Among the various arguments put forward for not abolishing capital punishment, the most powerful philosophical position is the theory of deterrence — the notion that, by applying the death penalty in one case, the state can deter future murders.
In recent years, a number of US economists have applied advanced statistical tools to process crime data in attempts to prove the existence of a deterrent effect. The most startling results were presented by Hashem Dezhbakhsh and others who, in 2003, presented data purporting to show that each execution results, on average, in 18 fewer murders.
It must be said, however, that these figures are highly controversial. Economist Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and John Donohue of the Yale School of Law made a thorough analysis of the data quoted in this and similar theses, identifying numerous falsehoods in the authors’ use of statistics.
If, on the other hand, we were to give these theses the benefit of the doubt, accepting their statistical analysis as correct, then would one not have to accept, from both deontologist and utilitarian perspectives, the position of those who advocate the deterrence theory — that capital punishment is morally justified, or even morally required?
This is a question that the movement in favor of abolishing capital punishment cannot avoid facing.
Many pro-abolition arguments, including US Supreme Court rulings such as the case of Furman vs Georgia, are based on the notion that the death penalty is an excessively cruel punishment that is injurious to human dignity. The actions of a murderer, however, are also “excessively cruel,” and the victim is also deprived of his or her life.
If capital punishment can save more people from cruel and inhumane treatment, the life-for-life tradeoff involved ought to be tenable from an ethical point of view.
The pro-abolition movement could start by responding as follows. This consequentialist approach — using the result to justify the means — opens up a Pandora’s box.
For example, caning might deter theft, so we should bring back the cane. In fact, if the experience of certain countries shows that cutting off someone’s hands can deter five times as many thieves as caning, then corporal punishment in the form of amputation should be available.
Another line of thought could be that the death penalty’s deterrent effect would be enhanced if criminals were shot in public, as they are in certain countries, or paraded through the streets before being executed. By making executions public, or even killing convicts by crueler means such as dismemberment, people would be made to feel fear and awe, and this would deter even more murders.
The biggest problem with the consequentialist approach is that it tends toward ever crueler and more extreme forms of punishment.
What if punishment were made more and more severe and cruel? Would that make the world we live in 100 percent safe? Would everyone be so scared that nobody would dare commit a crime?
If so, the state should execute more and more people with each passing year, because if one execution can really deter five murders, then if the state only executes 99 people, instead of 100 or 500, it will have done a disservice to potential victims.
Taken to the extreme, deterrence theory means that the more executions are carried out, the more members of the public will be protected from crime. In the end, law and order would rely entirely on capital punishment and law enforcement would be made a lot easier.
We also need to ask: Can killing person A really deter person B from committing a crime? Especially when executions are done out of public view, so people can only imagine what happens.
How much of a deterrent is that? One might even say that, when things are worked out according to a life-for-a-life formula, some multiple killers might think they are getting a good deal, because only one person can be executed, not a whole family.
The murderer might think, “I’m the only one who’s going to be executed, after all, so if I kill three, five, or even a dozen or more people, I’ll have paid one life for taking 10 or more, which is a pretty good bargain.”
In that case, shouldn’t we bring back the old practice of imposing penalties on nine generations of an offender’s family? When these arguments are taken into consideration, deterrence theory barely stands up from a consequentialist point of view.
Besides, when the benefits derived from committing a crime far outweigh the value of a life, then capital punishment will probably have no deterrent effect at all. For example, the political changes brought about by a revolution, or a jihad or other holy war, or where the potential killer is someone desperate, for whom life no longer seems worth living.
Also, if criminals’ chances of getting caught are too low, then potential criminals may not be deterred even by the threat of the death penalty. Its deterrent effect will certainly be diminished if offenders have a good chance of not being caught.
Furthermore, there is a danger that relying on capital punishment’s deterrent effect could be a disincentive for police to work on improving their criminal investigation techniques. Torture has the same effect.
And if capital punishment is an ineffective deterrent, then it only serves to eradicate the offender, removing the convict permanently from the face of the planet.
Those who advocate the theory of deterrence do not want to talk about this matter of permanent eradication, because from an ethical point of view it boils down to preventing killing by killing, the killing by the state being equivalent to that done by the offender.
If killing one person does not have the effect of saving five, as claimed, then killing by the state cannot be positively justified on those grounds.
There is actually much common ground between those who call for abolition of capital punishment and those who want to retain it. What both sides care about is how to make society safer, so that we can all live free of fear.
Whether capital punishment is morally tenable, however, is a highly controversial question.
Maybe we should set aside ethical, religious and political arguments and take a more pragmatic approach. Then we could move on to asking what alternatives could replace capital punishment and make society safer, and how the criminal justice system can be improved to better uphold victims’ rights.
That would involve considering crime-prevention policies and the judicial system on many more levels. Instead of being argued on an abstract plane based on differing standpoints, the debate over capital punishment could involve detailed policy comparisons and choices.
Let us penetrate the foggy gloom by shedding light on the concrete and practical issues. Whether capital punishment should be abolished should not just be a yes-or-no question — it is a multiple-choice question that involves many complex considerations.
Huang Cheng-yi is an assistant research professor in the Institutum Iurisprudentiae of Academia Sinica.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s “century of humiliation” is the gift that keeps on giving. Beijing returns again and again to the theme of Western imperialism, oppression and exploitation to keep stoking the embers of grievance and resentment against the West, and especially the US. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that in 1949 announced it had “stood up” soon made clear what that would mean for Chinese and the world — and it was not an agenda that would engender pride among ordinary Chinese, or peace of mind in the international community. At home, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched
The restructuring of supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, was an essential part of discussions last week between Taiwan and a US delegation led by US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach. It took precedent over the highly anticipated subject of bilateral trade partnerships, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) founder Morris Chang’s (張忠謀) appearance on Friday at a dinner hosted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for Krach was a subtle indicator of this. Chang was in photographs posted by Tsai on Facebook after the dinner, but no details about their discussions were disclosed. With
To say that this year has been eventful for China and the rest of the world would be something of an understatement. First, the US-China trade dispute, already simmering for two years, reached a boiling point as Washington tightened the noose around China’s economy. Second, China unleashed the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale and turning the People’s Republic of China into a common target of international scorn. Faced with a mounting crisis at home, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rashly decided to ratchet up military tensions with neighboring countries in a misguided attempt to divert the
Astride an ascended economy and military, with global influence nearing biblical proportions, Xi Jinping (習近平) — general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), chairman of the Central Military Commission and president of the People’s Republic of China — is faithfully heralded, in deeds and imagery, as a benevolent lord, determined to “build a community of common destiny for all mankind.” Rather than leading humanity to this Shangri-La through inspirational virtue a la Mahatma Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln, the CCP prefers a micromanagement doctrine of socialism with Chinese characteristics as the guiding light. A doctrine of Marxist orthodoxy transplanted under a canvas