Saturday, January 9, 2010

The death penalty

I've mentioned before that government should not have the right to execute citizens or the right of imminent domain.  A commenter (yes, someone actually read some posts and posted a comment) asked me to flesh out my thoughts on the death penalty in particular.

I have always thought for myself.  As early as 5 or 6 people were saying about me, "that kid marches to the beat of his own drummer."  I try not to revel in it--to be contrarian for the sake of the argument.  But I feel little to no compulsion to follow along with the crowd or with a leader.

I try to be internally consistent in my values, views, and opinions.  This isn't a complete list, but these are some of my core guiding beliefs and values:
  • I believe that God exists, created all of this, and still acts in the world today.
  • I value life.  I value human life over animal and plant life, but I believe that all life is valuable.  
  • I believe that people are prone to making all sorts of little mistakes, like overestimating their memories and underestimating the part that luck plays in any given situation.  
  • I believe that power corrupts--so I distrust power systems.
  • Communication is difficult, up to the point of being virtually impossible.
  • Control is an illusion--even self control.  There are too many factors influencing every decision/event to say that anyone exercises control.
  • People are communal creatures.  We define ourselves in terms of our community.  Reacting to other people is a primary influence ("systems theory", in psychological terms) on our actions and our own self-perception.
My opposition to the death penalty flows directly from three of those beliefs.  Life is important, and should be protected.  People are prone to make mistakes--identify the wrong person in a line-up or mis-remember events.  And government officials are not to be trusted because they can be influenced.  Given those factors I reason that the government should be denied the ability to put citizens to death.

My natural instincts are an eye-for-an-eye, just like everyone else.  And if I believed that a human justice system could perfectly determine the facts of every situation, then I might support executing sufficiently guilty criminals.  I read about the atrocities of the Germans in WWII, for instance, and I want to execute those responsible.  But I fundamentally distrust our ability to figure out who really was responsible, even for those crimes.

The case of Todd Willingham, told here in the New Yorker, demonstrates those three failings in the execution of an innocent man.  I allow and enable this system of government, and I feel the guilt of this murder that we committed.  This should not be.

1 comment:

  1. Well put and inarguable, I believe. The "value of life (even that of murderers and cannibals" is a compelling enough reason for me, those who get queasy about sparing child-murderers and cannibals ought to agree that the system cannot be made fool-proof and that the chance of killing an innocent person exists. Is 99% good enough? I don't think anyone should be able to say yes to that.