Can There Be Capital Punishment In A Just and Moral Society?

Can There Be Capital Punishment In A Just and Moral Society?

A review of the literature on the deterrent effects of capital punishment is not supportive of those in favor of capital punishment, even for the most ghastly crimes (rape, torture and murder of women and children, etc.). Such a review will show a small number of studies that report a slight deterrent effect and the greater proportion of studies reporting no effect, and in some cases, even an increase of capitol crimes associated with capital punishment.

The facts are, that at this time and under present cultural conditions, it is very hard to demonstrate any particular effects at all. Therefore, on the basis of the data alone, the most appropriate scientific conclusion is the null hypothesis.

The methodology of all of the studies involved are flawed in some arguable way and proponents of each side of this issue will debate on and on, with no way to prove their thesis. It is fair to say that those against capital punishment have a greater pile of flawed evidence on their side than do those who have flawed data on their pro side of the argument.

It is doubtful, that any time soon, science will be able to clarify this emotional topic. The social sciences frequently move at a snail’s wandering pace while sociocultures demand answers in order to survive the here and now.  The question remains, what is the better part of wisdom to do about the matter of the rape, torture, and murder of our women and children, as well as other lethal crimes.

Of course, there are religious and ethical arguments pro and con. Depending upon which religion and which religious document you prefer you may, or may not, find scriptural support for either position.

For the pragmatic minded individual, the cost factor can become pivotal. Here the evidence is also in favor of the life-time sentence without parole. Some reports suggest a three million dollar cost per execution and a one million dollar cost to maintain an individual in prison for the rest of their lives, with no chance of parole.

Others argue that there is no good and essential reason for such costs associated with execution and that it is our own ambivalence about executions that drives their costs so high.

Cultural complicity arguments begin with the premise that infants are not born sadistic, rapist killers,. Instead, various sociocultural events (sex abuse, physical abuse, abandonment, drugs, or genetic determinants, etc.,) that reflect the quality of the socioculure itself  have caused these horrific behavior patterns to emerge.

On the basis of my studies and professional experiences, I could not agree more.

However, it is then logical to conclude that if a socioculture produces such massively destructive  behavior patterns (because of its own negligence or incompetence) it should then rush to engage in self-management strategies that reduce or deter its own maladaptive features in the future.

To that end, then, the additional cost of capital punishment should be born by the incompetent socioculture as a form of response cost punishment, capable of motivating the search for cultural redesigns to primarily prevent such sad losses and outcomes for both the victims and criminals alike.

From the perspective of cultural complicity, the socioculture that admits that it is significantly responsible for increased sex abuse, rape, and murder rates within its population and then argues for the least expensive and taxing route to preventing more such events compounds it irresponsibility. This is like the alcoholic who finds a way to avoid the painful hang-over and is less likely to ever change its own bad behavior as a result.

Fear of executing the innocent is a very rational fear and I share this fear. As horrific as it is true, it should come a no surprise that America has sometimes executed the innocent. One unpopular counter- argument is that mistakes are inevitable, and no one ever said life is fair. “Justice will do its best, and though a minority of mistakes will occur, the greater good for society justifies the sacrifice”.

This argument may inflame the reader, but it is the same argument that is made in favor of almost all of the freedoms we enjoy (including the personal freedoms involved in the ways that our socioculture turns our precious infants into rapists and murderers at the hands of abusive and incompetent people). And of course, this mode of thinking is what we do all of the time when we decided that it is “in our own best interests” (or those of important others) to go to war and hundreds of thousands of our wonderful best young people are killed and maimed—Often without clear gain.  These deaths and injuries of the innocent are unfair, as will be my death and yours, at a time before we are “ready to go”.

Fortunately, given today’s new technology, concerns about executing the innocent need not apply to the question of capital punishment. DNA testing has virtually eliminated the innocent victim argument . Restricting capital punishment to only those crimes that are most damaging to the well-fare of our socioculture and citizens and only to those cases of absolutely certain guilt obviates this argument.

