13 October 2005

In Defense of the Death Penalty

Diamondback Online - A cry for mercy

Mario Khurram, a Senior at the University of Maryland, proposes, in the article linked above, not using the death penalty for convicted terrorists, or any other murderer for that matter. His post, while poorly reasoned toward an unsupported conclusion, is offered in a level tone, so I will respond in kind. I hope he appreciates my refutation offered in the spirit his article seems to be--that of intelligent debate--and I welcome comments.

He starts by positing that the death penalty may be invoked for convicted "murderers, terrorists and/or enemies of the state," and calls that "disastrous." He then ascribes the death penalty primarily to an eye-for-an-eye mentality, an attempt to "balance out" the scales of justice, and reminds us that criminals have families, too.

He has already misplaced the responsibility for the deed and the motivation for execution. Every person has, or at least had, a family. If we truly believe that every family has the same rights, then every family must have the same responsibilities. We do not assign responsibility for murder to the family of the murderer, but they certainly have no claim upon the family of the victim, nor upon society in general, for consideration of their fate should they be deprived of the company of their murderous offspring.

No, the murderer alone is responsible for his actions, and when the time comes for him to face the consequences of his actions, those consequences should not be mitigated by a concern for those close to the killer. The time for consideration of this type was when the killer weighed, or failed to weigh, the consequences of his actions as they affect not only him, but his victim, his victim's family, the society in which he runs amok, and yes, his own family. So the decision to spare his family a harsh ordeal, to have mercy on their own sensibilities, and to shield them from the loss of their murderous loved one was made by the killer at the time of the deed. Neither society nor the state itself owe an appeal of this decision to the killer's family, as the victim's family has no appeal, and the rights and responsibilities of both families are held to be equal.

He goes on to question the authority of the state, vis the law and its moral underpinnings, to deprive any person of his life. He says it is "very paradoxical". I say it is simple. From Mr. Khurram's post:

It is plausible and reasonable that the state may revoke numerous individual liberties via imprisonment, but revoking the most critical personal right to life demands serious deliberation. Without life, no other rights can exist or have any meaning in any government.
In this, I agree completely. We institute governments to protect our own rights. My right to life is protected in part by the knowledge that if I am deprived of my life through the wanton act of another, every effort will be made to apprehend that person and exact a severe penalty. Serious deliberation has already been undertaken in the course of legislating the sentence of execution for the most heinous crimes. Serious deliberation will be also undertaken by a jury of the killer's peers. Their decision is binding. This is all done to preserve the value of life, not to cheapen it.

He then delves deeper into philosophy, raising questions about the value of a life.
Is a guilty person’s life of less value than an innocent person’s life? By what process does a person’s life lose value or become unworthy and subhuman?
We could simply dispense with this argument by stating the obvious--that life is of the utmost value. Yet the question as he has phrased it is concerned with relative value, and for that we may not rely solely on our deeply held beliefs, or cherished notions. For any discussion of a shifting value, there must be a market, so let us play at philosophical economics for a moment.

Nothing has an objective value. That is more properly referred to as a price, and is completely arbitrary, but in a fair market, the price is typically set close to the value, as determined by the market. Value exists only to a decision maker, either a producer or a consumer, that is, a giver or a taker. In this exchange of metaphysical goods, the value is set by the willingness of one person to give a life, and the willingness of another to take it. Let us assume that all persons are extremely reluctant to give a life, although some will for a sufficiently lofty ideal, but none can be convinced to do so without a very good reason. In the case of simple murder, the selling point of the victim has not been determined, but presumably it is set quite high, so the only variable remaining is the willingness of the killer.

Again, in order to preserve the value of life, through our government we enact laws which tend to damp that willingness to take a life. The most effective of these methods would be to attach that which is most dear, one's own life, to the life of a prospective victim. The killer is presumably not willing to die without a very good reason. If the family and society from which a person comes have somehow failed to instill in that person a basic respect for the sanctity of life, let the law act as a final attempt to stay his hand.

So once again, the value of a life has been set by the killer. Through the deterrent mechanism of a possible death penalty, the upper limit on the value of a killer's life to society is determined to be the value of the victim's life to the killer.


Mr. Khurram points out the futility of attempting to "fill a void" created in our society by a murder, through the remedy of capital punishment. In this his answer correct, but that is not the question. The void cannot be filled. That is why the greatest effort must be made to prevent the act. There can be no atonement for murder.

