Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

How can a society which calls itself "civilized" keep the death penalty?

There's so much deeply disturbingly wrong with it that I don't even.

We kill less than 100 people per year via execution.

Not so bad compared to drone strikes: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/dron...

The really horrifying thing to me is that drone strikes aren't even a serious topic this election cycle. HRC is in favor for more. Trump wants to commit war crimes. Perhaps I am biased because I helped to do a lot of them.

In the end it comes down to the same thing, judging the value of other people's lives, or perhaps more callously never thinking about their lives at all.

I'm pretty peaceful, but surgical, targeted drone strikes against combatants that are currently a threat against civilians isn't exactly going to keep me up at night.


Yikes, the downvote brigade is swift. Here is what I'm saying: Compared to traditional war. Where we lose tens of thousands of people or more on both sides, targeted drone strikes are a net positive. I'm not for perpetual war in the middle east, but realistically speaking we can't just pull out everywhere and targeted drone strikes are better than conventional responses.

Does that mean you are 100% confident that these drone strikes are ONLY killing bad guys that deserve it? How many collateral deaths of innocent men, women and children do you consider OK before it begins to infringe on your peaceful sleep?

We don't live in a Utopia. I don't need to be 100% confident that drone strikes are ONLY killing 100% bad guys. Tens of millions of people died in WW2. The answer to stoping drone strikes is increasing diplomacy in the Middle East - not burying our head in the sand and banning drones from doing drone strikes against enemy combatants.

This is an easy thing to say when it isn't your country being bombed by foreign powers.

The Taliban keep women and children at their militant camps. We cannot stop fighting a war, cannot cripple our effectiveness, simply because the enemy has decided to put the innocent in harms way. The US military goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties, but at some point you must do what must be done.

This is not the point. The point is not why they exist, or why we are at war. The point is that drones are better that stealth bombers. They are more targeted. Less civilians die.

I agree, we should fix our diplomacy and hopefully we'll live in a world without drones one day. But in the mean time, fixing our prisons is more important.

> They are more targeted. Less civilians die.

Even "more targeted" would be sending in operatives to only kill those directly identified as combatants; no collateral damage at all to civilians, double-tap to the head and job done. Mossad used .22 pistols from point-blank distance for this purpose as their bullets posed no danger of exiting the skull and injuring bystanders.

But the USA doesn't do that, at least not for run-of-the-mill bad-guys, apparently because they consider the life of a soldier-citizen more valuable that a non-citizen.

That's what causes such distaste. One guy controlling a drone from Nevada is considered more important than some human-shield hostages in Pakistan.

Our people are and should be our priority. The duty of America is first and foremost to the American people. There is no duty to unnecessarily endanger your own people to avoid collateral damage, particularly when the enemy has chosen to bring non-combatants into their camps.

Yeah, and screw due process, rules of war, international treaties or even collateral victims.

Unfortunately, the opposition said that long before we did. Not saying I'm happy with our decisions regarding how to wage a war like this, but I can at least understand how we got to this place.

>Unfortunately, the opposition said that long before we did.

That no more an excuse than "we were following orders" has been.

Nonsense. My statement relates to the realities of fighting a "war" against an ideology rather than a nation state, to which all those niceties (Geneva convention) were designed to accommodate. The system we have for fighting traditional wars does not apply to the shit we're dealing with. Bombs in Chelsea? Asshat stabbing spree in Minnesota? Geneva convention _that_.

And my statement relates to the reality that the war is one-sided (a huge country or countries vs some fanatic goat herders with guns), and less about results and more about ensuring a continuous presence and state of affairs. Besides, it has killed much more innocent in foreign places that people or even soldiers have been killed on the "under defence" side. It's mostly oil, strategic interests, business as usual -- that were handed over a nice pretext that Bush took away and run with it.

If you had included Obama's continuation plus expansion of Bush era foreign policies, I might have taken your statement seriously.

Wonder how well one would sleep having drones flying above ones head, with say 99% accuracy in targeting and evidence based missions (both which I suspect has much higher failure rates than 1%).