Therefore, I recommend that following:

1. Execute only those who, with absolute certainty, have perpetrated a capital offence. DNA evidence makes this possible, as does many unquestionably public and certain acts of murder, mayhem and terror.

2. Terminate appeals for most certain capital cases. The absolute certainty rule, negates the need for costly endless appeals that require decades of time and millions of dollars to complete.

3. The absolute certainty rule will allow for much more immediate and consistent observational punishment effects most likely to reduce the of rate of occurrence of capital offences within the population).

Note that terminating an individual’s gene pool is not to be considered punishment of that individual perpetrator, even though they will never do that illegal deed again. Punishment refers to a reduction in the rate of a  behavior following a contingent consequence, in living individuals.  However, terminating someone’ gene pool will certainly reduce the future frequency of that gene pool replicating itself  within a general population. So, to whatever extent a perpetrator’s genetic structure has contributed to rape and murder, that genetic structure is unable to make further such contributions.

The punishing effects, if they exist, will be seen in the rate of such future behavior in the general population. Psychology’s Law of Effect, and social psychological principles of modeling and imitation, and vicarious learning are invariably weakened by the existence of non-salient, grossly inconsistent and delayed consequences. Non-salient, grossly inconsistent and delayed consequences defines our judicial system. This alone can account for these most prevalent destructive behavior problems under discussion, as well as our inability to detect any deterrent effects associated with capital punishment.

4. America has increasingly failed to teach rules of behavior to its population. The following   clear and enforceable rules are essential to our collective welfare.

The following appropriate rules for vicarious punishment will most likely reveal any deterrent effects of capital punishment upon a population. By vicarious punishment I mean: “ it happened to someone else for doing X and I am certain it will happen to me if I do X.  That is a huge and certain consequence that I would hate and I want no part of it!”

Use the Absolute Certainty Rule (if you do it, you will suffer the ultimate consequence). This rule implies yet another essential rule. Use the Consistency Rule (everyone who does it will suffer the same ultimate consequence–there will be no exceptions). Also, use the Immediacy Rule (With proof- positive, you will suffer the ultimate consequence very swiftly). Changes within our legal system can eliminate appeals for proof-positive cases. Capital punishment can then be administered within a matter of weeks……not self-defeating decades! 
Other considerations

I judge a person by his or her actions. Yes, I said the word Judge. I judge whether their actions are helpful or harmful to themselves and others. You do the same all of the time, whether you wish to admit it or not.

I also judge sociocultures in the same way. A culture that values the life of a child-molester, torturer, and killer as much as it values the life of an innocent dead woman or child is a culture that will suffer more innocent dead women and children not less.

You may wish to argue that we value the life of the child more than the life of the murderer. But word value (though it can be defined negatively)  is an abstraction that needs a behavioral definition. If a value is defined behaviorally, I think you are wrong.

A value is best defined as what an individual or society will do to work,  or pay positive reinforcers,  to achieve a goal. If we work to preserve and sustain the life of a predatory murderer harder ( with our effort and money) than we did to preserve the lives of those who have been raped, tortured, and murdered, we demonstrably value the lives of the perpetrators more than the victims: Our collective behavior tells an empirical  truth about our value system that words cannot obscure. 

I believe that well-defined, universally understood,  swift and certain capital punishment will most likely show deterrent effects.

If it does not, from a philosophical and ethical perspective, I would probably still have to support capital punishment for the murderous crimes that I have described.

You could call that vengeance, if you wish.  But vengance appears to poison the vengeful and I want none of that.

I would simply call it justice.

I would do this very sadly, of course.

I really did wish to live my life in a different kind of world.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.

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4 Responses to “Can There Be Capital Punishment In A Just and Moral Society?”

