I love the idea of revenge and I hate what Jared Loughner has done. I would like to see him suffer. I can understand those who want to avenge horrific crimes and I don’t think vengeance is necessarily “murder.”1 However, I don’t think vengeance should be legal and I think the death penalty should be illegal.
The shootings and attempted assassination by Jared Loughner in Arizona were horrific and we should all demand that justice be served. If capital punishment is ever appropriate, there’s a chance that this is it. We caught the killer red handed. There is no margin for error in this case. However, there are three important questions to be asked. One, is he morally responsible? If he is insane, then perhaps not. Two, is the death penalty immoral in the USA? Three, is the death penalty itself immoral?
I will argue (a) that many insane people are insufficiently morally responsible to deserve the death penalty, (b) that the death penalty is not sufficiently justified in the USA, and (c) that the death penalty is almost always immoral.
1. Moral responsibility, punishment, and insanity
Although it might be appropriate to “punish” children and other people incapable of “full responsibility,” almost everyone agrees that severe punishment is inappropriate for these people. To be morally responsible, someone needs to be able to understand why an action is wrong and to choose to do the right thing based on that understanding. If someone is incapable of understanding right from wrong and acting on that understanding, then he or she is behaving much like a nonhuman animal. It is absurd to severely punish an animal. Moreover, many insane people lack responsibility. They are incapable of understanding right and wrong, or they are incapable of acting on that understanding. If Jared Loughner is insane, then he might lack moral responsibility.
I find that the death penalty would be inappropriate if Jared Loughner lacks moral responsibility. Why exactly people deserve punishment in the first place depends on how punishment is justified, but I find that none of them would be appropriate:
- Retribution. The idea is that it is unfair for a criminal to “get away” with a crime without “making up for it” somehow. When we harm others, we feel responsible to “pay them back.” If you steal something, you should give it back. If you break something, you should pay for it. If you injure someone, you should pay the medical bills. Perhaps if you kill people, perhaps you can “pay” for the crime through incarceration or death.
- Vengeance. We want to hurt those who hurt others. We might think that evil people “deserve” pain and should live miserable lies.
- Incapacitation. The idea is that we don’t trust criminals and want to protect ourselves from them. We certainly don’t trust people who murder others and the death penalty is a good way to “incapacitate” murderers.
- Deterrence. If we harm criminals, then people will be afraid to be criminals. The death penalty is a severe punishment, so criminals might be more afraid to commit crimes if they might get the death penalty.
- Rehabilitation. We would prefer that criminals learn to become productive citizens. Perhaps murderers can learn to be productive members of society. However, death couldn’t possibly be considered “rehabilitation.”
Severe retribution seems inappropriate for those who lack responsibility because they don’t fully understand the damage that could be done by their actions. Instead, we generally think that someone should “watch over” these people—and these guardians might have to “pay for” the harm done by those they watch over. Therefore, severe retribution is inappropriate when insanity causes someone to lack sufficient responsibility.
Vengeance seems inappropriate for those who lack responsibility because they aren’t really “evil.” Irresponsible people aren’t “free” to be malicious or evil, which is necessary for anyone to “deserve” pain and misery (assuming anyone ever could deserve such a thing).
Incapacitation could be appropriate forms of punishment against those who lack moral responsibility because we want to be protected from these people when they are dangerous. However, the death penalty is an overly severe form of incapacitation in this day and age when we can incapacitate people through incarceration alone.
Deterrence is not an appropriate form of punishment to those who lack moral responsibility because such people will probably not make “better decisions” based on the fact that they fear punishment.
Finally, we should not confuse the fact that people often have to kill in self defense or to protect others with the death penalty. The death penalty is a punishment used against those who are already safely in custody. Killing a murderer who is currently trying to harm others might be necessary to protect the potential victim in the heat of the moment, but a murderer in custody should already be “incapacitated.”
In conclusion, I see no reason to think that the death penalty would be appropriate against anyone that lacks moral responsibility. We have yet to determine that Jared Loughner is “sufficiently rational” to deserve the death penalty, even if the death penalty is occasionally justified. Additionally, we have prima facie evidence that he was quite irrational and mentally ill.
2. Is the death penalty immoral in the USA?
First, the USA is capable of incapacitating criminals without the death penalty. That might not be possible in some places or times.
Second, the USA has been serving the death penalty to a disproportionate number of minorities and the poor. There might be “prejudice” built into the justice system, and refusing to have the death penalty can help us combat the prejudice.
Third, philosophers are by and large unconvinced that the death penalty is justified. See the entry on Capital Punishment in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a description of the debate thus far. It is pretty clear that philosophers haven’t settled the matter.
