Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Subject of the Death Penalty Revisited:
(Musings of your humble servant at Rerum Novarum)

[Update: The text below was tweaked a bit to read differently than what was originally posted this morning. -ISM 6/14/07 4:40pm]

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I'll never look into your eyes...again

Readers of some time to this humble weblog are aware of your host's position on the death penalty. In doing a quick scan of the archives though, it does not appear that we have said anything in depth on the matter for a long time{1} so new readers may not be so familiar with it. To state it bluntly: I support it in some circumstances. I am not one generally inclined as a rule to quote statistics to support my positions even when the latter are favourable.{2} There have been for a while a few favourable studies on the benefits of the death penalty for preserving innocent lives that we have not mentioned before on this weblog.{3} However, rules admit of exceptions and I am going to depart from normal protocol here for reasons I hope to make manifestly evident in this posting.

As a societal issue of contemporary relevance, the disputes over whether or not the death penalty should be used have a predictable pattern to them. While not indicative of an absolute on either side, generally speaking those who favour it tend to make arguments based on reason and logic and those opposed tend to do so on an emotional basis to which they add unconvincing arguments and manifest a kind of "faith" that their position is correct.

At some point though, one has to recognize in the interest of both ethics as well as out of principle when these matters reach what could be called "critical mass." And in recent days, it is the judgment of your host that critical mass has been reached on the matter of the death penalty and whether or not it (i) acts as a deterrent against further murders and (ii) whether or not as a deterrent it saves more innocent lives than it takes from those who are convicted of the crime of murder.

In the last five odd years there have now been documented about twelve different studies all of which reach the same core verdict: the death penalty saves lives. Anyway, as CBS News the other day published an article on the subject, it seems opportune to revisit this subject anew so here goes:

Death Penalty Deters Murders, Studies Say (CBS News circa June 11, 2007)

Of particular interest to me is this part of the text:

"Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it," said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. "The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect."

A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. "The results are robust, they don't really go away," he said. "I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them?"

Statistical studies like his are among a dozen papers since 2001 that capital punishment has deterrent effects. They all explore the same basic theory — if the cost of something (be it the purchase of an apple or the act of killing someone) becomes too high, people will change their behavior (forego apples or shy away from murder).

To explore the question, they look at executions and homicides, by year and by state or county, trying to tease out the impact of the death penalty on homicides by accounting for other factors, such as unemployment data and per capita income, the probabilities of arrest and conviction, and more.

Among the conclusions:

Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).
The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over four years following, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston.

Speeding up executions would strengthen the deterrent effect. For every 2.75 years cut from time spent on death row, one murder would be prevented, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor.

This should be common sense frankly but with too many people, they are deaf to this either because they do not possess common sense or because they place faith in certain authorities{4} who themselves are misinformed. Let us however go with the lowest figure given: that each execution rather than saving eighteen, fourteen, or even five innocent lives only saves three. If the trade off for executing one convicted murderer means that three innocent people will not be killed, how is such a usage of the death penalty not a protection of the common good of society and just public order???

As I noted already, I am not one normally to have recourse to statistics when rational arguments themselves are adequate to make a point. However, among many people there is an irrational kind of "faith" on this matter which is seemingly adverse to reasonable persuasion. And this is not one study we are talking about here but a dozen in the past six years -all of which reach the same core conclusion: the death penalty saves lives.

What is also noted in the above quote (and underlined for emphasis) is that one of those conducting a study (a Mr. Naci Mocan) and who double checked its data a second time was opposed personally to the death penalty. However, despite his personal views on the issue, Mr. Mocan out of principle will not bury the findings simply because said findings do not countenance his presuppositions. Nor is he the only one either as the CBS article speaks of another honest person who is not a fan of the death penalty when confronted with these evidences:

The studies' conclusions drew a philosophical response from a well-known liberal law professor, University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein. A critic of the death penalty, in 2005 he co-authored a paper titled "Is capital punishment morally required?"

"If it's the case that executing murderers prevents the execution of innocents by murderers, then the moral evaluation is not simple," he told The Associated Press. "Abolitionists or others, like me, who are skeptical about the death penalty haven't given adequate consideration to the possibility that innocent life is saved by the death penalty."

Indeed, most of the abolitionist crowd has not thought this through adequately and the moral evaluation is not as simple as many have casually presumed it is. And while more could be noted than that, I will close at this time with the statement that it appears to be much more probable that those who support the use of the death penalty against murderers are on the side of protecting innocent lives unlike those who are calling for the abolishment of the death penalty (however noble the intentions of those opposed to the death penalty may be).


{1} Other than offhand references or analogies to the subject, there have been no significant posts pertaining to that subject specifically in a rationally argued format for over two years now. Indeed, the last post of significance on this weblog is from May 27, 2005 and that was mainly a clarification posting on a key point pertaining to many of those who support the death penalty. Prior to that, you have to go back to early 2004 to find a death penalty only posting to this weblog.

{2} The reason for this is because statistics can be easily manipulated.

{3} The Deterrent Effect of the Death Penalty

While I knew the studies had been done and what they concluded, I was nonetheless not aware of the existence of the above link until earlier this month.

{4} On the Appeal to Authority and Distinguishing Between Valid and Fallacious Appeals Thereof (circa March 8, 2007)

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

As today is the sixth anniversary of the passing of my late father Richard Dunn McElhinney (d. June 12, 2001), prayers for the eternal repose of his soul would be most appreciated.

Eternal rest grant unto his soul oh Lord and may thy perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace with all the souls of the faithfully departed. Amen.

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