English 102, section 39
25th March 2009
The death penalty, you’re either for it, or very much against it.
Is the death penalty morally wrong as there are other ways to punish, or is the death penalty the only way to go when terrible crimes are committed? The argument on capital punishment has more people in favor of it, than in opposition. Capital punishment is basically retribution for committing a more than serious crime, and it is the state which administers this. As with any argument, there are two sides, first there is the supporting side, who believe the death penalty is just, deters crime and is needed to protect innocent citizens. The opposing side feel that although it can deter crime, crime is still going to happen. Also, the cost has to be considered and as the death penalty is not carried out for a long time, inmates are on death row for a long length of time and they appeal over and over that leads to their release, which defeats the object of the penalty. If the use of capital punishment is to be stopped, then not only do the American public have to agree but more importantly the government has to see the extended benefits of not using it, and whether this was to happen or not, the debate about its use will continue.
According to national and constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein in “The Death Penalty, but Sparingly”, the death penalty has many who oppose it, but must be used as there are crimes out there which justify its use as punishment. If abolished, crime rates will rise and the support for capital punishment will increase. People against the death penalty, who want it removed from use, are unpersuasive. No one ever cried after the trial and execution of Adolph Eichmann by Israel for his unmentionable involvement in the Holocaust, and who in any society would balk at capital punishment for an American who lethally poisoned hundreds by resorting to biological or chemical contamination of the nation’s water supplies? There are a number of crimes that betray reptilian immorality and beastliness that only the ultimate penalty of death can adequately answer, and anything less would question the preciousness of humanity. The axiom rests on intuition, instinct, and a moral sensitivity that beats in the heart of the vast majority of mankind. Is it possible for any capital punishment abolitionist to stand at the chilling Auschwitz cemetery, look at a Holocaust survivor whose family died in Hitler’s cyanide chambers, and preach that the death penalty would have been too severe for the genocide of six million?
Fein next goes on to say that the death penalty is not unique in presenting moral assertions that cannot be proved in its defense and the criminal law is dominated by general moral feelings and sentiments which elude observable proof. Crimes such as rape, torture, treason, kidnapping, murder, larceny, and perjury revolve on a moral code that escapes true evidence from expert testimony, and this would lead communities into a state of lawlessness, where life according to Hobbes is poor, brutish, nasty and short. This is how it would be if they could not act on the moral assumptions which were not factual. Abolitionists may assert that the death penalty is inherently immoral because governments should never take human life and reasons expressed by anti-death penalty supporters do not withstand scrutiny. Capital punishment is not invariably degrading or humiliating, and a number of inmates on death row accept their punishment and prevent legal efforts to challenge their sentences. Crimes that are considered capital crimes, are not regularly susceptible to error in proving guilt, as it might be said that capital punishment is an additional safeguard against convicting the innocent. The criticism argues in favor of upgrading the defense which is a project underway in several states and it does not display capital punishment as wrong or barbaric.
It has been urged that the death penalty excessively impacts minorities and in the case McClesky v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), the court rejected the claim which capital punishment statistics gathered and presented in Georgia. This case confirmed that minority defendants were treated more callously because of their race, compared to their white counterparts in capital cases. Fein next expresses that contrary to many abolitionists’ beliefs, evolving standards of decency do not attack capital punishment, and in the U.S. during 1966, a bulk of people opposed the death penalty, but after the crime rate sky rocketed, those who opposed turned into a majority that favored the punishment. Currently, as crime rates are lower, a declining number of Americans actually support the death penalty, but as history shows, the proponents of the death penalty could capture the majority stance. Associate Justice William Brennan states in Furman that the death penalty degrades human dignity because it incriminates the state in the deliberate ending of a human life. The death penalty honors human dignity by treating the defendant as a free moral actor able to control his own destiny, and does not treat him as an animal with no moral sense. Capital punishment celebrates the dignity of the humans whose lives have been taken away by the defendant and nothing less than the ultimate penalty would adequately give meaning to the sacredness of innocent life.
Conscription and war involve government action, much like the death penalty. In war they will knowingly precipitate the extinguishment of human life, but the dead conscripts will be free of any legal or moral guilt, unlike a capital criminal. If the participation of the government in the ending of a human life is naturally immoral degradation of human dignity, then pacifism must also be supported. A free mind and a free country are worth killing for and that is why our war heroes who rained death on the enemy are not despised, but are praised. The death penalty is first cousin to conscription and war, and the government exercises coercion to undertake actions which it knows will end human life. Also, in order to protect our constitutional dispensation from domestic and foreign enemies, the government sacrifices the lives of citizens. The abolitionist suggestion that government implication in ending human life is basically an unmitigated moral evil which should not be tolerated, is invalid unless the death penalty opposition also embraces absolute pacifism.
Abolitionists have not assembled a convincing moral argument which distinguishes the death penalty from conscription and war in the name of human freedom and dignity. Justice Thurgood Marshall says the death penalty is morally unacceptable in this time in history, but concluded that if polled, the majority of America would favor it and he cannot believe that the American people would knowingly support purposeless vengeance. It is for this reason Marshall believes that the great mass of citizens would conclude on the basis of the material already considered that the death penalty is immoral and therefore unconstitutional. Marshall’s idea that the law should reflect what citizens believe in and if properly administered, there would be no need for refutation among the American people.
Fein concludes that the death penalty in his view is an awesome punishment, and it should be applied sparingly to the most egregious and shocking crimes committed by the most unrepentant and callous offenders. Also, safeguards should be added to protect against convicting the innocent, but the punishment should be retained (18-19).
Accurate information presented well would boost the argument. Some information can be seen as very accurate, but the relevance of it is not. Much of the argument is fairly relevant for arguing the author’s stance on the issue but there are points where he introduces a new aspect of the debate which to some extent is not significant and off topic almost. There is some history which is not necessary and other issues connected to the topic which are mentioned that do not do not enhance the argument.
Much of the fallacies used by Fein consist of hasty generalization, as it seems that he comes to a conclusion, but not presented any evidence which directs the notion. One example of this is where he believes capital punishment is not degrading or humiliating. This conclusion has been formed by looking at one reason for this thought, and the way it is stated is fairly strong. Thus, without sufficient evidence fails to get the reader to accept the point. The author also includes some irrelevant information which could confuse the reader as it goes off track. The ad hominem fallacy is evidently shown as the author in a way attacks the view of someone who is included in the article. A comparison between war and the death penalty and the link with the government creates the thought that the author thinks going to war to protect your country and its people is the same as placing a criminal on death row, waiting for an appeal to be successful, and never actually facing the punishment. Although the argument is very opinionated, some facts or evidence of some sort are needed to back up the personal view which would make it more effective. The fallacies which are in the article are mainly in areas where the information is off topic and where his own opinion is expressed with no reasoning. History can be used as a good tool to help back up opinions or thoughts, but in this case, the history used is emotionally loaded, and is debatable whether it actually improves the argument or not.
One argument which the author subtly makes is that capital punishment actually deters crime. This point is one which nobody can really deny, because the possibility of being killed for committing a crime would make people think twice, but it would not deter all crime, and in some cases it could be argued that it could invite crime. For instance, suicide is illegal, and if one’s attempt to commit suicide fails, they can be prosecuted and sent to prison. One way the death penalty would invite crime is that people wanting to commit suicide may choose to kill an innocent bystander just so they can be put to death. Some criminals will still commit a crime but not kill the victim because of the possibility of the death penalty. Policemen frequently encounter stickup artists and even rapists who say they left their victims alive because of their fear of execution (Keating).
The author comes to the conclusion that capital punishment is not perpetually degrading or humiliating. He then goes on to mention that many death row inmates basically accept their punishment of death and reject the chance for legal efforts to challenge their sentences. Just because inmates do this, it does not make it any less degrading. Also although they accept it, this does not mean it is the correct punishment for the crime. Another point is, how can the author make the assumption that inmates accept their punishment, just by looking at how many reject legal efforts to challenge their sentences? In fact, more times than not, the inmates want to appeal, and they do so many times until it is finally granted with their release. America is in two minds about it, because if they were in full support then the penalty would be administered in a better way. “The U.S.'s reputation continues to be tarnished by its defiant and puzzling commitment to a punishment that has no deterrent effect and that the majority of the world's nations has abandoned as barbaric and outdated” (Stop).
Race is an issue mentioned, but unlike the time period implicated, which is the 1980’s, now there is less racism which would therefore have the same impact on minorities as it would on white Americans. We would have to agree that possibly in the past, discrimination and the death penalty would have been an issue, but in this day and age, racial discrimination is for the most part not an issue to worry about. Therefore there is really no reason for the customer to include this part of history. Although the author includes his view that safeguards should be added to the capital punishment system to prevent innocent people from being executed. He presents no evidence of examples of safeguards or any evidence that it would be of benefit. Safeguards cannot ensure that only those guilty of a capital crime would be put to death, even with all of the forensic technology, mistakes can be made, and have been made. For example, there have been a number of people who have been convicted of a crime and have been sentenced to prison, but have later been found to be innocent. What’s to say this wouldn’t happen to someone sentenced to death? Also these safeguards would have to incorporate the possibility of any type of discrimination.
One issue not mentioned, is cost. It is actually more expensive to put a criminal on death row and to have them executed, then it is to keep them in jail. Putting even more burden on the taxpayer would not be perceived as a good thing, which may divert the public’s view from for the penalty, to against it. The costs in running a prison are mainly fixed costs; as long as the prison is there and operating it has a steady annual cost that is not affected by minor variations in its prisoner population (Keve). Finally, one thought which many that oppose the death penalty feel is that instead of giving criminals the easy way out, they should be made to suffer for the rest of their life. The taking an eye for an eye approach does not bring the victim back, or erase any memory the victim has, and it is said that two wrongs do not make a right.
It is understandable to see that both sides of this matter have substantial arguments which can be supported by evidence, but currently the most relevant are related to opposing the death penalty. The supporting side feels that this punishment is needed and should be carried out quicker, and the opposition believe that in a way it is morally wrong for the government to have a hand in what basically is murder, fueled by taxpayer’s money. This is an issue which will never really be totally resolved because there will always be people on either side of the argument, but it is up to the Government to decide whether this is a legal and correct punishment. Many factors have to be considered and more research has to be carried out into crime rates, possible deterrent effect, and also cost.
Fein, Bruce. "The Death Penalty, but Sparingly." Human Rights: Journal of the Section of Individual
Rights & Responsibilities 28.3 (Summer2001 2001): 18. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Murray State University Lib. 4 Mar. 2009 .
Keating, Frank. "Why I Support Capital Punishment. (Cover story)." Human Events 56.18 (19 May
2000): 1. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Murray State University Lib. 4 Mar. 2009 .
Keve, P.W. "The costliest punishment--a corrections administrator contemplates the death penalty."
Federal Probation 56.1 (Mar. 1992): 11. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Murray State University Lib. 4 Mar. 2009 .
"Stop the Killing Machine." Progressive 65.8 (Aug. 2001): 8. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Murray
State University Lib. 4 Mar. 2009