  1. Can There Be Capital Punishment In A Just and Moral Society? | Cultural Survival Skills Says:

    Ericka Kosorog

    Can There Be Capital Punishment In A Just and Moral Society? A review of the literature on the deterrent effects of capital punishment is not supportive of those in favor of capital punishment, even for the most ghastly crimes (rape, torture and murder…


  2. Bruce Says:

    As promised – The spiritual aspect of capital punishment.
    This is a very abbreviated commentary, as the topic is far too broad to cover as a comment on a blog page. From my own perspective, when I think of spiritual truth, I refer to the intrinsic aspects that tend to make up the world’s most predominant religions. I do not infer the use of religious texts in which to support either view point, as the texts of major religions suffer extensively from contradiction. Rather, I refer to the underlining truths extractable from them, also attributable to the positive energies of the universe and nature, and that of a mature society.
    First, as clarification, I am not opposed to the death penalty in certain cases, but the reason must be based on sound spiritual grounds. As a society, we have the right to protect ourselves from those who would commit atrocities. In ancient times when there were no jails or otherwise “correctional facilities”, about the only way to prevent a mass murder/rapist from continuing their rampage of terror would be to kill them. (To kill being the ending of life with legitimate reason, while murder does not have a legitimate reason). However, that is not necessarily the case today. So the question is whether or not someone who is a proven risk to others can be adequately isolated from others to simultaneous prevent others from being harmed while allowing that individual to live in the most basic humane way. If not, than it is incumbent upon a society to terminate that life, much like we would that of a rabid dog.
    However, the reasons that most predominantly affect people’s opinion as to whether to enforce the death penalty are based on negative emotions rooted in revenge, anger, blood thirst, misconceptions of justice, and fear. These negative emotions not only serve to broaden the negative impact of the actions of the accused, but serve as barriers to healing. Forgiveness and reclamation or not just words in the religious texts, but are tenants of a spiritually mature society. While the accused may not be capable of ethical love, a spiritual society must be. As you yourself point out in your article, a murder starts out life as an infant with a clean slate who through life situation, became a doer of evil. A spiritual person must feel compassion even when the person is so deplorable that the acts they perpetrated are that of nightmares.
    Lastly, an aspect I’ve witnessed with my own eyes – the righteous manner in which The Supreme Being enforces justice when we, as fallible but spiritual humans, allow His justice to prevail rather than insisting on dispensing justice ourselves. Where one wishes to allow justice for the victims, one must allow Him to dispense justice. Where one wishes for His justice to affect the evil, one allows Him to dispense justice. Of course, and again, where one must protect oneself or others, killing of another is prudent. In such a case, the actions of the evil doer caused the necessary reaction, hence, they are solely to blame for the need protect others from them. In cases of mental illness, while the individual may not suffer independent blame, the nature of their disease is no less destructive.


  3. Bruce Says:

    This seems to cover most all of the bases as far as the differing aspects of capital punishment, however, it is missing one item, and that is cases of temporary insanity brought on in some cases.
    For example, like it or not, and despite pharma’s attempts to cover it up, there are cases when antidepressents cause individuals to commit murder – as one example.
    DNA evidence does not indicate when someone is otherwise normal but for temporary and extreme situations.

    As to execution as a form of deterrent, arguably, those with excessive mental illness will likely not be swayed, however, I would imagine that others would be. Unfortunately, one also has to consider the possibility of increased “suicide by murdering someone and then being executed”.

    I will see if I can put together a concise thought in writing about my views spiritually on the matter. Spiritually, not religiously, as to some, rape may not be viewed the same in differing cultures. What constitutes rape in some cultures differs where a religion seems to allow rape (as defined elsewhere) as a marital right or as a means to restore family honor or as a means to “instill” religious tenant in a girl/woman who is not adhering to a religiously inspired cultural norm. Similarly, justifications for murder in some cultures differ with religious flavor. So to me, religion cannot be used when discussing the morality of capital punishment, however, I believe basic spiritual truth can be.

    Thanks Tom


    • vtmawhinney Says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Bruce. You, of course, are right about the insanity issue. That is a matter that would need to be dealt with in a fair way. I look forward to your thoughts on spirituality and capital punishment. Tom


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