That is to say, how peaceful is it to put Damocles swords over people? Maybe it is similar mine laying which was also promoted as a form of peacekeeping, done by neutral countries during world war 2. Surgical, targeted activity, against combatants that are currently a threat against civilians. Just don't mind how it effected fishermen when 1% of those mines got loose and started to drift.

Even in the case that the target of drone strikes were threats, often times these attacks lead to a number of civilian casualties that, I think, could be in no way justified.

As compared to the Blitz on Coventry or the Fire storms at Dresden?

Or for example my fathers house being bombed in ww2 - they lived close to the biggest spitfire plant in the UK.

I don't think I have the expertise to make the comparison to the historical events you cited, but I believe that, regardless of whether we consider those justified or not (I admit that I tend to say no, but would gladly listen to arguments made by expert supporting the opposite view, and in fact I am eager to). Another case we can talk about was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here the number of civilians killed is so outrageous that I don't know if there is any sensible way of condoning it.

An attempt to give an analysis would be asking: what was the good reason to do it? I think that the answer to that question in the case of the drone strikes is not satisfactory.

What about the rest of the drone strikes?

What civilians are they a threat against exactly?

At least 160 children through 2011. It's been a lot more time since then.


>We kill less than 100 people per year via execution.

And that's OK because?

Not to mention the absolute horror that is Death Row, even without execution.

Not to mention that having 5 times more prisoners per capita than any other country (or 99% of other countries) is already a bad thing. Or the horrific prison conditions for a developed western country, including private prisons and forced labour.

Or the absolutely astounding (compared to any developed Western country) numbers of police shootings...

I'm not saying it is. Just putting it into context. If we want to save the most lives, perhaps we should focus on the political choices which are killing the most.

This is not only about saving lives, it's the ethical point of it. Drone strikes are horrible, death penalty is horrible, both can be talked about.

I can't understand why American society has this need for narrow-focus in ONE specific issue at a time, is there a reason for this cultural approach?

"why American society has this need for narrow-focus in ONE specific issue at a time"

This isn't an American phenomena, it's a human one. EVERYONE can only focus on one issue at a time. It's a delusion that we tell ourselves that we can focus on more than one thing at a time:


(That doesn't mean we can't talk about one and then talk about another, which is probably what you meant. But you still have to do one at a time, or make a comparison, you can't just consider all issues simultaneously)

So it can ignore everything else while business goes on as usual...

It is the erroneous belief that every topic, including those concerning human life, can be a relativism.

The corporate controlled media likes divide and conqueror as a propaganda technique, you'll see people copying it a lot.

Why do international megacorporations like it so much? Probably some tangential hangover of union busting.

> Perhaps I am biased because I helped to do a lot of them.

If that means what I think it means I'm sure you have some more valuable insights to share on the topic, biased or not.

I helped too by paying my taxes. I'm responsible for the death and destruction caused by my country and it makes me sick to my stomach.

Stopping killing by execution is 100% solvable, and most other countries have done so. [1]

Stopping going to war is much harder and there are only a few countries that have done so. [2]

  [1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_by_country
  [2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutral_country

How would you compare sitting in death row for any amount of time, with a drone strike, which is instant?

Presumably if you are sitting in death row, you have already been through a trial before judge and jury and had a lawyer appointed to represent you and ensure you had a (reasonably) fair trial and got to state your facts.

Drone strikes just come out of nowhere and with no warning when you are having a nap or sitting down to a cup of tea or attending your cousins wedding because someone with a dossier on the other side of the world decided you had to be killed without any of the above recourses to argue your case.

Going through the trial itself could be a traumatic experience. You have to face a prosecutor who wants to kill you and a jury that you must beg for your life to.

Then you also have the process of appeals which slowly torture you with uncertainty until you are finally executed.

In the end, somebody die of course.

Yes, but plenty of people on death row have been given a reprieve, or had their sentences changed to life imprisonment, or obtained full pardons if found innocent.

