Should there be a death penalty? Of course, the pros and cons are always trotted out after every botched execution. There was more chatter than usual after the last one because it happened to coincide with the publication of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), according to which more than 4% of death row inmates are innocent. We usually decide such questions by consulting our moral emotions. As the highly moral Communists and Nazis demonstrated, that’s not a good idea.
The 4% study recalls the adage, usually attributed to Blackstone, that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Relying on moral emotions alone, one could probably come up with a host of “trolley problems” to demonstrate that Blackstone’s formulation is either “true” or “false.” I take a more practical view of the matter. If I am dead, it won’t matter a bit to me whether I was killed by a criminal or by the state. Assuming there must be a death penalty, then, I would prefer to minimize the odds that I will be killed by either one. In other words, I would favor a policy which minimizes the number of innocent victims, regardless of whether they are killed by the state or by criminals.
In fact, that’s the reason that I oppose the death penalty. Again, my reasons are entirely practical. I want to minimize the odds that I will suffer an untimely death. The state has always been the most prolific and efficient murderer, and the recent trend has not been towards greater compassion. In the twentieth century, for example, at least two states, Cambodia and the Soviet Union, became so adept at mass murder that they effectively beheaded their own populations. I conclude that it would be better to get states out of the execution business once and for all, and I would not be at all squeamish about exploiting moral emotions to accomplish that end. For example, one might come up with something like a version of the Ten Commandments for states, one article of which would be, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” One might establish the “human right” not to be executed. The goal would not be the establishment of some abstract standard of “justice,” but self-preservation, pure and simple.
For the entertainment of my readers, I have included an old episode of “The Outer Limits” that explores the philosophical ramifications of this issue in greater detail. Notice that the bad guy is Bruce Dern. He was fantastic in the lead role of the movie “Nebraska,” that came out a few months ago. Sorry about the commercials.