Ethical Realism

January 14, 2011

Why Jared Loughner Does Not Deserve The Death Penalty for the Arizona Shootings. Capital Punishment is Immoral.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Vengeance. We want to hurt those who hurt others. We might think that evil people “deserve” pain and should live miserable lies.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


  1. What happened in Tucson is a tragedy & my heart goes out to the families who are suffering, including the Loughners. Let me just say a few things about Jared & the death penalty. Firstly, not to upset anyone with this comparison although there is good reason for using it, what makes it “right” or “just” for the U.S. to use lethal injection (or death penalty altogether) & yet we fought Nazi Germany in WWII for the same heinous acts…euthanasia & genocide!! What, just because this is America that makes it ok?? Secondly, what truly gives anyone the right to say & decide whether or not a person should live or die?! Thirdly, is it not more of a punishment for the accused offender to spend his/her life behind prison walls forcing them to remember & think about what they’ve done every day? Fourthly, how does it not punish more innocent people by murdering the accused offender? He has family, friends & people who love him too! Why make them suffer more also? Fifthly, this man apparently is psychologically ill & has been pushed away from society, love, care & treatment before. Why continue to do so when, I truly believe, is a lot of the reason this Tucson tragedy occured. Why be part of the problem of hate, violence, death, carelessness, & so much more. If people want these kinds of tragedies to stop, the solution HAS to start with each of us as individuals..then together we can make a real difference. Sixthly, the biggest majority of people are complete hippocrates. How can one be against abortion because it ends a life & yet for the death penalty? How can people be for human rights & for the death penalty? How can people quote the Bible stating “An eye for an eye”, but always leave out other important parts only when it benefits them, such as, “Thou shall not kill”? That commandment goes for everyone. The Bible also talks about “stoning your child to death”, but people don’t take that literally. Seventhly, and for now lastly, what good does it do to execute these accused offenders when that’s not helping to put a stop to future offenders from doing something of the same nature…or worse? None! We need to understand these people & the reason for their actions…not just say “Well, you did it, now you’re going to death row”. And we need to get these people real help & stop pushing them away from society & the help they need. In my strongest opinion, this system does not have very good “justice” at all..or any support & care for the ill people. We need to change that & that is not going to happen with the path most people are on & with the way most people think. There are too many filled with hate & vengeance. Dare to be different. Dare to make a difference. Save a life! Change HAS to start with you!
    P.s. please sign my petition & pass it on to help prevent Jared Loughner from being sent to the death penalty & help promote treatment for him. Yes, he should be punished..but NOT by death! Thank you.

    Comment by Keisha — February 3, 2011 @ 8:04 am | Reply

  2. P.p.s. my petition link is: please sign & pass on! Thank you! Make a difference!

    Comment by Keisha — February 3, 2011 @ 8:09 am | Reply

  3. I think anyone who believes that we should pay for this Asshole’s ASS should get someone shot and killed in their family.

    Imagine Christina Green’s family paying through their tax dollars for the toilet paper to wipe this scums ass when that money can go to hungry, needy children.

    So many little black kids can’t get FREE health care, and you’re asking us to PAY for this ASSHOLE’s dental and health insurance?

    The cost of taking care of a corps? FREE

    I think you guys should be put to death for showing ANY kind of mercy towards this monster.

    Comment by BeeBee — April 25, 2011 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

    • That’s great that you think that, but you are wrong. You can believe wrong things if you want, but that doesn’t seem rational. You offer no argument. You totally ignore my arguments and just dismiss them. Perhaps you are overwhelmed by emotion and don’t want to listen to arguments. How would you like other people to totally ignore your arguments and dismiss everything you have to say and decide that your family members should be shot? Is that how you want to be treated or do you think people should be treated with respect?

      Comment by James Gray — April 25, 2011 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

  4. BTW, Linda Shaw would still be ALIVE today if her KILLER wasn’t let lose to KILL again!

    Comment by BeeBee — April 25, 2011 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

    • I never said that the killer should be let loose. You should read my arguments again.

      Comment by James Gray — April 25, 2011 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

  5. There’s a little girl named Kimmie who was KILLED out in Calgary in 1980. Her ASSHOLE murderer, thanks to the Canadian Justice system, is FREE after 30 years in prison.

    If Kimmie’s killer was put to DEATH, we wouldn’t have to worry about him killing little children on the streets of Regina.

    So how many trees do we have to pay for to wipe this asshole’s ass?

    Comment by BeeBee — April 26, 2011 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

    • Do you have an argument? If a government lets a murderer free and shouldn’t do so, that’s a problem. I never said it wasn’t.

      You seem to want to imply a false dilemma: Either we will kill all the worst kinds of criminals or we will end up letting some of them free. That’s false. Life in prison is another option.

      You also seem to want to imply that it’s cheap to execute criminals, but it’s actually very expensive. There are several years of appeals and it can take decades before someone is executed. Sometime innocent people are executed. Is it OK to execute innocent people? I think not.

      Tell you what. Read my actual arguments. If they are valid and have true premises, you’re wrong. So far I think that my arguments are sound and you give no reason to think otherwise.

      Comment by James Gray — April 26, 2011 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

  6. I apologize for all that I wrote. I was disrespectful and mean. Sorry.

    Comment by BeeBee — May 3, 2011 @ 12:49 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your apology, it shows courage to admit when we do something wrong. I try to do the same when I do something wrong.

      Comment by James Gray — May 3, 2011 @ 1:00 am | Reply

  7. loughner boght a gun and ammunition and shot Gabby Giffords and 18 other people, 6 of them fatally. That is malice aforethought.
    To say he is inssane is indefensible. loughner is evil and should be executed.
    To say its cheaper to keep him alive in prison is nonsense. He could live to be 90 or older, wasting money on appeals and parole hearings.
    It costs between $24K and $36K to keep a felon incarcerated per year.
    If loughner were to live even to 80 years at an average of $30K/year it would cost $1.74 million of taxpayer’s money to keep him alive.
    I’m tired of bleeding hearts and the aclu (synonymous) getting media attention for abolition of the death penalty.
    Ivory tower thinking is fine until evil visits those opposed to the death penalty and they lose a loved one to someone like loughner.
    Like Ron White (comedian) said about Texas, ‘If you kill someone in Texas we will kill you back’.
    The same applies here in Alabama.

    Comment by Michael Tinsley — May 15, 2011 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

    • Insane people can be evil and do horrible things. You in no way proved he’s not insane. It can cost a lot to have the death penalty because it costs a lot of money to have appeals trials and so forth. More information:

      You call my arguments “Ivory Tower Thinking” and yet I have clearly stated reasons against the death penalty. Reasonable people have reasons for their beliefs. You dismiss arguments out of hand. That is not evidence that you are a reasonable person. If my arguments fail, please explain why. So far you’ve merely asserted that the death penalty can save a state money, but you have no proof — it usually doesn’t. However, even if the death penalty were cheaper, that wouldn’t mean we should do it. It might be expensive for the state to keep certain old people alive, but that doesn’t mean it should let them die.

      Comment by James Gray — May 15, 2011 @ 8:31 pm | Reply


    Comment by Kathy — July 2, 2011 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

  9. I liked most of your argument. There were a couple of areas I felt like your argument was missing or wishy washy but over all I agree with you.

    The biggest argument for me is the injustice in the system. If our legal system is flawed, corrupt or inconstant, then we should not take the life of any.

    To those above that think all forms of murder are the same, they are not. Most and maybe nearly all murderers do not go on to murder again once released.

    So supplying anecdotal evidence of a few cases does not support your argument.

    If you have lost someone to murder, I am sorry for your loss.

    Comment by Mike — January 21, 2012 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

    • Mike, any suggestions to how I can improve my arguments? Where exactly are the areas that need improvement?

      Comment by JW Gray — January 21, 2012 @ 9:48 pm | Reply

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