The death penalty

When I first started reading this blog, I was staunchly in favour of the death penalty. Since then, my views have changed somewhat, and I wanted to briefly explain why.

Firstly, I have a lot of sympathy for the death penalty’s proponents, especially if they, or their loved ones, have been victims of a horrific crime. A desire for justice is a perfectly natural human trait. In some cases, people have a visceral conviction that some people deserve to die. For instance, I don’t criticise Israel for the execution of Adolf Eichmann- a man personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. Faced with insurmountable evidence of war crimes, the death penalty felt like the only appropriate response. I don’t believe advocates of the death penalty are bloodthirsty lovers of violence, unlike how they are often portrayed in progressive media outlets.

Nor do I have a moral problem with the death penalty. Its opponents say that an execution is a violation of human rights, on the basis that everyone has a right to life. While it’s true everyone has a right to life, everyone also has a right to live a free life- to choose their own job, their own house, to largely do as they please. But obviously all of those rights are violated when someone is imprisoned. Does imprisonment therefore constitute a violation of human rights? Of course not, because it is a punishment. So I don’t believe opposition to the death penalty on the basis of rights is tenable, because punishments are specifically intended to violate rights as retribution for a committed crime.

Rather, my opposition to the death penalty is simply on the basis of the possibility of executing an innocent person. Now its true that this is far less likely in the era of forensics, DNA tests and CCTV footage. But it’s still possible. In a country as large as the United States, the implementation of the death penalty will result in the execution of an innocent person sooner or later. So it’s best to stay on the safe side and not have it at all. In the case of the UK, the death penalty would make EU membership impossible and a close trading relationship with them harder, so it’s best we don’t implement it either.

In some very rare instances, it’s possible for people convicted of horrendously evil crimes to genuinely change. Imprisonment allows the justice system to observe such changes and give a person early release if they are no longer a threat to society. Part of the death penalty’s brutality is the underlying assumption that people are largely incapable of changing.

I’d add that many countries that have the death penalty have a highly flawed implementation of it. China, Iran and Saudi Arabia use it as a form of social and political oppression. In the United States, the use of certain chemicals has made executions more painful than they need be. The death penalty in America is actually very expensive due to the cost of death row and the inevitable cost of dealing with appeal cases. There are racial disparities in who gets executed. In Japan, executions are occasionally a result of confessions after the prisoner has been harshly interrogated. There isn’t a country which implements the death penalty without considerable controversy. If we invest in decent prisons, a sophisticated rehabilitation system, and accept the fallibility of our own judgement, the case for the death penalty looks rather weak in the modern age.


  1. Yours is a telling intellectual-moral evolution toward a view which seems to me to be the most consonant with basic humane values. In particular, I second this sentence which, I think, is incontrovertible: [M]y opposition to the death penalty is simply on the basis of the possibility of executing an innocent person.”

  2. Another objection to the death penalty: it doesn’t deter. Many of those who advocate it claim that the threat of such dire retribution makes the potential murderer think twice. Actually, to murder someone must surely mean that you have lost, not only your moral bearings, but your rationality, decency and common sense. No normally sentient human being deliberately kills another person, unless it is during wartime and you can justify it on the grounds that you are defending the nation, mothers and little children. Otherwise, you are out of your mind, and the idea that you might be executed, I would argue, probably seems worth the risk to the man with murder in his heart, that is, if he can reason at all.

    I think a life sentence, during which you are constantly reminded of the grievous crime, and might just feel genuine remorse in due course, is a better punishment, even if we taxpayers have to reluctantly pay the bill.

    • Exactly! The death penalty and torture fail to achieve their stated objectives, as has been demonstrated for decades.

      Decade after decade the theories arguing that fear of death deter crime or torturing produces useful intelligence have been rebutted. What the critics lack the powerful megaphones wielded by the vested interests.

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