Lindsay is immensely courageous. He is willing to have bad people executed, and he’s not afraid to say so! Everyone should go and give him a cookie because he is willing to be unorthodox and support the death penalty.
About ten days ago, I wrote an essay for Huffington Post on the death penalty, in particular, focusing on how some of those who oppose the death penalty support imprisonment in a supermax facility as a supposedly more humane alternative—a position I find logically dubious if not hypocritical. The recent decision of the Dzhohkar Tsarnaev jury to sentence him to death made me think about this issue again. It also made me think about how humanists all too often commit the cardinal intellectual sin of many of the religious. That is, they hold certain principles as beyond question. This is not a good thing.
All of you people who say the state shouldn’t kill people are just being dogmatic: it’s positively sinful that you don’t think through the issues and agree with Ron. The only way you could possibly be disagreeing is because you’re unwilling to question everything.
This is a terrible argument: he is essentially declaring that anyone who disagrees with him must not have thought very hard about the subject, or they’d agree with him. There are strong arguments against the death penalty, and he hand-wavingly alludes to them, but this article is all about how superior he is to those shallow death penalty opponents.
Unfortunately, at least in my experience, some humanists do treat certain views and principles as “sacred.” These principles appear to be adopted more out of reflex, emotion, or groupthink than evidence-based reasoning. The emotional basis for these principles is revealed not only by the tenacity with which the principles are held, but also by the denigrating rhetoric directed against those who dare to question the principles. Opposition to the death penalty, for some humanists, appears to be one such unquestionable tenet.
Have you ever been to a dinner party with humanists and expressed support, in principle, for the death penalty? I have, and I don’t think the stunned, negative reaction to my remarks could have been more pronounced than if I had insisted on saying a prayer or had expressed admiration for Pat Robertson. More disappointing was the lack of any reasoned rebuttal to my position. Instead, the response was mostly along the lines of “I don’t think we should seek vengeance” or “the state shouldn’t be killing people.”
You know, this is a another terrible way to argue: your argument is stupid, here is the most stupid version of your argument I can imagine, therefore your argument is stupid.
He declares that he has already dealt with all the arguments against his position in an article on the Huffington Post. So let’s take a look at that.
His first argument in favor of the barbaric death penalty is that the alternative is even more barbaric.
The attorneys for convicted terrorist Dzhohkar Tsarnaev made an argument the other day that has become all too common in capital cases. In their eagerness to persuade jurors to spare Tsarnaev’s life, they emphasized how miserable Tsarnaev will be if he is sentenced to life imprisonment. That’s because he’ll be serving his time in the federal supermax facility in Colorado. Along with the other prisoners there, Tsarnaev will be kept in isolation. He will be spending 23 hours a day for the rest of his life in a roughly 90 ft.² cell, where he will eat, sleep, urinate, and defecate. For the one hour a day that he is let out of his cage for exercise, he will have no contact with other inmates.
And there I actually agree with him. It’s disgusting that the lawyers appealed to the jury with threats of terrible torments for the convicted criminal. Solitary confinement is torture — I oppose that kind of suffering as well as execution.
So this is simply a false dichotomy. There are alternatives to death and torture.
Here’s Ron Lindsay’s list of excuses to oppose the death penalty, and his rebuttals.
The state shouldn’t be killing people. Who should then? Governments took over responsibility for criminal punishment as way to end private vengeance. If the death penalty is appropriate, it is precisely the state, not relatives of victims, that should impose the penalty.
How about this: maybe no one should kill people. Lindsay says, “If the death penalty is appropriate…”, which is assuming his conclusion.
The death penalty is racist. There is little doubt that much of the American justice system is affected by either explicit or implicit racial bias. This bias manifests at all levels, from disproportionate traffic stops and arrests of blacks to disproportionate death sentences for blacks. But ultimately, this argument against the death penalty is no more than a makeweight. Removing the death penalty is not going to end racism in the American justice system. Moreover, if the adverse impact on blacks were the real reason for opposing the death penalty, presumably opponents would be satisfied with a quota system, whereby no death penalty could be imposed on blacks, Hispanics, and so forth until the requisite number of whites were sentenced to death. A quota system would remove the effects of racial bias. I doubt, however, that this would satisfy death penalty opponents.
