Death to the death penalty

Two weeks ago, The Tartan published a pro-death penalty article in their “Insights” section, penned by an author who chose to remain anonymous. The article is mostly rambling and filler words, but I think I’ve distilled the writer’s argument into a form that makes its flaws more apparent. The author believes that the death penalty is morally justifiable, beneficial to society, and impervious to error. Unfortunately, those points are all invalid.

Tacking the moral argument is tricky. Morals may not be arbitrary, but concretely defining an action as “good” or “bad” in a way that everyone can agree with is probably impossible. Everyone is free to determine what they believe is right or wrong, but it isn’t unreasonable to ask for consistency.

No more death penalty. Image from The Political Carnival.
No more death penalty. Image from The Political Carnival.

Personally, I could only justify killing another person in defense of myself or someone else. It seems that the author wants to have similar values as he (or she) sees the point of the death penalty as a way to “keep a killer off the streets.” To him, the death of the criminal in question is just a side-effect but that’s nonsense.

The death penalty is not the only way to separate innocent and dangerous people, and if we choose, it can be avoided. You might be able to argue that the death penalty is cost effective or convenient, but that’s not the same thing. Ultimately, the death penalty is never truly self-defense and is merely more needless killing. If you want to morally justify it, you must argue that it’s moral to murder someone for something other than self-defense. That’s a can of worms you don’t want to open.

But what about society? Surely if the death penalty is currently implemented, it must give some benefit to society? Wrong again. Beyond removing bad people from our society, the author points out that it gives closure to families of murder victims and feels that it ensures the safety of the innocent. The kind of closure the author describes assures the family that “a killer is not loose on the streets with the opportunity to kill someone else.” Maybe they can be assured that one less killer is around, but there will always be more killers. Regardless, all of the perceived societal benefits of the penalty can be reached through other means, which makes the death penalty more or less pointless in that regard.

Let’s suppose instead that the death penalty is the only way. Let’s pretend that we can’t simply exile someone malicious without killing them, that prisons are somehow not an option, and that we have the right to kill someone if they harm us first.

What if we make a mistake and accidentally kill the wrong person? The death penalty is unique because once carried out, there is no repeal. The author believes that anyone who is innocent should ultimately be able to exonerate themselves because after-all, they are innocent. I have some facts that don’t care about the author’s “opinion.”

Innocent people have been found guilty hundreds of times that we know of, and it’s possible that there are more who we don’t know of. Through DNA evidence alone, 18 death row inmates have been absolved of guilt so far. Maybe that’s a drop in the bucket, but those drops are people, and no innocent person should ever be collateral damage. I don’t want to think about the innocents who received the death penalty before DNA evidence swung around or the innocents who may be facing the penalty now. Even if we do acquit them after their deaths, they won’t come back.

What’s wrong with simply sending murderers to prison anyway? I’ve heard qualms about the cost of  keeping these people alive in prison but always voiced by people who think it’s OK to pay to keep other people in prison. This is just another case of inconsistency. Until I meet a death-penalty supporter who has rationalized their views, I can only think of them all as idiots. At least I suppose the author was wise in remaining anonymous.


The Tartan article in question may be read here.