In my last column I referred to the case of Teresa Lewis, a woman currently on death row in Virginia, as an example of the sort of punishment that we ought to find morally outrageous. I did not offer any reasons to support that claim, however, since the main point of that column was to look at how we make cross-cultural moral judgments. In the present column I turn to the topic of capital punishment explicitly, in order to examine its moral status.
When examining whether any kind of action is morally acceptable, there are four approaches one can take. First, one can look at the truth of the action, whether what is happening is properly understood and whether it is described correctly and completely. Secondly, one can look at the consequences of the action, in order to determine whether it has overall positive or negative effects on people. Third, one can look at the fairness of the action to see whether it treats people equally and with respect. Fourth, and finally, one can look at the character with which the action is done, in order to assess the motivations of the people performing the action. Any credible moral reason that someone advances for or against any action uses one of these four approaches.
Let’s take each approach in turn.
Truth: Capital punishment is a practice that depends upon deception for continued support. This wasn’t always the case in the United States. At one time executions were carried out in the public square, and part of the deterrent effect was thought to be the publicity of the event. But now executions are carried out behind closed and locked doors and at times deliberately chosen to reduce public visibility. If more people witnessed the executions we wouldn’t tolerate them, because we couldn’t bear what intentional killing does to the witnesses.
Consequences: One of the arguments often given in support of the death penalty is that the state shouldn’t have to pay for keeping a convicted murderer alive. But, in fact, the death penalty costs more, sometimes much more, than life in prison. A recent study in Washington state found that death penalty cases cost an average of $600,000 more per case than trying similar crimes as noncapital cases. This summer, the Legislative Services Agency in Indiana compared the cost of capital cases to the cost of life-without-parole cases. The former averaged $449,887; the latter averaged $42,658. This year, California is cutting back on homicide investigations because of its budget crisis while continuing to spend $137 million per year trying death penalty cases. Meanwhile, there is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters serious crime. The available evidence shows that the death penalty is just as likely to increase violent crime.
Fairness: In the United States, about 2 percent of convicted murderers are sentenced to death. You might think that the 2 percent would be those who committed the most heinous crimes, but the nature of the crime has little to do with it. Instead, the people who are executed tend to be those who have killed a white person and received incompetent legal representation. In 2001 Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed: “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” Even a cursory glance at the evidence reveals that, whatever the merits of the death penalty, it is being implemented arbitrarily.
Character: Here we come to the crux of the issue. The reason capital punishment has so much support in this country is that it is motivated by vengeance. And that is certainly understandable. When I imagine myself in the position of a victim or victim’s family, I want to see the perpetrator punished severely. Any person would. But the state is not a person. The obligation of the state is not to see that vengeance is satisfied, but that justice is carried out. It has to ensure that both the investigation and the prosecution of a crime is carried out dispassionately, reliably and fairly.
I tend to agree with proponents of the death penalty that murderers deserve to die, but lots of people deserve things that the state cannot effectively provide and that taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to pay for. So until we find a way to carry out capital punishment truthfully, effectively, fairly and justly, you can put me down as opposed.
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.