The value of a life

In a previous post, I posed a somewhat general question about the death penalty and whether it could be justified.

My old point of view, which stemmed from theistic beliefs, said that every life was given by God, implying that it could only be taken away by God. I now believe that this position is incoherent, not only because there is no evidence that God exists, but for the perplexing questions it raises, such as how, exactly does God take away lives, if not through the handiwork of men? Or does he never take away a life at all (and how would we know)?

A helpful comment from the author of No Forbidden Questions led me to the following thoughts.

First, as a consequentialist, I must base my motivations for punishment on its intended consequences. Here are the most common:

1. Safety. People may be punished (specifically, incarcerated) because they are too dangerous to be admitted normal access to society.

2. Rehabilitation. People may be punished in order to “change their ways” so that they can become productive members of society.

3. Deterrence. People may be punished in order to set an example to others, to send them a warning that this is the consequence of the crime in question.

It’s likely that all three reasons are potentially valid from the consequentialist viewpoint. The problem is determining which forms of each punishment are valid in practice. I have serious doubts about the effectiveness of the third. I have serious doubts about how seriously the U.S. corrections system considers the second. And, I think attention to the first is often exaggerated, usually because each politician wishing to appear tough on crime must also appear tougher than his predecessor, leading to a spiral of increasing “toughness”. In California, this has produced the draconian three-strikes rule, although this particular political arms race appears to be attracting opposition thanks to the burgeoning costs of maintaining an ever growing prison population.

In which category does the death penalty fall? It obviously cannot fall in the second. Does it improve the safety of law-abiding citizens? Yes, possibly. Does it deter others from committing similar crimes? Maybe, although I have my doubts.

If we can, for the moment, assume that the deterrence value of the death penalty is negligible, what can we say about the safety option? The dilemma we face now is that keeping a prisoner locked up in jail for life provides precisely the same protection to the public as hanging him from the gallows.

The choice between permanent imprisonment and death must therefore depend on other considerations. It may be argued by some that there is an innate moral difference between the two options: perhaps the death penalty constitutes a disproportionately violent response. Perhaps a particular type of crime, such as murder, justifies the death penalty (an eye for an eye). However, such considerations move away from a purely consequentialist approach. If we are to remain firmly consequentialist, we must ask what other consequences there are to this dilemma other than public safety.

As the author of No Forbidden Questions suggests, one obvious consequence of permanent imprisonment is the enormous cost involved in keeping a prisoner fed, clothed, and relatively healthy over a period of up to several decades – a cost that is paid for by the taxpayer.

But what about other costs? For instance, an inmate spending decades in prison might obtain an education, he might learn a valuable skill, or he might provide a valuable source of comfort or guidance to his fellow inmates. These are commodities that would never be attained if the death penalty were chosen. How does one balance these? Unfortunately, this question is ultimately about putting a monetary value on a life. And not only do most people find such a prospect distasteful, but it is also nigh impossible to do.

Perhaps the problem can be partially solved by returning to the second option above: rehabilitation. It would surely be premature to put a criminal to death if there was some chance she could be rehabilitated. Do we ever know for sure whether rehabilitation is impossible? If not, then it is difficult to consider the death penalty as the best alternative, since its consequences could be less good than those of imprisonment.

As I see it, then, this all boils down (as it so often does) to scientific knowledge. We are just beginning to learn more about the human brain and how it functions in a societal context. It therefore seems likely that we will soon learn more about criminal motives and behavior, possibly leading to significant advances in rehabilitation techniques. Until we gain such insight, it seems somewhat premature to send criminals off to the electric chair.

There is one further consideration, which is the flip side of rehabilitation: prevention. We could largely avoid the troubling issue of the death penalty if we brought violent crime rates down. Some places (like New  York City over the last decade or two) have made vast improvements already. We need to learn more about crime prevention while working on new rehabilitation approaches. Hopefully, these investigations will eventually make the death penalty a thing of the past.

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