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.