He also bats down the notion that execution is the harshest consequence offered. I agree. It is hardly the harshest punishment possible. But he offers this canard:

Proper and strict life imprisonment (without parole), where the criminal is stripped of everything but the bare necessities, satisfies the criteria as the harshest consequence.
Not at all. The harshest consequences are routinely meted out to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, year in and year out, for actions not even criminal in this or any other civilized society. The harshest consequences are also a simple, brutal fact of a short, hard life for millions of human beings who have done nothing wrong, offended no person or society, and who perhaps have never had so much as an impure thought, simply because they live in Hellish parts of the Earth, or have fallen to natural disasters. Starving children, drowned cities, slave labor--all "satisfy the criteria" of a consequence far more harsh than those offered by the American system of justice.

Mr. Khurram has the good fortune to live in a society which abhors violence and cruelty. This has conditioned him to think that our civilized system of making unpleasant decisions, in the wake of unconscionable acts, equates the worst which the world has to offer. In this he is mistaken.

He then engages in some rhetorical baiting of the religious through the appeal to an example set by the almighty, and further through a brief dunk in the abortion debate. I am inclined to agree with part of his argument--let us all follow the example of the almighty (as you perceive that power) and be done with this talk of murder. But in his appeal, he seems less than genuine, and it sounds more like a device than a conviction. He is casting about for support, trying to shame the anti-abortion and pro-death-penalty crowd into seeing murderers and hapless innocents as equal. Remember, however, that the murderer has already determined the value of his own life to society, whereas an unborn child has done no such thing. I reproduce his closing paragraph in full, without interrupting to point out the three grammatical errors:
I would like to encourage all those who fight abortion in the pro-life movement to consider that being pro-life also means fighting capital punishment. If we were to spend even half the energy to combat the death penalty as we do abortion, it could be permanently abolished, at least in the United States. We as individuals should learn to embrace mercy as a tremendous and liberating virtue. Of course, the government as an institution has the authority to punish crimes. But let us as individuals learn to forgive, especially when it is hardest. Why is it that God doesn’t strike the criminal dead, immediately after his heinous act? Despite our faults and shortcomings, why does he allow us to maintain the most precious gift of life that he has given to us? The answer is mercy.
Here, Mr. Khurram has mixed some gentle advice with a few non sequiturs. Embrace mercy, indeed, and do it when contemplating murder. Learn to forgive, and definitely forgive before taking the life of one who has done you, your family, and your society no such injury. Well said.

And if he wishes to question the actions of the almighty, he might wish to ask why He does not strike the criminal dead, immediately before his heinous act. I, however, would not presume to ask such a question.

Mr. Khurram demonstrates his misunderstanding of the problem by shading the death penalty as punishment, which has at its core the goal of behavior modification, as if it were something from which we expect the murderer to learn. We do not expect him to learn--we expect him to die, and his sole remaining earthly redemption, the last he may offer society, is if he may serve posthumously as a warning to others not to repeat his crime.

And his statement that "being pro-life also means fighting capital punishment" is patently mistaken. Being pro-life means assigning the highest value possible on life, and part of that is deterring, with every instrument at our disposal, the taking of life.


A man's family, culture, and society attempt (or should attempt) to instill in him the utmost regard for the awesome gift of life. Imperfect creatures that we are, however, we institute governments and imbue them with tremendous powers to stand against the vicious impulses of some in our midst. That power must be credible to be effective. The death penalty is society's last-ditch effort, when all else fails, to preserve the value of life.


Haakon B. Dahl (your humble correspondent) is a former Naval Officer who lives in Japan, and may be reached through comments at The RevWatch blog. I welcome all comments, but particularly comments from those in economics who may wish to poke holes in my analogy. I reserve the right to delete comments as I see fit.

NOTES FOR UPDATE: DNA technology is ostensibly good enough to prove innocence. But not really, as absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence. SO you can say that the prosecutor has not proven the case, but DNA is much better at nailing criminals than freeing the innocent. So if the "wrong man" argument dominates the anti-death-penalty crowd, this is fairly easy to counter--if DNA puts the man at the scene at the time, fry him. DEVELOP this argument and work it in.. And get Khurram out of this, to make it a regular essay, rather than a response piece--too long anyway.

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