The death penalty

Reader! I need your help.

Since becoming an atheist, I have not seriously reconsidered the pros and cons of the death penalty. While my gut suggests dislike for the practice, I have yet to form a solid argument either way.

What do you think?


3 Responses to The death penalty

  1. NFQ says:

    What did you think about it before you were an atheist, and why?

    My personal inclination is that it would be nice if we lived in a world where the death penalty was unnecessary. I am not sure if we live in that world, or if we have the data to tell. I would certainly reserve it for only the most heinous criminals — serial killers, and the like.

    At the end of the day it comes down to what you think the penal system is for. There are a number of ostensible goals — public safety (just getting criminals temporarily away from others), rehabilitation of criminals (so that they can function in society again), deterrence of future crimes (showing that there are negative consequences), retribution for crimes (this one is probably hardest to justify). Punishments should be proportional to the crime they are applied to — I would not accept the death penalty being assigned for petty theft, say, no matter how much deterrence it provides — but punishments should in general serve these aims. It’s conceivable to me that the death penalty does that in limited circumstances. If we think someone is beyond rehabilitation, that they will never be released from prison, that they are a threat to public safety forever … by that point they have opted out of the rules of society to an extent that I do not feel strongly obligated to protect their life. The death penalty might be the best response in that case.

    • kpharri says:

      Before I was an atheist, I believed that life was granted by a divine power, and that we mortals had no right to end what was not in our power to create.

      Now, I have views similar to yours: it’s not a question with a quick, easy answer. I am ultimately a pragmatist, so I think that whatever approach is taken, it must be chosen based on its consequences. Further research is needed to determine whether the death penalty has any value as a deterent. I’m inclined to think not. It may, as you suggest, be the a viable option once rehabilitation is ruled out, or perhaps when permanent imprisonment seems too costly a burden, although I think it’s difficult to make such a calculation without seeming overly callous.

      • NFQ says:

        Yeah. It’s a tough call. I think it would be overly callous if we said, “Our prisons are overcrowded, but it would be okay if we started allowing the death sentence for marijuana possession,” or “…if we executed 2/3 of the people currently in jail right now.” But if we really do only use the death penalty in cases of extremely awful crimes, it is certainly still sad but nonetheless does not seem *so* callous to say, “This person is such a menace to society that the courts have given them 14 consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole. Their reentry into society is a horrible, frightening thing to contemplate. So why should we be feeding them, and giving them a place to sleep, and giving them health care, etc.? Their life is over already.”

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