Fourth, even if philosophers did prove that the death penalty is justified once and for all, it would not be entirely clear when it would apply. When exactly should it be used? I know of no clear cut case in the USA. Why? For one thing we know too little about “moral responsibility” and “right and wrong” to be sure that anyone is “sufficiently morally rational.” The incredibly impressive “moral knowledge” (and “knowledge of rationality”) attained by philosophers is quickly dismissed by our educational system that refuses to require our population to attain even a low level of philosophical, logical, or moral education.
Fifth, it would be better to err by being overly gentle to criminals than overly harsh. It is wrong to harm people unless we can prove otherwise. Making the life for criminals a little better than necessary is hardly a horror, but harming people without sufficient justification is a horror. For this reason it is not my job to prove that the death penalty is unjustified. Instead, it is someone else’s job to prove that it is.
Finally, it has never been sufficiently proven that the death penalty is justified (when lesser forms of incapacitation are available), so we are not justified to have it.
For the reasons above Jared Loughner should not be given the death penalty.
3. Is the death penalty immoral?
I admit that there might be cases when the death penalty is justified when it is the only reasonable form of incapacitation available, but that does not apply to us in this day and age. I’m not saying that all criminals are too irresponsible to deserve the death penalty. I am suggesting that even if some criminals are “sufficiently rational” to deserve punishment, those criminals would still not deserve the death penalty. First, the death penalty is immoral because of the value of human life and our right to life. Second, I don’t think the death penalty is justified for retribution, vengeance, incapacitation, or deterrence (in our day and age).
The Value of Human Life
The value of human life seems to be greater than the “usefulness” of human life. It’s good to exist. You have value, but even criminals have value. We shouldn’t “dehumanize” or “demonize” criminals to convince ourselves that they are “worthless” and “deserve suffering.”
Additionally, we have a right to life. Even if human life has no value beyond our own desires to live, we should all agree that we have a “right to life.” You can never take away all rights from a person. You can’t rape or torture criminals. Criminals also have a right to food and health care while in incarceration because of their right to live. If there is any right that can’t be taken from us (without a very good justification), it’s our right to live.
Justifications for the Death Penalty Fail
The best justification for the death penalty is retribution. Perhaps criminals should “pay for” their crimes through death. However, it’s highly mysterious why this is so. Murderers can’t pay for the lives they took. That is simply not an appropriate option as far as I can tell. Why exactly is death “fitting” for murderers? How can we decide that death would be a good “payment?” It seems completely arbitrary as far as I can tell.
I suspect that the most common reason people want the death penalty is “vengeance.” They think it will somehow satisfy their rage. However, I see no reason to think that vengeance (or revenge) is ever appropriate. The idea that “some people are evil but we are good—they deserve death, but we deserve life” seems quite naive. Criminals are not so different from us. They are probably not as malicious as some of us think. I suspect that vengeance is often seen as justified only when we dehumanize and demonize criminals.
Deterrence is taken by many to justify the death penalty, but this justification seems disrespectful and overly coercive. Ruling by “fear” does not seem like a good way to lead the public. Even if severe coercion could be justified through deterrence, (a) it’s not clear that the death penalty deters crime and (b) the death penalty could be cruel and unusual punishment. If deterrence can justify severe forms of coercion, why shouldn’t we lash, electrocute, castrate, or amputate criminals for certain crimes?
It should already be obvious that incapacitation and rehabilitation can’t be used to justify the death penalty in our current environment, so I won’t bother to discuss such “possibilities.”
In conclusion, it is far from obvious that the death penalty can be justified. Instead, it is highly mysterious why anyone would think the death penalty is justified. We should never harm anyone unless we know that we are justified for doing so, and we certainly don’t know that the death penalty is ever justified in this day and age.
As far as I can tell no one deserves the death penalty in this day and age—especially in the USA. The USA has a corrupt justice system and philosophers haven’t “settled the debate.” I personally don’t see how any justification for capital punishment can succeed, and we lack the proof we need to justify it. We can’t harm people without a sufficient justification but we lack that justification. This isn’t just a “matter of opinion.” The burden of proof is on those who want to use the death penalty.
Not only is the death penalty unjustified, but it is certainly unclear that it is justified for Jared Loughner because it seems likely that he lacks sufficient moral responsibility.
1 The word “murder” seems inappropriate for vengeance against those like Jared Loughner. I also wouldn’t call “capital punishment” “murder” even though I think it is “wrongful killing.” The word “murder” should signify the most heinous acts of killing.