Pretty sure no one has fully recovered from a Hellfire missile through their kitchen or car window when someone checks the dossier later and goes "Oops, that was the target's brother, who happened to have his wife and kids with him at the time..."

It's certainly a different kind of harm, maybe even apple and orange to compare.

You are believing the propaganda that drone strikes are clean and surgical. In reality there will be people who survive with serious burns, limbs cut off and other horrific injuries.

When your neighbour's house is blown up with no warning, you're now on death row. Death row has an actual reprieve. Drone strikes have a low probability of killing any particular person, but the fear of falling bombs sticks with you.

This was the experience of people threatened by the Nazi V-weapons ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-weapons ), and it is still the fear of people threatened with aerial bombardment.

Not necessarily instant.

At the end of both someone dies. Look killing isn't easy. Both of these things are choices our country is making.

You are implying that one way of dying is better than the other but what do you know about the stress of living in Syria or Afghanistan? Have you ever taken a life?

I'm confused that you point out another person's rhetoric is implying one way of dying is worse than the other, but your original post on the matter also contains rhetoric in which method which the government kills people is more significant than another method which the government kills people.

If you're using that kind of rhetoric itself, why are you pointing it out as if it's a flaw in someone else's reasoning?

(My opinion on the subject is that neither the death penalty nor drone strikes should continue.)

Statistically speaking drone strikes are more significant because we kill more people each year (and more innocent bystanders) with drones than via trial and jury executions.

I think it is much harder for the person I was responding to to prove that somehow being on Death Row is more stressful than living in a war zone.

I don't believe there is a way to prove that either way. Experiences are subjective.

Although I agree killing people is wrong, drones strikes are not killing american citizens, it is in the context of an armed, foreign conflict.

Without a formal declaration of war, drone strikes are pretty much just summary executions of human beings without recourse to a fair trial.

...and I take it by your comment that it is perfectly fine if another country sends drones into the US to take out 'suspected operatives'?

Talking about a 'fair trial' only makes sense when dealing with issues in the realm of criminal law.

But drone strikes and other military actions are distinctly outside the realm of criminal law. It is a category error to try to apply the concepts of a 'fair trial' to these situations.

There are entirely different set of rules and agreements that are associated with armed conflict. Even the moral/ethical arguments are entirely different within the context of armed conflict vs criminal law.

One of the reasons our public discussion on these issues is so muddled is that these two contexts are often confused.

As an example, many critics of the US policy regarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay will argue that we have failed to give them a 'fair trial'. But that is attempting to insert criminal law concepts into an armed conflict. It isn't necessary to prove that a crime has been committed in order to detain people in an armed conflict. Different rules apply.

I'm not suggesting that there aren't arguments to be made against the detainee program, but those arguments need to be made in the scope of the legal framework accorded armed conflict not in the scope of the legal framework for criminal activities.

I mentioned 'fair trial' in the context of 'justice'.

I cannot point to a stranger in the street and say "That man is a murderer" and have an official immediately go over and dispatch him with extreme prejudice.

If we say that 'point and kill' executions are OK outside the realm of formal war, then pretty much _everyone_ in the world is living with a sword of Damocles over their heads.

It's going to be very tough for you or anybody else to convince most Americans that drone strikes are a bad idea. They've been so brainwashed by the govt that they know no better.

A declaration of war is usually done by countries, not by small groups of people or terrorist organizations.

What "suspected operatives" in the US would you be talking about?

I'd define 'suspected operatives' as people who are either financing, supporting, training or ordering others to commit murder on strangers on the other side of the world.

You know, the EXACT same definition that is used to select targets for US drone strikes.

Are you implying that foreign civilian lives are not worth of the same consideration given to american citizens? Because drone strikes often have civilian casualties, and civilians in the interested zones live in fear of being killed by american strikes, to the point that they see the strikes a more likely cause of death that the nearby armed conflict.

American lives are worth more then? Who are we fighting exactly?

By your earlier comment, it sounds like you know more about this situation than the avg HN user. Please dispense with the Socratic method, it's not great for async forums.

Can you answer these questions for us? Do we strike targets without high enough precision, or wrongfully? Who exactly are we fighting? Can you link us to some sources we might not have already seen?

Yes, there have been lives snuffed out with drones, and yes, there might have been collateral damage. I think it's safe to assume in most cases it's a "them or us" situation.

"War is hell." - Sherman, and yes it's an ironic quote because like the earlier context it contains, I've never experienced war.

The problem that arises from "collateral damage" of drone strikes is that it makes it easier for the real bad guys to recruit more bad buys.

That has been shown to be true, whether in Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan.

I think what annoys me the most about the phrase ‘collateral damage’ is it sounds like someone bumped into another car more than it sounds like an innocent person was murdered.

We should replace it with 'collateral murder', maybe.

Sure, if you just want to confuse the discussion. Murder is a criminal concept. This is an armed conflict and it has its own set of rules and ethical/moral frameworks.

That doesn't mean that 'anything goes' or that there aren't arguments to be made to minimize civilian casualties or just plain strategic arguments against the practices, it just means that it isn't helpful to try to frame the discussion as if we are talking criminal actions.

Fair enough, it’s an armed conflict. That means the Geneva Conventions come into play and “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds” are prohibited to civilians and enemy combatants who have laid down their arms. Guess we’d better get The Hague involved for the drone pilots then?

As you say, such a term would confuse the discussion. But I feel the current term, collateral damage, does the same thing. When someone says collateral damage the image that comes to my mind is property damage, not personal injury and specially not death of uninvolved bystanders. Death is more than damage. Obviously, murder is something else altogether.

That was my point, even if I didn't make very well.

To the American government, yes of course they are.

The American government isn't supposed to be some even-handed dispenser of global justice; its job is to protect American citizens and their interests.

I have trouble squaring this with the DNC narrative that we are stronger together and that immigration is good. How can they claim to be the party of humanism and also advocate for more drone strikes and overseas conflict?

> its job is to protect American citizens and their interests

Are you implying that you can dispense with human rights when it comes to foreign civilians? I am also very frightened by the fact that you are, apparently, condoning it to "protect [American citizens] interests". I hope that interests means safety here.

IMO capital punishment is much more honest than life-without-parole.

If you're going to throw someone in prison for the rest of their life, be honest about it and admit you are taking their life.

Abolishing capital punishment to "fix" criminal justice is just closing your eyes and pretending to not see the issue.

which sometimes brings ridiculous situations, when people like Breivik are sentenced to 21 years, because that's the Norway limit.

that's showing a weakness to evil, and weakness will always be eventually used against the best intentions of original authors (in his case, I wouldn't mind firing squad right after trial, in same way he killed those kids). there is 0% doubt about his full guilt, and almost 100% chance he will never add any positive value to mankind, ever.

Norway's treatment of Breivik has nothing to do with Breivik and everything to do with the sort of society Norwegians want to live in. They simply aren't prepared to abandon their values and respect for human life because of the evil acts of a maniac. I applaud them for it.

He got 21 year special detention (forvaring), meaning he'll probably sit for life or until he is no longer deemed a threat to society. The detention will be renewed every 5 year or so by a special court.

But this is also problematic as the prisoner is locked up for an undetermined amount of time, which is suffering in and of itself. But I don't think it's worse than life without parole, which seems like absolute torture to me.

BTW, after 2015 the maximum sentence in Norway is 30 years.

OK I stand corrected, I thought he only got 21 years and will be out afterwards

I used to be for the death penalty, but now I feel that the death penalty is really just state-sponsored revenge. Our society has moved beyond the "eye for an eye" concept, and it's natural that feelings about the death penalty will follow.

Will Breivik get out in 21 years? It's possible that he'll convince the necessary people that he's been appropriately punished and understands why his actions were wrong, but most people believe it's unlikely. --The terms of his conviction allow him to be held longer if the State determines it is necessary.

The US needs to start looking at prisons more like Norway does - the deprivation of freedom is punishment for a crime, but we should have a duty to those who are imprisoned to help prepare them for when they are released - at that point their punishment is supposed to be over, and their crimes shouldn't continue to follow them and prevent them from being able to live like any other person.

Abolishing capital punishment isn't intended to fix the issue you're describing. You may not have done so intentionally but you've created a Straw Man there.

Abolishing capital punishment allows us to reverse the decision later when new evidence comes to light exonerating the convict. You can't free a dead person.

There are other justifications as well in terms of financial cost although the facts are more cloudy there, I've seen good quality analyses presenting cases in favour of both arguments around the cost of the death penalty vs lifetime incarceration.

If someone is wrongly imprisoned for life, they have a chance of getting out. If someone is wrongly executed, there is no way to fix that.

While that's true, the vast majority of people who are released on new evidence BECAUSE of the many appeals you get before execution.

If those people hadn't been on death row, they'd still be rotting in prison.

If you give people the option of throwing someone in prison and forgetting about them, or forcing them to actually decide on their guilt, they will always choose the former.

If I was wrongly convicted, I would much, much, much rather be on death row than in for life-without-parole.

That's a critique of the current state of our legal system, not whether the death penalty is just in the case of a wrongly convicted innocent person.

Let me know when you've created an ideal criminal legal justice system.

Fix the problems with wrongful conviction, lack of appeals, etc etc, and we can come back and abolish capital punishment.

But right now, it's naiive to advocate for abolishing capital punishment, because in the absence of other reforms, it simply makes the current system worse.

I'm confused. How does abolishing capital punishment make a system that we know has executed innocent people worse?

Halt capital punishment to prevent further, irreversible, errors. AND work on other reforms (better trial lawyers, more equitable appeals process, etc.). Then you can bring back capital punishment once we have a greater degree of confidence in the system.

I don't claim to be able to make an ideal criminal legal justice system. But I do think we can make improvements, this being one of them.

Why do you think the rest of the first world has outlawed capital punishment?

not if you would be in any 3rd world country, or Singapore for that matter

Multiple countries have abolished the life-without-parole as well - my country did so in 1884, after having abolished the death penalty in 1867.

New evidence cannot set free a prisoner the state killed last year.

Correct, it's called wrongful execution, and is a very real problem: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrongful_execution

If there were no false positives in the justice system, your argument might be reasonable. There's always a chance a person will be mistakenly given life without parole. They can be released, an executed person cannot. I guess it depends whether a) you have more trust in the justice system than evidence would support, or b) you think the false positives (dead innocents) are a reasonable price to pay.

Additionally, people can and do kill themselves in prison: there is a way out of serving a full-life sentence that doesn't involve judicial killing.

Disappointing to find a "no true Scotsman" fallacy as the top comment.

..For those that did not know, what that means (such as myself):

No true Scotsman is an informal fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim ("no Scotsman would do such a thing"), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule ("no true Scotsman would do such a thing"; i.e., those who perform that action are not part of our group and thus criticism of that action is not criticism of the group).


This is not an example of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. It is instead an overt accusation that the USA is acting uncivilized with regards to this one issue, and should know better because they are otherwise civilized.

If it were an example of the mentioned fallacy, the poster would have to imply that the USA is not to be considered truly civilized. But this is not what the comment says.

It's implying, without argument, that having the death penalty somehow makes a country "uncivilized". That still counts as "no true Scotsman". "No civilized country..." etc.

I get what you're saying. You're saying the poster isn't implying that the US is not civilized, but rather that given that it is civilized, it should know better.

It still amounts to the same thing. I think you're saying it's not a "no true Scotsman" because instead of a "no true Scotsman would" it's "no true Scotsman should"? But the essence of the fallacy is that it, without argument, applies an attribute (in this case, "no death penalty") to a word ("civilized") and argues based on that unargued assertion that it isn't, or isn't acting like, that word (a Scotsman, or civilized).

Edit: I'll put it this way. Here's the OP: "How can a society which calls itself "civilized" do X?" Similar to "How can a man call himself a Scotsman if he does X?". It's implying, without argument, that X is un-Scotsman-like. It's still the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, with a different sentence structure.

Why do you think Charles Manson should remain alive?

That's an individual who has gone out of their way to take the lives of multiple innocent people. Why does he get to keep what he took from others? Why do the families of the victims have to suffer him? It's not even a question of innocence.

If Manson was in any way sane, he'd realize that his actions were that of a monster. What is there to rehabilitate? If he's sane, how is living in a cell for decades not horrific punishment? A quick death would be a lot easier for everyone involved.

The death penalty is a harsh, horrible penalty. But everyone dies. I don't see how removing literal mass murderers is a detriment to society, unless we simply don't like the reality of it.

What's the alternative? Do we prefer situations like like Breivik?

In November 2012, Breivik wrote a 27-page letter of complaint to the prison authorities about the security restrictions he was being held under, claiming that the prison director personally wanted to punish him. Among his complaints were that his cell is not adequately heated and he has to wear three layers of clothing to stay warm, guards interfere with his strictly-planned daily schedule, his cell is poorly decorated and has no view, his reading lamp is inadequate, guards supervise him while he is brushing his teeth and shaving and put indirect mental pressure on him to finish quickly by tapping their feet while waiting, he is "not having candy" and he is served cold coffee, and he is strip-searched daily, sometimes by female guards. Authorities only lifted one minor restriction against Breivik; his rubber safety pen, which he described as an "almost indescribable manifestation of sadism," was replaced with an ordinary pen.[137]

In letters to foreign media outlets he told about his demands (in 2013) to prison authorities "including easier communication with the outside world and a PlayStation 3 to replace the current PlayStation 2, because it offers more suitable games"; media reported in 2014 about demands that he would starve himself to death if refused "access to a sofa and a bigger gym"; furthermore he said that "Other inmates have access to adult games while I only have the right to play less interesting kids’ games. One example is ‘Rayman Revolution,’ a game aimed at 3-year-olds," Breivik complained to prison officials."[138][139]


He should remain alive because it's simpler to have a general rule not to kill people. Once you start doing executions you get a bunch of innocent people killed too in practice.

That's an argument for improving our justice system, not eliminating a punishment altogether.

20 years in jail for an innocent person is no less horrible.

That's an argument for improving our justice system, not eliminating a punishment altogether.

Empirical evidence strongly suggests that such a reform is extremely unlikely to happen -- and that in particular, we basically will never have a system win which the false conviction rate is not simply unacceptably high. So again, the argument is to at least design for "fault-tolerance", and not impose categorically irreversible sentences in the first place.

20 years in jail for an innocent person is no less horrible.

If you were let out of jail after 20 years, I think you might disagree. But the bigger point is that the 20-year sentence can at least be appealed (and if overturned, substantially mitigated) if new evidence emerges that's relevant to your case -- as it very frequently does, in fact.

It's the acceptance that no justice system can be 100% perfect.

As repeated in many other comments, it gives the innocent person a chance to be released, which is better than the zero chance.

Also as you say - 20 years in jail is a serious punishment, so it isn't eliminating the punishment, it's just only using a reversible one.

It also allows for improvements in the justice system over time.

Yes. Yes we do prefer to have situations where a mass shooter is in-prisoned and denied access to the latest Playstation 3. I'd rather have people like Breivik exposed for their childish behaviour in prison than to have the death penalty for them and innocent people.

Death isn't easier. The cost of imprisoning someone for life is still less than putting them on death row.

> The cost of imprisoning someone for life is still less than putting them on death row.

That's openly because execution foes have made it so expensive to execute. Execution could be extremely cheap: lead the convict from the courtroom to the gallows, and be done with it. Imprisonment could be made to be even more expensive than execution, if there were strong-enough foes of life imprisonment (they could mandate every appeal and review that condemned men receive for those given life sentences).

