The following essay is a response to Shaun Mason’s article ‘Is Human Sacrifice Morally Justifiable?’, published on this website
In your recent article, you asked ‘Is Human Sacrifice Morally Justifiable?’. Reading the title alone, my first thought was, of course “Absolutely not!” It seemed odd that you were arguing the case for ritualised mass killing, so I read on. Thankfully, you weren’t (I wonder if anyone could make a case for it though?), although the question you posed was actually whether or not capital punishment is morally justifiable. You gave some evidence but left the reader to make their own mind up. Well, I do believe that for murder, and only then in certain circumstances, that a system of capital punishment similar to the one this country had until fifty years ago, is not only morally justifiable but actually a necessity, and I explain why in this letter
First of all, I have to take issue with the use of the phrase ‘Human Sacrifice’ to describe the lawful execution of a convicted felon. I do accept that there are, on the surface, similarities between what was the ritual killing of individuals to appease the gods- often found in archaic civilisations such as the Aztecs and indeed , in prehistoric Britain- and what essentially is the killing of a convicted criminal to appease those victimised as by the executed and society as a whole. However, to compare the mass killing of innocent people on the whim of a few self-appointed holy-men directly to punishment given to a person convicted beyond reasonable doubt of a heinous crime (as they so often are; I will discuss the cases where this allegedly is not the case later), a punishment passed into statute by an elected legislature and handed out by a learned professional on the basis of a decision made by a selected group of individuals is incredibly disingenuous.
You discuss the idea of deterrence. The debate about capital punishment does primarily boil down to whether or not execution for heinous crimes such as murder (and in some cases aggravated rape) is a viable method of deterring others from committing them, and understandably so; Most people, even advocates of capital punishment, have moral and philosophical objections to the killing of fellow humans. Few, I believe, would be comfortable living in a country where the state annually puts several hundred, or perhaps a few thousand to death, even if they have been convicted of the worst offenses a person can perpetrate on fellow human beings. And, as you’ve pointed out, the effectiveness of execution as a deterrent is not necessarily backed up with the available statistical evidence.
I will respond with this, though: Deterrence in itself is extremely difficult to prove with empirical evidence- how can one provide numbers of crimes which never took place? As far as I’m aware, no one has ever taken a plebiscite in a state with the death penalty asking “Have you ever been deterred from murdering someone by the fact that you may be executed for it?” (I do recognise that it is incredibly unrealistic and facetious to suggest that one could hold an accurate poll about this). Furthermore, you provide statistical evidence on reoffending rates, showing that the USA has a higher rate of recidivism overall than the United Kingdom- in almost all of these cases, these figures are from people who have not been convicted of capital crimes. Those convicted of murder often do not have the chance to commit the same crime after being released so I wouldn’t count those figures as evidence for either side.
You could mention the fact many states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without. I counter that these states also have laxer firearms laws and increased rates of gun ownership and increased levels of other violent and non-violent crime, and perhaps correspondingly, higher levels of poverty and deprivation, alcoholism and illegal drug use. According to the theories of a large number of criminologists, it is these social factors which subject these areas to higher crime rates. Furthermore, a number of states with high murder rates do not frequently execute prisoners (such as California and Mississippi), which effectively makes the proposed link between the death penalty and high murder rates moot.
I could also argue that almost immediately after the cessation of capital punishment in both the United Kingdom (1965 to present) and the United States (1967 to 1979), murder rates began a rapid increase and would remain incredibly high for many years, but again I cannot definitively link these two facts, so I won’t.
Now, as for worries about executing the wrong person- I agree that when someone is wrongly convicted of a crime, particularly a universally reviled crime like murder, it is a terrible offence to them. When that person is no longer alive to see their reputation salvaged and to have their liberty restored, the moral consequences for all are almost unthinkable. It is of small comfort to the relatives of Timothy Evans, the illiterate lorry driver wrongly hanged for strangling his baby daughter Geraldine, that his pardon came thirteen years after his death. However, what comfort can one give the family of Patrick ‘Guiseppe’ Conlon, who died halfway through a twelve year sentence after being wrongly convicted of taking part in IRA bombings in the United Kingdom? Abolishing the death penalty doesn’t disqualify people dying as victims of miscarriages of justice, so why should this deter society from imposing a death sentence on people who may well deserve it?
