Life and DeathMost people have double standards about some things such as sport, the arts or their job- this is unfortunate but such irrational behaviour is a inevitable part of human life. Yet when people exhibit double standards on issues of life and death this is a very serious matter.

{Unlike my previous foray into applied ethics this is a piece of journalism rather than an academic essay, so it is not intended to be comprehensive. I only hope that what I say is stimulating and perhaps challenging.}

Capital Punishment

In the summer of 2011 the British government re-branded it’s own petitions website and promised that time would be set aside in Parliament for the discussion of any petitions which received at least 100,000 signatures. This is a fantastic development, albeit slight, towards a more participatory, deliberative democracy. We should all be very happy about it- especially as this essay will mainly be quite disheartening. After this re-branding the first petition to garner much popularity was one to reintroduce capital punishment. As would be expected of all life and death issues this was deeply controversial and within a few days a petition to not consider reintroducing the death penalty had steadily overtaken the former in popularity. As it happens, I was among those who were using the internet to criticise capital punishment.

In the news article just linked a spokesperson from Amnesty International said that we should not even consider the possibility of reintroducing it because it is a relic of the past. While he was correct, this is because of the reasons why it was stopped- it being outdated is not in itself a reason to stop it. (After all, riding horses seems to be very outdated these days and there is nothing morally wrong with that. Well, unless you’re exploiting their acting talent to make millions with a Hollywood movie, but you get the idea.)

Historically, the main point in the death penalty was not to punish offenders- it would have most often been a completely disproportionate punishment if it had. It seems that rather, it was for something to entertain our ancestors while they were otherwise sitting around waiting for television to be invented. More seriously, the way in which capital punishment tends to be defended in intellectual circles today is not as a form of punishment at all, but as a deterrent. How well it would fulfil this function is much more of an empirical question than a conceptual one, and so there is a tension between this agenda and that of campaigns such as this recent one which (we hardly need discourse analysis to show) are based largely on a populist sentiment of vindictiveness- that aside from any rehabilitation convicts must be punished (hopefully physically) for what they have done.

This brings us to our first double standard (or inconsistency), that the lobby for the death penalty win most of their public support from demanding the imposition of severe punishments while insisting to their opponents that the methods would be painless- that lethal injection, for example, is comfortable way to die. Clearly they cannot have it both ways, to give someone a comfortable death is clearly less of a punishment than to let them rot in a cell for thirty years thinking about what they’ve done.

If we ignore this, is there a plausible case for the death penalty from deterrence? No, it doesn’t seem to lower crime, as is well known both from statistics and the fact that there are countries like the USA which execute large numbers of people which have far higher crime rates than those which don’t execute any. Of course there have been studies which appear to show the death penalty reducing crime but these have only been statistically significant where it is regularly enacted and enacted quickly after the sentence. Even then the effect is small.

In another double standard the lobby for the death penalty will frequently cite such studies as evidence that it would be a good thing while fully in the knowledge that they could never apply to countries like our own which take human rights seriously. The latter is because of the rights to appeal and retrial that one is entitled to, especially when it comes to proving that they should have their greatest asset -their life- taken from them. It is only if these rights were removed that capital punishment would have a significant deterrence effect, but that small effect clearly does not justify the inhumane scenario of stripping people of their rights.

Yet I don’t think this demolition of the case for the death penalty gets to the heart of why people are so against it. In my experience the single biggest objection people have is that it gives the state a power to kill its citizens and that the state, as a flawed human institution will always make mistakes. The conclusion then follows that because we can’t allow mistakes to be made on this grave issue of life and death, we cannot ever justify the implementation of capital punishment. This is especially forceful when we consider, sadly, how often it applies to actual executions.

One example was the case of Troy Davis in September 2011. Not only was no physical evidence was ever found that linked him to the murder he denied, but seven out of the nine witnesses on whose evidence he was convicted later changed their testimony, three of them claiming that the police had coerced the nine into falsely identifying Davis. Astonishingly, on 21 September the US state of Georgia went ahead with the execution  to cries of indignant disbelief from human rights groups across the world. Apologies if you followed the case at the time but I must reiterate for emphasis: the USA did that, not Georgia in Eastern Europe. In 2011. And of course that’s without even considering all the racial issues involved in such cases. It seems doubtful whether the authorities would or could have carried out the execution had Davis been white, or the dead man concerned been black. (I could have cited an example where the executed person was later found innocent, but I preferred to use a recent big story.)


I turn now to another dead issue and with it the most significant double standard I’ve spotted. In June 2011 Terry Pratchett produced a documentary for the BBC in which he defended assisted suicide and called for its legalisation in the UK. Sir Terry, who has since funded an ‘independent’ commission on the latter, also happens to be my favourite living (ironically) author. But what interests me so much about this is not the personality of this national treasure but that it was many of the same fellow leftists/hippies of mine who applauded his demands with great enthusiasm who were later espousing the above objection to capital punishment.

This is striking because there appears to be a rather large inconsistency operating there: that euthanasia is good, but enabling a country to kill its citizens is intolerable because bureaucratic or general human errors will mean that some innocent people will be stripped of all that is valuable to them. This is inconsistent because the application of that argument against the death penalty seems to apply at least equally to the case of euthanasia.

Naturally there is a snappy response to this: the establishment would not have too much power because euthanasia would be the choice of the individual patient and for that same reason there is far less chance of someone being killed in error. The counter-argument is that the first of these points is a misunderstanding and the second is just completely false. It is not an issue of the state or the legal establishment victimising vulnerable people but of the law itself enabling society to kill its members in a routine, normalised way. Second, in the same way that evidence against a defendant in a criminal case could always be misinterpreted or forged (be it for whatever intentions) so could the consent procedures required for legal euthanasia.

In addition to accidents resulting from the complexities of degenerative illness, such patients are also susceptible to a whole host of malicious intentions from family and friends: spite, greed, and the wish not to be burdened with the person. As a final ripost I imagine many defenders of euthanasia would say that the lives of healthy criminals are more valuable than the lives of the handicapped -but that is just prejudice against people with disabilities. Thus euthanasia is a sufficiently similar case to capital punishment and I conclude that if you are against the death penalty you should be against the legalisation of euthanasia.


Continue to Part 2.

Double Standards On Life and Death, Part 1


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