This is just silly. No one is arguing for a racial death quota. The real problem is if the death penalty is irreversible and unjust, then that injustice falls inequably on certain groups. It’s the injustice that makes the inequality intolerable.
Capital cases are more costly. It is true the death penalty cases cost a lot– but they cost a lot precisely because death penalty opponents wage decades-long court battles to prevent the imposition or the carrying out of a death sentence.
<jaw drops> So the problem is that people fight for their right to live? The death penalty would be so much cheaper and easier if only the convicted people would meekly accept their fate and die?
He can’t be serious.
The death penalty is not a deterrent. The most objective, comprehensive study on this issue was carried out by the National Academy of Sciences. In its 2012 report, the NAS stated that no firm conclusion could be drawn about the effect of the death penalty on homicide rates, in part because of the limitations of such studies.
Hang on, Ron, you were supposed to rebut the argument. Telling us that studies are limited and that no conclusions can be drawn about the deterrence of the death penalty tells me there must not be any strong deterrent effect. So the argument is reasonable — killing people doesn’t seem to have any dramatic effect in reducing crime, so why are we killing people again?
The death penalty is vengeful; it appeals to our darker emotions. This is simply arguing through characterization. One could respond by counter-argument that the death penalty expresses the just outrage of the moral community.
But…but…but the initial premise of Lindsay’s support for the death penalty was a characterization of the horrors of Supermax prisons! Calling executions “just” is again presuming the argument.
The death penalty is cruel. And supermax isn’t?
Supermax is cruel. The death penalty is cruel. Can we just state it as a given that both of these alternatives are horrible ways to treat people? Opposing the death penalty does not mean that one must therefore support thumbscrews and slow flaying. And it’s a sleazy kind of argument to suggest that it does.
Lindsay offers ONE argument against the death penalty that he considers reasonable.
Erroneous convictions. Because of its irreversibility, that’s the real problem with the death penalty. We always knew that our criminal justice system was imperfect, but until the advent of DNA evidence, we did not realize how imperfect. We have now had dozens of death-row inmates exonerated. The best study on this issue estimates that about 4% of those sentenced to death have been wrongly convicted. That translates to several hundred persons wrongly sentenced to death.
That’s a pretty potent argument, don’t you think? Shouldn’t that settle it? When the uncertainty of an honest conviction is paired with the extreme and irreversible penalty of death, it seems to me we should err on the side of caution. Shouldn’t Blackstone’s formulation apply? “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Only here we’re not suggesting that the guilty get off scot-free, but only that their punishment be humane and not quite so terminal.
Lindsay seems awfully cavalier in dismissing those hundreds of wrongly murdered people. If only they hadn’t resisted the swift application of the death penalty, then not only would the justice system have saved buckets of money, but we wouldn’t have all these belated determinations of innocence to trouble our consciences!
But even this reservation doesn’t apply to the Tsarnaev case, he says.
This concern has no application to Tsarnaev, of course. He has effectively conceded his guilt. However, it is doubtful that we can devise a criminal justice system that reserves the death penalty only for those that we really, really know are guilty.
Because, as we all know, an innocent man would never confess to a crime. And because Lindsay holds the unquestioned premise that some crimes actually deserve death.
I have an objection to the death penalty that Lindsay does not address. It is that death is absolute; it is the most authoritarian act we can commit, to deny another human being even the basic right of existence. It is the total eradication of any possibility of growth, change, repentance, or recompense.
I would not grant that power to myself. I especially wouldn’t grant it to anyone else. I also wouldn’t give it to an impersonal state. A humanist ought to recognize the ubiquity of error and oppose systems that only work in the hands of the infallible — and given that we are humanists, after all, and deny the existence of infallible authorities, that means we should oppose absolute and terminal punishments.
I don’t think supporting the execution of anyone makes someone a brave person. It just makes them deficient in empathy.