As you’ve mentioned, DNA testing has vastly improved in recent years, with comparisons having a high level of accuracy, making wrong convictions for serious crimes like murder less likely. I add that limitations on police behaviour and stronger regulations on evidence gathering and interrogations have meant that cases like Timothy Evans’s (Which is one of two default case studies used when discussing the viability of capital punishment) are vastly less likely to happen today: As Ludovic Kennedy pointed out in ’10 Rillington Place’, Evans (a man who, it is claimed, had the emotional intelligence of a child) had his confession written for him by police officers after several hours of exhaustive questioning lasting late into the night, without the opportunity to consult legal counsel or an appropriate adult, a situation which would not in at all be possible today with the creation of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984.
(It should be noted here, that Evans originally voluntarily confessed to having disposed of his wife Beryl’s body, believing that she had died as a result of an illegal abortion she had received from his friend and neighbour, John Reginald Christie. It would later be determined that it was in fact Christie who murdered Beryl and Geraldine Evans. He was be convicted and hanged for the rape and murder of several other women four years after Timothy Evans’s death)
Also, if this country were to return to the pre 1965 method of dispensing capital punishment, it would be done so only by the discretion of the presiding judge, and each individual execution would have to be sanctioned by the Home Secretary (Whilst I wholeheartedly support the right to jury trial, I do not necessarily support jury sentencing). This system of checks and balances means that if a person is, with legislation such as PACE restricting what the police can and can’t do to build a case against them, convicted of murder, then should the judge (and by extension, the Home Secretary), felt that the circumstances of a particular case did not warrant execution, they could choose not to give it as a sentence. The popular press often pillories judges as being ‘too lenient’ toward convicted criminals- if this were the case, then one would expect capital punishment only to be used in extreme circumstances, as it is (for the most part) in the United States.
Those are my rebuttals as to why the reintroduction of capital punishment would be morally wrong. I’m conscious I’ve used many words to prove my opponents wrong without actually explaining why capital punishment is morally justified and so here is my case:
Look at the most heinous, most sickening cases of murder, the ones where, for those convicted life does indeed mean life. These are committed by people who actively plan the violent deaths of people they know in retribution for some perceived slight, and will walk away and laugh at what they’ve done. There are cases of people murdered in cold blood by complete strangers in return for a sum of money, an expensive car, or even just for the chance of having sexual relations. Children are abducted and raped, and the young, the vulnerable and the elderly are stalked, terrorised and tortured purely for someone’s gratification. The people who commit these acts do not do so in a rash, unthinking moment. They set out to do so understanding what they do goes against the core tenet of almost every human society on this planet, and yet that thought makes not one jot of difference to them. As you point out, the reason for imprisonment is to punish, rehabilitate and deter, but how can a prison rehabilitate someone who decides against following morals which to almost all of society are self-evident? As for punishment, how does prison actually punish them? For Ian Brady, all imprisonment succeeded in doing was fuelling his persecution and superiority fantasies, and he soon became adept at emotionally torturing the families of his victims, including withholding the location of the body of Keith Bennett purely to torment his mother, Winnie Johnson. He is just one of countless people serving life sentences for murders which they do not regret. If they do not regret what they have done, how can they be rehabilitated? And if they cannot be rehabilitated, what is the point in punishing them by imprisoning them? Surely the only punishment worthy of them is to deprive them of their life, the one thing they value above all else?
Perhaps it is because we think of ourselves as a humane, tolerant society? We do, and we, to a large extent are. We love our enemies and we forgive them, and in most cases, this morally is the right thing to do. However, when confronted with someone who, if you were to turn the other cheek, would still slit your throat regardless, a stronger response would be expected and indeed would be seen as morally justifiable. We would defend our country if attacked by another with the armed force, as we did after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, so why should we not take the maximum possible option to protect ourselves and our society from people who only wish to attack it? Imprisonment is no guarantee of protection- American serial killer Ted Bundy twice escaped from detention, and continued raping and murdering young women until caught again- but a swift hanging is.
Punishment should mean something, spiritually and philosophically, as well as temporally. If a life sentence is seen by some as simply an alternate way of living, and one which they can mould to suit themselves at that, then it cannot be seen as a form of punishment. It isn’t a way of protecting society from their malign influence, as with the case of Brady and others, they still exert a gruesome influence over their victims and their families, albeit one which often (although not always) lessens with their death. In these cases, capital punishment cannot be seen as a deterrent. But what it is, is a metaphysical message, not from the state but from society as a whole that saying we will not allow you to remain in impunity. In a word, it is justice.
Your essay asked the question ‘Is [capital punishment] morally justifiable?’. In the extreme circumstances I’ve detailed, I believe it is. The question I now pose is ‘how is it not?’
BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS