Monday, 5 November 2012

Why I Think Capital Punishment Is Never The Right Action


It's Guy Fawkes night! I suppose a night like tonight on which many people buy fireworks to celebrate a bunch of Catholic assassins failing to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James is as good a night as any to talk about capital punishment - something that has lingered in my mind since the debate about the appropriate sentence of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.  Around that time, I recall on the BBC show The Big Questions we had one or two people arguing in favour of capital punishment for extreme crimes.  But most powerfully, there was a Christian couple on the show who had lost their son through the actions of a group of killers – but who had taken it upon themselves to forgive the offenders, and show determination in championing forgiveness as a good general principle for life.

My position regarding capital punishment is that I do not think it should ever be employed.  I hold this view on the basis that I can see no good arguments in favour of capital punishment, and that I can see several good arguments against it. There is one frequent defense of capital punishment – the one about saving taxpayers’ money by not incurring the cost of incarcerating criminals for a lengthy duration.  It isn’t because this argument is factually wrong that I object (although it is factually wrong at least some of the time, because in many cases the money spent on death row appeals is astronomically greater than that which would have been spent on incarceration).  No, I object on the same grounds that I would object to all instances of capital death – quite simply, I think everyone has the right to not be put to death. 

I had felt a strong attachment to this view from an early age, just as I remember at an early age adopting a strong conviction towards the idea that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, as long as that expression remains within the orbit of the law (and as long as the law is sound).  In fact, the two are related; since my teenage years of reading works like John Stuart Mill's Essay On Liberty, I have felt sure that freedom of expression is a vital part of being human.  This, principally, is what repels me away from capital punishment – it cuts short a life and denies that person the chance to repent, reform and exhibit genuine sorrow and regret for the bad things they have done.

Here's how freedom of expression and the right to live are related.  If you take away a man’s ability to express himself, you rob him of what he is – a person with emotions, thoughts and feelings.  That is why denial of expression and denial of life are really two wings of the same abomination.  It is not just the case that denial of expression is bad for the man being denied his right to express – it is a double edged sword, because whenever we humans hear a voice or read an opinion which is from someone unlike ourselves, or vastly different from the common opinion, we actually deny ourselves the right to hear or read the expression. 

I think capital punishment should be eradicated because it denies human beings their own right to hear from those from whom we might learn something.  And part of that denial involves denying ourselves the chance of what could be vital information.  We might put a murderer to death and later find that he may have committed other murders.  A future interview might disclose the whereabouts of bodies or it might get an innocent man off the hook.  Moreover, in cases of extreme psychopathy there may well be much information that psychologists and, in particular, neuroscientists can learn about psychopathic and sociopathic illness, as well as other vital knowledge about impaired mental health and extreme behaviour. 

But most of all, as I have already alluded to, I think capital punishment denies criminals the chance to make things right, and perhaps also make amends with their own victims or the family of those victims.  For me, all those reasons, while not perfect, do far outweigh any positive arguments for capital punishment. 

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