic sexually assaulted her young victim.

      --- About.com

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    2. A little light reading Admiral? Please tell me you had both hands on the keyboard.

      -KW

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    3. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 4:56 PM

      I try to keep up with what's going on in the Progressive avant garde, Popeye. What will be next, one wonders. The Uberprogressive Professor Singer (Princeton) seems to be zeroed in on bestiality:

      We copulate, as [animals] do. They have penises and vaginas, as we do, and the fact that the vagina of a calf can be sexually satisfying to a man shows how similar these organs are.
      --- Peter Singer

      Stay away from my dog, Popeye.

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  2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 8:08 AM

    I transitioned from being a supporter of capital punishment to being an opponent of capital punishment. The primary impetus to my transition was volunteer prison work within a Christian ministry.

    I do agree that capital punishment can be moral. For example, if a person willfully and carelessly spreads disease within a vulnerable community, and there are no practical means of incarceration or exile, then that person must be removed for the greater good of the community. An example of this would be an adulterer in a 500 BC desert village, where, for example, gonorrhea and syphilis were deadly, incurable diseases.

    Nevertheless, in our society, incarceration (i.e., exile to an institution) is possible.

    What I have witnessed and what changed my view is a small number of men sentenced to life without parole who make a turn in their lives and become a positive influence on incarcerated men who will be released. This is an unvarnished social good. In every case I have personally witnessed, this change was the result of a religious conversion to either Christianity or Islam. So, rather than killing these men, I think we should "let God sort them out" before they die.

    Also, the small, but nonzero, false positive rate in the judicial system merely strengthens my opposition.

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    1. Georgie,

      For once I agree with you. Depending on the crime, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a better deterrent than capital punishment.

      It also allows reversal of wrong convictions, such as Todd Cameron Willingham, who was executed for killing his three children by arson. He might have done it. However, the forensic evidence was deeply flawed, such that there was NO evidence against him.

      One quibble. If you are using the spread of gonorrhoea and syphylis to justify the Biblical punishment of death for adultery - gonorrhoea isn't a lethal disease generally, and syphilis wasn't an Old World disease. It was imported into Europe by Columbus' sailors, and like many novel infections in previously unexposed populations resulted in severe disease (it was called the great pox to distinguish it from smallpox).

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    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 11:52 AM

      backflow, I defer to your knowledge of diseases. My more general point was that offenses like adultery (or theft, or false witness) could severely disrupt the functioning of ancient villages. Using adultery as an example, it wasn't just transmission of diseases for which there were no cures. Jealousy can be a primary motivator for murder, and adultery throws a wrench into the practical administration of estates. in villages living on the edge of survival, these are not trivial issues, nor are they exclusively moral issues.

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    3. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 12:23 PM

      By the way, backflow... you always agree with me. You just don't know it yet.

      And on a completely different subject, knowing you are interested in cognition, here's a truly interesting video (with nary a gorilla to be overlooked): the McGurk Effect.

      Tell me what you think.

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    4. Georgie,

      If I ever agree with everything you think, it would only be the result of massive brain damage. Or malicious brainwashing.

      Your link to the YouTube video on the McGurk effect doesn't go to a single video.

      Anyway. The McGurk effect illustrates that the mind is a product of the brain. It's a model of external reality and the person's place in the world. The model of external reality is a result of highly imperfect perception of sensory inputs which are processed by the brain according to expectation and experience to give a far richer sensory image.

      Each eye for example contains 126 million photoreceptors, so effectively it's a 126 megapixel camera. However, most of the information is processed and compressed in the retina and transmitted to the brain in the optic nerve, which contains less than a million axons, so it drops to 1 megapixel.

      The brain receives highly degraded visual information, not much more than central vision, and then proceeds to put in details, which are confabulated - more or less - or to leave out objects if they're not expected. And predicts the position of moving objects roughly 100 milliseconds into the future, since that's roughly how long it takes the brain to process visual input (otherwise batters wouldn't be able to hit fast balls).

      The model also allows the illusion of free will. The subconscious brain makes most of the decisions (they are your brain's decisions and are therefore your decisions) and present them to the mind, which then finds reasons, rational or emotional (usually emotional) for carrying out the decision.

      It's only in the rarer cases where the subconscious brain can't come to a single decision and presents several choices to the mind that it appears that the mind is really deciding. The choice the mind makes is still largely based on subconscious emotional factors, even if rational reasons are proffered as the cause.

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    5. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 6:50 PM

      The McGurk effect does not illustrate that the mind is a product of the brain, backflow. And to extrapolate from the McGurk effect to free will is, to put it as kindly as possible, ludicrous.

