Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Very Bad Argument Against Capital Punishment

As an aside in an otherwise unrelated talk, I heard a priest say the other day, "How can there be any logic in capital punishment? How can you teach people to respect life by threatening to kill them?"

Regardless of what one thinks about the legitimacy of capital punishment, this is a bad argument. Throughout history, legitimate authority has used the threat of legally sanctioned violence (punishment) to prevent people from committing crimes, and it does indeed work pretty well. Not only that, but there's an example from everyday life that most people have direct experience with: Telling young children that biting, kicking, scratching, hair pulling, kicking, hitting and any other physical attacks I haven't thought of at the moment will be met with a spanking actually works very well. Indeed, at the ages of 3-8 when children are capable of more-or-less controlling their actions but have very limited ability to empathize with others (especially others who are making them angry) it's often pretty much the only effective manner of preventing intra-sibling fights getting nasty.

And contrary to the similar claim that "you can't teach someone not to hit by threatening to hit them", many of us in fact learned that hitting was not an acceptable means of self expression by this very means, and in turn have taught our offspring the same way.

Like it or not, we experience codified punishments handed down by a recognized authority as different from ad hoc violence used to vent one's personal feelings of the moment. And while threat of punishment alone will not serve to make people actually value life or eschew violence, it is pretty effective at preventing the proscribed behavior.

Other arguments against capital punishment (whether practical or moral) are compelling to one extent or another, but this one should honestly be dropped. It just doesn't ring true.

12 comments:

Figulus said...

You can't teach people not to kill by killing them. You cannot teach people not to oppress others by imprisoning them. You cannot teach people not to steal by fining them. Any form of punishment or discipline is incompatible with the Golden Rule, since none of us wants to be punished or disciplined.

Discuss.

(Actually, the refutation of these arguments is pretty much Morality 101, but it is no suprise that no-one today takes Morality 101.)

Bernard Brandt said...

While one perhaps cannot teach one who is not interested in the subject how not to kill, one can pretty much prevent him from killing others by killing him (or the occasional her).

In other words, the rate of repeat crime of murderers who have been executed is acceptably low.

One might even encourage others not to follow the bad example.

class-factotum said...

I was unswayed by any argument against capital punishment until I was in the jury pool for a capital case and a potential juror said she could not vote for capital punishment because as long as someone is alive, there is still a chance for redemption.

That doesn't mean I am against putting someone in prison until he dies.

bearing said...

To turn the argument around slightly and to produce the logical situation that literally was the straw that pushed me in an instant from being pro-legal-abortion to anti-abortion:

If our society were to take the stance that even the lives of guilty, awful people are worth preserving even at a high social cost, it would become much harder to argue that the lives of innocents are not.

I was anti-death penalty for a long time before I realized it was completely stupid to also not be anti-abortion.

William said...

Maybe the priest would understand the parent-child comparison better if he were able to marry and have children ;-)

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

The problem is, nobody tells priests "You know, Father, that's an unbelievably unconvincing argument." Everyone just thinks it. And nods.

Reminds me of the priest who, in the context of interviewing/lecturing us for the purpose of determining whether I got to have a dispensation to marry Eudoxus, announced as the argument against contraception that "A pill is what you take when you're sick; so how does it make sense to take one to keep from getting pregnant, and you're perfectly healthy?"

Eudoxus, a grad student in philosophy at the time, had the sense to keep his mouth shut.

Anonymous said...

"Indeed, at the ages of 3-8 when children are capable of more-or-less controlling their actions but have very limited ability to empathize with others (especially others who are making them angry) it's often pretty much the only effective manner of preventing intra-sibling fights getting nasty."

Er, no. Spanking is not the only way. It's the least time-consuming way, perhaps. In the short run.

Speaking to a child's heart, and committing to the time and effort needed to train the child in acceptable and effective ways of dealing with anger, is another extremely effective way of accomplishing the same thing.

This second method, while requiring much more time and energy than the first, may result in a deeper understanding of the principles involved.

"And while threat of punishment alone will not serve to make people actually value life or eschew violence, it is pretty effective at preventing the proscribed behavior."

This is a true statement. But the first part of it is quite important, and should be given some serious thought.

J said...

"In other words, the rate of repeat crime of murderers who have been executed is acceptably low."

Brilliantly put, Mr. Brandt!

bearing said...

Remarkably, the rate of successful release and restitution of innocent people who have been erroneously executed is also quite low.

Furthemore, the rate of eventual repentance of criminals who were executed before they repented is also low, at least as far as we can tell.

Roz said...

Equating spanking with the stuff that kids do always sounded silly to me, even as a kid. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree that discipline should not consist of an irritated parent smacking the child on the face while screaming in a whiny voice, "I got you back, you big bully!" That, indeed, might well prove confusing to a child trying to learn how to navigate the world. Thankfully, spanking doesn't have to be either random, mean or rejecting.

In our family, we had a routine for how spanking was carried out. There were particular "spankable" offenses (direct and willful disobedience, for example). We would take the child into a private room, explain what they had done, give them a chance to explain (not to wheedle or lie), turn them over the lap, apply the appropriate number of firm whacks to the part of the anatomy best equipped to handle it, and then comfort the child, reassure them that we loved them and accept their request for forgiveness. As far as I knew at the time or they've communicated to me now, it was neither a source of resentment nor an incitement to violence.

If we parents were so angry we risked losing our grip on our tempers, we waited until we could proceed calmly.

It worked. The one child of mine who's now a parent does the same thing. I would do it again the same way. You know a tree by its fruit, and my kids grew up to be cheerful, well-balanced, loving, reasonably civilized human beings.

mrsdarwin said...

Roz,

Good comment. We try to handle spanking in the same way. I'm always amused by the people who claim that spanking will turn children into violent monsters (heard recently, in fact, on an homeschooling thread, where the mother was mortally offended that public school assigned her tender child that classic of child abuse, Bedtime for Frances) because both Darwin and I can attest it's not true.

Now what is true is that physical punishment needs to be very carefully meted out -- not in anger, or it makes a parent angrier, and not arbitrarily, which is really too close to abuse. A child can tell the difference between a moderate, deliberately delivered spanking and an unexpected slap in the face. Also, except for very serious offenses that require strong consequences, the age of spanking passes about the time the child achieves age of reason. I find, with my older ones, that the threat of having to write lines carries more weight than the threat of a spanking. Maybe that's the boredom factor at play. :)

Anna said...

"Other arguments against capital punishment (whether practical or moral) are compelling to one extent or another, but this one should honestly be dropped. It just doesn't ring true."

Commenters on this thread (myself included) notwithstanding, I think that argument is not likely to be dropped anytime soon, because it does, in fact, ring true to quite a few people. Perhaps in particular the same people who object to spanking.