This post isn’t about the propriety of the death penalty so much as it is about the dangers and profound crassness of utilitarian philosophy. Peter Singer has stated that if he was convinced of a utilitarian benefit to society from the death penalty, he would support it. From “Ethics Matter: A Conversation With Peter Singer:”
QUESTION: Is there any possible scenario that you could imagine sanctioning the death penalty?
PETER SINGER: Is there any possible scenario where I could imagine? Look, if somebody came up with convincing evidence that the death penalty was a uniquely effective deterrentlet’s say that for every murderer who was executed, there would be ten fewer murdersthen, as a utilitarian, I would have to accept the death penalty. In fact, if the evidence was clear-cut enough and sound enough, even if it was only for every person executed, there were two fewer murderers or one and a half fewer murderers, I guess I would accept it. But as I read it, there just isn’t any such evidence. The evidence, if anything, seems to suggest the other way. Certainly, in the United States, the states that do not have the death penalty have lower murder rates than the states that do have the death penalty. The whole of the European Union, none of those states have the death penalty; they all have lower murder rates than the United States. So the evidence seems to me to be contrary to what I was suggesting.
And, certainly, I don’t see other justifications for the death penalty. I don’t see the point of punishment as being retribution. I think that is something that iswell, to my mind it’s a little primitive really, the idea that somehow you take retribution by taking a life for a life. You can see why, in earlier societies, that was a way of responding to crime. But I would think that we understand a little bit more about the causes of crime, and understand a little bit more about what is really likely to be the best way to respond to it, in terms of having a moral, compassionate, and humane society. The death penalty doesn’t seem to be it.
QUESTIONER: What about genocide?
PETER SINGER: I don’t really see that genocide is any different in that sense. Certainly, you may want to lock people away who are guilty of those horrible crimes, but I don’t really see a need to put them to death. Again, in Europe we have, of course, now trials relating to genocide in former Yugoslavia. But those people are not being put to death when convicted of those crimes. Nobody there is really clamoring for blood for the blood that has been shed.
May want to lock people away???
Looking at the death penalty in such a removed manner comes from shedding human exceptionalism. Singer talks about a moral and compassionate society, but bases his views on the DP by applying cold utilitarian outcomes. And it strikes me that if one would say OKAY to the death penalty if two fewer murders resulted per execution—and I think some studies have actually shown a deterrent value—then what else should we judge in this way? I mean, if that is our focus, why not kill convicted murderers for their organs since that will save more lives of the innocent than it takes from the guilty? And what if “retribution” actually made the lives of the devastated loved ones more bearable, worth living, and fulfilling with the execution, but would leave them with never-ending emotional devastation without it—as sometimes happens—what then? Based on a pure utilitarian calculation, it could justify execution. Indeed, with regard to utilitarianism, “primitive” and “compassion” are irrelevant.
Compare Singer’s views—which theoretically could boil down to 1.00000001 fewer murders for one application of the death penalty—to that of the focused and impressive death penalty opponent, Sr. Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame. I watched her give a rousing speech last month when we appeared at the same event, in which she cried out, “What about the [human] dignity of the guilty?” It was a powerful question, one which I am still pondering. And she certainly never argues as if the suffering of the victims’ loved ones doesn’t matter, a crucial matter in this issue that Singer didn’t mention directly in his answer. To the contrary, in fact. The victims are as much a part of her ministry as the guilty.
Mere incarceration for genocide isn’t justice. Nor for the rape/murder of a child, so let’s not pretend that it is. This doesn’t mean we should have a death penalty, of course, but I think the focus of the arguments over this controversial issue should be about how to best value the importance of human life in the criminal justice context—I think both sides have valid arguments on that score—to which should also be added (and this isn’t a complete list) the place for mercy in such cases, the emotional benefits of retribution to the victims and society, the dangers of unleashing blood lust vengence if the state doesn’t adequately punish, yes, deterrent value, if any, and the risks of executing an innocent person.
But cold blooded utilitarian bean counting as the apparent sole criterion? No. That’s not only crass, but I think it denigrates the fundamental import of human life, human death, and the human craving for justice after suffering catastrophic harm.