Let’s begin this post with me saying how glad I am to live in a place where the death penalty is not applied. Even though I will use this post to argue in favor of the death penalty as an idea, I also hope to make clear that I think it should not be used.
The right to live
As much of a contradiction it seems, I want to begin by talking about the right to live. Not only the right to live of those being subjected to the death penalty, but that of everyone. I’ll take as axiomatic that there exists a right to live, and that every living thing possesses it. However, I’ll also take as axiomatic that rights can be trumped by other rights, and that the existence of a right does not guarantee its fulfillment.
In other words, even though we all have a right to live, the reality is that illnesses, accidents, or just the passage of time can end our existence. At the same time, through our own actions we can place ourselves in circumstances where the rights of others to their own lives win over our right to live. A perfect example of this comes in the form of self-defense, where one person might have to end another’s life to survive. On a similar note, in order for us to survive we must consume other living beings, like plants or animals, and so our right to exist is greater than theirs.
Finally, although I do not intend to dive into this topic, if we possess a right, then we also possess the ability to surrender it. Whether the law allows for such permisions is irrelevant for the level of this discussion, because the truth is that a fully rational actor can decide to end their life if the circumstances line up.
Perhaps you didn’t realise what I did with some of the examples I put forward, so let me be as open as possible: the existence of a right to live comes along with the right and, under certain circumstances, obligation to defend life.
The right and obligation to defend life
Given that there is a right to live, when life is put in danger there is someone, or something, that is to defend that life. What do I mean by this? In the self-defense example we considered before, the person who finds themselves under attack, by virtue of having the right to live, must also have the right to defend their life. Perhaps there are others who find themselves in a similar position, like during a school shooting, and they also have the right to preserve their survival for the same reason. Something similar happens when we fall ill. We go to the doctor, follow their orders and fight back against sickness in order to remain alive. By the same token, animals do not allow themselves to be killed, they fight back, run away or pretend to already be dead so that they may survive.
However, what do I mean by the obligation to defend life? Let’s consider a situation where you are responsible for another person’s wellbeing (you might consider a pet’s wellbeing for this purpose). When that person’s life comes under attack, it’s your responsibility to act in their defense. Whether you come out on top or not, would you allow your loved ones to be injured or killed? You’d probably take the attacker out or go down fighting.
Going further, when another person, organization or institution takes up the responsilibity to protect you, they also accept the obligation of defending your life. In a world of sunshine and magic, governments and their agencies would fulfill this responsibility. In the real world there cannot be a cop on every corner and even if it could, not all of them can rise up to the challenge when it comes.
More could be said about how the incapacity of government to fulfill that responsbiliity implies that others, like the individuals making up a society, must look out for themselves. I’m sure that gun activists would agree, but that’s not what this post is about. For the moment we’ll keep things simple and consider that governments can fully fulfill that responsibility.
The role the death penalty seems to fill
Having said all that, it seems that there is a case to be made for the death penalty: it rids society of those individuals that pose an existential danger. If an individual can defend their life by taking another one’s, then surely society can do so as well. Perhaps it can be used to set the example, right? Show the monsters of society what’s coming to them if they don’t change their ways.
Nonetheless, there are some clear differences between an individual, or a group of individuals, defending themselves and killing someone and some goverment doing so for society at large:
- One is immediate, the other takes time. So this one’s pretty easy to see. Self defense by individuals happens as the threat acts, as the longer it takes to respond the less likely the defenders are to survive. Government action happens in almost the complete other way: the event happened some time ago, and all the checks and balances have been taken care of before the death penalty can take place.
- If the threat is no longer active, is society defending itself? This is closely related to the previous point. Chances are that individuals acting in the heat of the moment don’t have many options at their disposal, and the have to react to their circumstances. When the government takes action, that the event is already over and it’s no longer about reacting but about responding to what happened.
So even in our very sanitized examples and considerations there seem to be issues when looking at the death penalty as a continuation of an individuals right to preserve their life. What about the real world?
The death penalty in the real world
In the real world things aren’t so clear cut, and the classification between someone being a good guy or a bad guy depens on the laws, rather than our simple interpretation. At the same time, events where self-defense is employed are not common, which is one of the reasons they get so much coverage when they do happen. An argument could be made for media biases, but I have no real information about that.
We may also consider if people are really incapable of being reformed. Although there will always be those who are beyond redemption, perhaps they’re in the minority. Similarly, perhaps the institutions who are responsible for executions are not doing their work properly, and an innocent may be killed while a real criminal remains free. What should be the consequences for executing the wrong person? Does the executioner then become a murderer? Do the rest of the government officials?
If anything, this entire post has presented an argument as to why the death penalty isn’t an extension of individual’s rights to life and self-defense.
Despite this post dealing with a serious topic. I look forward to this blog having both more lighthearted content, but also covering important stuff like this. I hope this post gave you something to think about, see you next week.