'We shouldn't execute people, because it's more expensive to execute them (because we chose to make it more expensive),' is hardly a compelling argument.

> Why does he get to keep what he took from others?

If we kill him, why do we get to keep what we took from him?

A good friend of mine teaches philosophy and ethics and supports the death penalty. I'm a former prosecutor* who opposes it, but he's convinced me that people can make reasonable arguments on both sides.

I can dispassionately list some of the arguments in favor if you seriously want to know what they are, to understand the other perspective.

The arguments on both sides generally fall into three areas, utilitarian, normative, and pragmatic.

Utilitarian arguments in favor of the death penalty claim that there's a deterrent for future crimes, that essentially society must choose between the death of a murderer or the death of future victims. Responses to this argument typically question the effectiveness of deterrence. Causation here is hotly debated, there are studies on both sides, and it strikes me as generally unsettled (and likely unknowable).

The normative arguments are harder to understand, because most people today instinctively gravitate towards liberal utilitarianism.

Normative supporters of the death penalty find it grossly immoral to suggest that we should allow some extreme criminals, say someone who serially tortures, rapes, and murders children, the future enjoyment of life's pleasures.

Take an extreme. Would it be just to set aside a special palace of pleasures for such a criminal, where they can live out their days enjoying everything they like (except for torturing children to death)?

No, at least for most people, that would seem odd. (A very strict hedonic utilitarian might argue that we should provide pleasure palaces to serial killers, but such a view strongly clashes with our intuitions.)

Extrapolating, should we allow heinous criminals to enjoy the feeling of the rising sun on spring days and the smell of freshly cut grass outside the prison yards? Should we allow them to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow prisoners they meet?

Why does lavishing pleasures on them in a special palace seem so morally odd and allowing these continued pleasures of life seem ok? For the normative supporter of the death penalty, it's not. After a certain line has been crossed, certain categories of especially heinous murders, the state has an obligation to ensure the criminal no longer enjoys life's pleasures.

Another normative argument is along the lines of the "worst crimes deserve the worst punishment." When you study crime for a while, it becomes pretty apparent that some crimes are not just more intense than others, some are so heinous they belong in an entirely separate class. It seems wrong to punish them in the same way that we punish theft or assault but just for a longer time, because the spectrum of inhumanity gets so extreme. They are different in kind not just in degree, and the punishment should be different in kind as well.

Pragmatic considerations arise for a variety of reasons. There are arguments about the cost of housing a prisoner for an entire life. Cost may seem a base concern, but if the system simply ignores cost, then it will be able to process fewer criminals, which means some serial criminals go free. (Death penalty skeptics will question the cost figures, noting that the appeals process is generally lengthy and expensive.) Another consideration is the impact on victim survivors of heinous crimes, who may know that the person who murdered their family and tried to kill them would like to escape and finish the job.

If we are unable to securely hold criminals who might break free and commit more crimes that raises other pragmatic concerns. Call it the Batman rule. Even though I oppose the death penalty, I think after the Joker escapes a few times to kill more civilians, after that Batman starts to become responsible for everyone the Joker kills.

Comics provide a straw hypothetical, but you don't have to go too far before drug kingpins like El Chapo are regularly escaping or buying their way out of prisons. We don't have escapees too often in the US, but a variation on this, criminals can commit crimes while locked up. If criminals repeatedly violently attack other criminals while locked up, and if we have exhausted all other measures of control, then at a certain point we cannot either house them or let them free while ensuring the safety of others. Since the state has a duty to protect innocents, in those cases I feel like the arguments get stronger.

For me, the arguments against the death penalty that I find most compelling come from understanding the impact of the process on living victims, who have to repeatedly attend appeals. They come from biases that emerge in the system (primarily against the indigent and mentally ill). I worry about misfires in the justice system that could lead to the execution of innocents. I feel like we can accomplish similar societal goals through incarceration, and if you can choose between two options where one has less killing, I think that option is generally superior. I also worry about whether any state should have the authority to take the lives of its citizens, bit of a libertarian critique.