      But when you insist you're a "gigantic lumbering [meat] robot", I can only agree. As Terry Bisson said in his wonderful short story, it's all just

      [m]eat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat it makes a noise? They talk by flapping
      their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.


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    6. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 7:03 PM

      By the way, blinkfast, I forgot to ask: which video did your subconscious command you to select?

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    7. Georgie,

      You need to get out of the bathtub more often and stop playing with your toy plastic battleships.

      'Illustrates' doesn't mean 'proves'. The McGurk effect illustrates that the brain processes sensory inputs, attempts to make a coherent picture of incomplete or imperfect inputs, based on experience or expectation - eliminating contradictions - to create a model of external reality, which is usually though not always reliable.

      The mind is a model of the person's place in external reality and external reality itself.

      What do you think that the McGurk effect shows (you provided a better link to the YouTube video, which I don't usually watch anyway)? And what do you think the 'mind' is?

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    8. Georgie,

      My subconscious made me irritated at your stupidity at not linking to a single video and made the decision to close the YouTube app immediately.

      And the Bisson short story is stupid. There's no evidence that there's ETI, let alone ETIs constructed out of anything other than matter, and carbon-based matter too, just based on our single case in our data set.

      Where's your evidence? And what are your answers to my questions?

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    9. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 27, 2013 at 7:47 PM

      blowfish, your subconscious is getting uppity.

      And your timid speculations about ETI are simply meat trembling in the face of a vast universe. Why, Aswad al-Gore himself is descended from a race of giant Jovian gasbags. And my evidence for that is the vast quantities of hot air he emits.

      Now, what do I think the mind is? That's a very deep question. We can rule out meat (in some cases, not all - I fully respect your meatheadedness). And I need more information: does your question cover both "mind" and "consciousness", or just "mind" with a distinction between the two?

      I'll check back with you - here - and we'll continue this. It's dinnertime in my time zone. But this is interesting, actually.

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    10. Georgie,

      'Mind' and 'consciousness' are aspects of the same thing, so they can be considered the same thing in practice.

      You can't have a mind unless you're conscious and you can't be conscious unless you have a mind. Although both can be temporarily or permanently switched off. Or temporarily decreased.

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    11. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 28, 2013 at 7:02 AM

      Well, I disagree. I knew this was going to be fun.

      In practice, I think there's a huge difference between consciousness and mind.

      For example, I think chimps (or dogs, or even hamsters) are as fully conscious as humans. But there is a gulf between the mind of a chimp (assuming they have one, an assumption that may be a category error) and a human that is unbridgeable. Chimps may poke a stick into a termite mound, but there are no chimp footprints on the moon. A million dollars worth of government funding, a half-dozen postdocs, and a bevy of technical support staff may be able to condition a chimp to push colorful buttons in sequence to spell out "Bobo want banana", but a chimp will never spontaneously construct a statement like Bobbie Burns' "My love is like a red, red rose that's newly sprung in June..." (much less the technical manual set for the International Space Station)

      So consciousness and mind are not the same thing "in practice". In practice, the scientists and engineers who developed MRI machines have more mind going for them than Koko (assuming Koko has a mind). But it seems to me that, minus the verbal confound, a healthy Koko and and a healthy Albert Einstein would score the same on the Glasgow Protocol, which appears to be a crude measure of consciousness.

      So, to my way of thinking, consciousness is a necessary, but not sufficient, precursor to mind.

      BTW, I'm delighted to continue this, but we're probably testing the patience of Egnor, who has a blog to run. Any suggestions?

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    12. Georgie,

      Well chimps do have minds, as do other primates. They do form tools. They don't just poke sticks into termite mounds from sticks lying next to the termite mound. They collect sticks from elsewhere, fashion them into the right form by stripping leaves and twigs and demonstrate the skill to their young so they're able to learn it and pass the trick on to their young.

      Chimps have culture. Learned behaviour passed on to future generations.

      Agreed. There's a big quantitative difference between the mind of a chimp and the mind of a human because there's a big quantitative difference between the brain of a chimp and the brain of a human. I think that that's the only reason. If you think that there's something more, then what is it? And where's your evidence?

      I'm certain Egnor won't disagree with my assertion that chimps have minds, since he's made an even more radical assertion that termites and bees also have minds (not that I agree with that assertion though).

      My suggestion - you answer the questions. What is mind? What is consciousness? What do you think the McGurk effect shows?

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  3. M.Egnor: "My friend Ilion ..."

    I am honored.

    "The death penalty is a completely moral option in some circumstances, specifically the circumstances he points out. It is morally licit to take the life of a convicted criminal if it is necessary to preserve public safety and civil society."

    Sometimes, it's not only a morally licit "option", but a morally obligatory duty.

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    1. Ilion:

      I am honored as well. I have learned much from you.

      Mike

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