Ballot offers choice between justice and mercy
Fresno Bee 2012-10-06
Proposition 34 aims to repeal the death penalty in California, while replacing it with life imprisonment without parole.
Those arguing in favor of Prop. 34 claim that abolishing the death penalty will save money which can be used to pursue criminals. The election booklet clarifies this focus on law enforcement by saying, “we cannot let brutal killers evade justice.” The argument also claims that abolishing the death penalty will ensure that innocent people are not executed.
Opponents of Prop. 34 argue that without the death penalty, murderers would indeed evade justice. That argument claims, “Proposition 34 lets serial killers, cop killers, child killers, and those who kill the elderly, escape justice.” The argument then describes a number of cruel and brutal murders.
This points toward some deep moral issues.
Justice appears to require an equivalence between crime and punishment. The retributivist idea of “eye for eye, life for a life” may have developed as a way of restraining the desire for revenge. Consider, for example, the ancient Greek story of Achilles. When his friend was killed, Achilles went on a rampage, slaughtering every Trojan he could find. Achilles defiled the body of his friend’s killer and ritually murdered a dozen Trojan prisoners. From the standpoint of “life for life,” Achilles’ revenge was unjust.
The “life for life” ideal may establish a duty to execute. Immanuel Kant once argued that even if society were to collapse and the prisons were to be dismantled, we would still have a moral obligation to kill every murderer awaiting execution. For Kant, we have an obligation to the murder victim — and to the murderer himself. People should be given what they deserve. If murderers deserve to be killed, we ought to deliver justice, even if it is inconvenient or expensive.
An alternative to retributivism is an ethic of mercy. When we show mercy, we give people less than what they deserve, perhaps because we feel compassion to them. The ethic of mercy is associated with Christianity, with Jesus recommending that we “turn the other cheek” rather than taking an “eye for an eye.” The Catholic Bishops of California have argued in support of Prop. 34, connecting it with a larger “pro-life” view. The California Catholic Conference website explains: “we consistently proclaim the intrinsic worth and the God-given dignity of all human life, whether innocent or guilty.” They claim that if society can be protected from violence through the use of life imprisonment, this is preferable to killing the murderer.
This points us toward the question of protecting society and the deterrent effect. The question of deterrence is a complex one, depending on a variety of psychological and social factors. Are murderers rational? Do they value their own lives enough to engage in cost-benefit analysis, weighing the risk of punishment before they engage in their crimes? There is no proof that the death penalty, as currently employed, has a deterrent effect on a murderer.
One reason for this is the infrequent use of the death penalty. The November election book explains that since 1978 about 900 people have been sentenced to death. But only 14 have been executed. When you are more likely to die on death row of natural causes than to be executed, there is not much reason to fear a death sentence.
If we really want to deter crime, we may need swifter and more certain system of execution. But opponents will argue that this could lead us to execute some innocent people, who are protected by the lengthy appeals process. For deterrence to work, we might want to return to public executions–public hangings or the guillotine. The spectacle of a brutal execution may in fact scare people away from crime. But our current practice emphasizes the painless killing of lethal injection.
This brings us back to the question of justice and mercy. We no longer cut off criminal’s heads or hang them in public. Why not? Perhaps we are simply squeamish about doing what justice requires. Maybe we just don’t like to see blood — even when we believe that it is justly spilled. Or perhaps we are convinced that mercy and compassion are important values. We’ll see whether justice or mercy wins out in the November election.