I think there are some very bad reasons to support and some very bad reasons to oppose the death penalty that each get used quite a lot. I get the impression most people have a strong gut reaction on one side or the other and leave it at that, never really learning about the other side.

* Note: I never tried a case that would have involved a question of the death penalty, though, for what it's worth.

There have been very few escapees from death row (e.g. from 1998 NYT article [1]):

> Martin E. Gurule, 29, became the first Death Row inmate since Floyd Hamilton, a member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang who escaped in 1934, to have successfully broken out.

This is versus the 98 that were executed in 1998 (28 in 2015). [2]

  [1]: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/28/us/texas-death-row-inmate-pulls-off-escape.html
  [2]: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions-year

> There have been very few escapees from death row

Absolutely right. That's why I used a fictional character to introduce that line of reasoning.

That was a lead up to a key pivot though: incarcerated individuals do not need to escape to attack others (inmates or guards). Death row prisoners in California have slashed at wrists and necks of guards using homemade razors for over a decade. Tim McGhee, a self-described "thrill" killer, cut and sent two bloodied guards to the hospital in 2012. Guard Timothy Davison was beaten to death by a prisoner in Texas just last year. Two convicted murderers killed 59-year old Susan Canfield in 2007 after overpowering another guard.

Better protocols and supervision can prevent some of these. Gang-related killings inside prison walls are too common too, but there are not as many easy response options there. People need to be allowed to socialize, but once you have people in a big group, they can harm each other.

There are several no-win scenarios in running corrections facilities.

As I said in the post, I oppose the death penalty, but I wouldn't find it unreasonable or "uncivilized" as the GP put it to be moved by these concerns (albeit in certain very limited situations).

You make some very interesting points. I guess my main argument against it is that almost all other well off democracies have gotten rid of the death penalty. There are years and years of data from these countries that show that the death penalty isn't necessary.

Is a life spent imprisoned within a cell a more civilized punishment?

Reversible is the important bit.

The society utilizes a different definition of the word "civilized" than you do.

"The death penalty is bad" is not an a priori conclusion; unless you work it directly into the definition, it doesn't necessarily contradict "civilized society."

Civilization is mostly access to hot water, order and sanitation. And internet. Nothing precludes even torturous execution (or even mass ones) from being civilized. Human life is not that valuable no matter what we believe currently. We have 7000000000 - you could cull the herd with a billion or two and we will recoup in less than a generation.

I am not a supporter of death penalty too, but labeling everything outside of the current zeitgeist as inconceivable really hurts the cause.

That little "and internet" presupposes such a mountainous pile of infrastructure beneath it to be working that you might as well list out hundreds of things before it. You can't just throw it in there like it's an easy thing.

Some people undoubtedly deserve it and it would be better than having society pay to keep them alive.

The problem is that the death penalty can't be reversed or the person compensated if someone is found to have been wrongly convicted.

We have a long way to go as a country and as a world. I always think about how barbaric we would look to some spacefaring race that may one day visit our planet. As it stands right now, they might very well just pave over earth for an intergalactic highway.

>How can a society which calls itself "civilized" keep the death penalty?

Well, what you say doesn't necessarily has to match what you are.

Hypocrisy is a thing -- and modern society is full of it.


Mistakes happen, killing people for killing just sends the message that killing is a solution.

There is a long list of "murders" that were found not guilty after being executed: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrongful_execution

Beyond that, some confessed murders go on to contribute to society, for example: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_S._Burroughs

Feel free to respond with your reasonings, though think in the end they'll fail to be reasonable.

I suppose I should have clarified, my point was mostly that this kind of message isn't really an argument for anything. While it may look like it has more substance, Its simply saying "I don't like this". So it does not really contribute too much for the discussion, other than appealing to the emotions of the reader.

Personally I am not particularly for or against capital punishment, because I don't think the subject is researched well enough. And seeing as this is morally a problematic subject with regards to human rights ETC. I don't really have too many hopes it would ever be properly studied.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact