death penalty

Utilitarianism and Torture

While I was going through my collection of links worth revisiting, I came upon a piece by Daniel McInerney, ” ‘Quantitative Judgments Don’t Apply': Foyle’s War, Series Seven” (The Imaginative Conservative, October 2013). McInerny opens with this:

At the beginning of the third volume of Evelyn Waugh’s masterful World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor, Guy Crouchback, a British Catholic officer entering a disillusioned middle age, has a conversation with his elderly father in which he disparages the Lateran Treaty. Gervase Crouchback rebukes his son’s irascibility. ““My dear boy,” he said, “you’re really making the most terrible nonsense, you know. That isn’t at all what the Church is like. It isn’t what she’s for.”

Later, Gervase Crouchback writes Guy a letter trying to explain more clearly what prompted his rebuke:

When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty did you consider how many souls may have been reconciled and have died at peace as the result of it? How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance? Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

His father’s anti-utilitarian phrase, Quantitative judgments don’t apply, hangs in Guy’s mind, and through his interior monologues it becomes the leitmotif of this third volume. Quantitative judgments don’t apply: when it comes to evaluating the pearl of great price, one doesn’t weigh it against purely material considerations.

I have elsewhere criticized utilitarianism: here, here, and here. In the post at the third link (“Utilitarianism vs. Liberty”), I say that

strict utilitarianism requires that all decisions — not just governmental ones — must yield “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” For example, if I fail to take your happiness into account when I buy a new car, I might make you less happy by my acquisition (because it makes you envious). And, in the utilitarian calculus, your unhappiness might outweigh my happiness. Ergo, less happiness altogether.

The foregoing example make it easy to see how modern “liberalism,” with its strong appeal to envy (among other unattractive traits), is an outgrowth of utilitarianism. (For more in that vein, see “Inventing Liberalism.”) . . . .

. . . [U]tilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to individual decisions about preferred courses of action. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they comply with the views of the utilitarian, who feigns omniscience about the (incommensurable) happiness of individuals. Agreement among various utilitarians about the desirability of a particular course of action signifies nothing more than a shared prejudice about the way the world ought to be.

As a critic of utilitarianism, can I properly defend torture? Is it not utilitarian to suggest that a supposed wrong (torture) can be weighed against an unquestionable good (saving innocent lives)? It might seem so, given the statements that I  (and others) have made with respect to torture; to wit:

In sum, torture is moral — and therefore justified — when it becomes necessary for the purpose of eliciting information that could save innocent lives and the lives of those whose job it is to defend innocent lives. I do not mean that torture must be used, but that it may be used. I do not mean that torture will not have repulsive consequences for its targets, but that the thought of those consequences should not cause the American government to renounce torture as an option.

Such a statement could be taken as a utilitarian response to the trolley problem:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person . . . .

. . . A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to steer to the track with one man on it. According to simple utilitarianism, such a decision would be not only permissible, but, morally speaking, the better option (the other option being no action at all).

Whatever the merits or defects of the trolley problem, it isn’t analogous to the terrorist-victim problem. To make it analogous, it would be rewritten as follows:

A trolley driver who is in full control of his vehicle sees, ahead of him on the tracks, five persons who are tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five persons on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it may derail because of its speed, thus injuring or killing the homicidal trolley driver . . . .

The problem, in other words, isn’t a choice between killing one innocent or five innocents. The choice is between harming a killer or allowing the killer (and his compatriots) to take many innocent lives. To put it another way, it’s a choice between faux morality and self-defense.

Faux moralists of the “liberal” ilk often criticize the execution of murderers and the torture of terrorists because capital punishment and torture aren’t “civilized.” And yet most of those same faux moralists defend abortion, which is nothing better than the torture and execution of innocents. What could be less civilized?

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Related posts:
Modern Utilitarianism
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Crime and Punishment
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
Privacy, Autonomy, and Responsibility
Peter Singer’s Agenda
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Torture
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Saving the Innocent
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Lock ‘Em Up
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty

A Man for No Seasons

A Man for All Seasons, originally a play by Robert Bolt and later an acclaimed film, is about Sir Thomas More (or Saint Thomas More, if you prefer),

the 16th-century Chancellor of England, who refused to endorse King Henry VIII‘s wish to divorce his ageing wife Catherine of Aragon, who could not bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress.

Thomas More

opposed Henry [VIII]‘s separation from the Catholic Church [because it forbade divorce] and refused to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England…. In 1535, [More] was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony and beheaded.

The title of the play

reflects … Bolt’s portrayal of More as the ultimate man of conscience. As one who remains true to himself and his beliefs under all circumstances and at all times, despite external pressure or influence, More represents “a man for all seasons”.

More’s constancy to principle stands in high relief against the amorality and immorality of normal political practices, past and present. These range from opportunism, flip-flopping, and log-rolling to deceit and lying to theft (disguised as “compassion”) and back-stabbing (both figurative and literal).

More’s constancy to principle also stands in high relief against the practice of tailoring one’s principles to fit the data at hand — or the data that one selects to justify one’s prejudices. I have found economists to be especially prone to such tailoring. For example, too many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

Economists are by no means the only practitioners of utilitarianism. It is rampant in the ranks of public intellectuals, and is exemplified in “Empiricism in politics: On opinions beyond the reach of data,” a piece by Will Wilkinson (hereinafter WW), which begins with this:

DAVID FRUM quotes the following passage of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010″, in the midst of a long, scathing review (about which I here enter no opinion):

Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

I found this exceedingly odd. I can easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues. How about you? It’s a fun exercise, let’s try.

I will address, in turn, WW’s views on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the inheritance tax.

Abortion. This is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion…. I would seriously weigh this moral benefit ]a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty] against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies….

Clearly, WW is a man in search of a principle upon which to hang his preference to allow persons “control over their bodies.” This– as a principle — would justify many immoral acts. For if one’s use of one’s body is not to be interfered with, on what basis could WW condemn murder, for example? And yet he does condemn it, implicitly, when he quibbles about the death penalty as a punishment for murder.

WW (I strongly suspect) might respond that he is talking only about control over what one does to oneself, as in the use of marijuana (to which I will come). But WW is unconvincing with respect to abortion. He is willing to recognize “robust moral rights” for children at birth because that is “the convention.” But before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned long-standing State laws rooted in moral tradition, it was the convention (in most States) to recognize robust moral rights for children at conception. (By contrast, the convention of slavery, which was recognized and fostered by several States, stood on flimsy moral ground.)

The lack of a firm principle (e.g., abortion is murder) leads WW into sophistry and hair-splitting. These abound in the elided portions of the preceding quotation:

…I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don’t think it’s wrong to kill them. I also don’t think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

Fetuses may not be persons, in WW’s view, but fetuses are human life. WW’s defense of abortion amounts to a defense of taking blameless, defenseless humans. He cannot bring himself to admit that, so he adopts the language of Roe v. Wade (a fetus is not “a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment”). But, as WW acknowledges, there is no specific point at which a human being becomes a “person.” The fetus-person distinction is an entirely arbitrary one, concocted for the purpose of justifying abortion.

If WW is willing to accept birth as the point at which the taking of innocent life becomes unacceptable, why not seven or eight months into a pregnancy, when the chances of survival outside the womb are high, especially given the life-sustaining technologies that are now available? And if a fetus is “viable” at seven or eight months, it is “viable” at earlier stages of development, as long its life is not ended artificially. The “logic” of abortion based on “viability” is circular because a fetus is (almost always) “viable” unless it is aborted.

And why is it not even “easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants” upon conception? Such a society, I believe, would tend to be less cruel and more humane than the one that allows abortion at every stage of fetal development.

WW’s next suggestion is fatuous in the extreme. It need not be shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which do not ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life.” Societies that ban abortion, ceteris paribus, have a culture of life, by definition. By the same token, societies that encourage or acquiesce in atrocities against humanity on a par with abortion (e.g., the Third Reich) have a culture of death. One very good reason for resisting the practice of abortion is to avert the next steps down the slippery slope toward that culture.

Looking unfavorably upon abortion if it tended to damage women’s mental and physical health is putting a possible side effect of abortion above its abhorrent moral status. But that should come as no surprise because, on this issue, WW clearly betrays a lack of moral sense.

This brings me to WW’s next moral test:

Death penalty. This is a lot easier. I oppose the death penalty. But if the death penalty were shown to be (1) a very effective deterrent of murder and violent crime, (2) non-prejudicially applied, and (3) very rarely applied to the innocent, I would support it in especially heinous cases of murder.

This is a lot easier for me, too. You are either for the death penalty as a matter of justice (taking its deterrent value as a bonus), or you are against it because, say, you cannot condone the taking of life by the state. WW, as an advocate of abortion, cannot take the latter position, so he dances around the death penalty — treating it entirely as an exercise in utilitarian calculation. In reality, he takes no position at all because he uses wiggle-words like “very effective,” “non-prejudicially,” “very rarely,” and “especially heinous.”

Thirdly:

Legalisation of marijuana. I support legal weed! If it were shown that marijuana is super-addictive, impossible to use responsibly, and that its users predictably harm others and/or egregiously harm themselves, I’d support something in the neighbourhood of status quo prohibition.

I have a strong suspicion that only a small fraction of the users of marijuana are detected and prosecuted for their use. That is to say, I view legalization as a bogus issue. But the purported harmlessness of marijuana allows libertarians to replay the pro-abortion theme: control over one’s body. However, WW (unlike most libertarians who write about drug use) seems willing to concede that the use of marijuana ought to be made illegal if it would “egregiously harm” the user. This suggests that control over one’s body is not sacrosanct.

But what is the deeper principle that determines where and when one has control over one’s body? I find no clue in WW’s article. There is no “moral there” there. Being pro-abortion, anti-death penalty, pro-marijuana, and pro-same-sex marriage are attitudes, the possession of which marks one as “liberal” and “open-minded.” But bottomless.

And so on:

Same-sex marriage. I’m so pro, I almost wish I were gay so I could have one. If compelling evidence were unearthed that showed that widespread same-sex marriage really would precipitate the unraveling of the traditional family and subsequently the stability of society and the ruin of us all, I suppose I’d settle for the right of same-sex couples to shack up.

“Compelling evidence” about the effects of same-sex “marriage” on society can be had only by the widespread legalization of same-sex “marriage” over a long period, by which time it would be impossible to undo the damage caused by same-sex “marriage.” Would it not be better to exercise one’s moral judgment about the effects of state action before that action is taken?

In the case of same-sex “marriage” the judgment goes like this: Marriage, as the union of a man and a woman, is a social-religious convention, which (until modern times) had a legitimacy and standing that did not depend on state action. State involvement in marriage — as in other social arrangements — undermines its significance as a deep and socially beneficial commitment. The undermining process began in earnest with state action that eased divorce. Widespread governmental recognition of same-sex “marriage” would accelerate the undermining process. The state would effectively convert marriage from a social-religious commitment to a licensed arrangement devoid of social-religious meaning. This would reinforce the trend toward cohabitation, with all that it implies: convenience rather than commitment, greater ease of breakup, temporary couplings where one partner (usually the man) has no stake in the proper upbringing of  the other partner’s children, psychologically and (all-too-often) physically damaged children who are more prone than their “traditional” counterparts to economically unproductive and socially destructive behaviors.

Why not think things through instead making a show of demanding “evidence” that can be obtained only when it is too late to do any good? Well, the answer to that question is obvious: WW wants same-sex “marriage” — the evidence be damned.

Finally:

Inheritance tax. I don’t have an especially strong opinion about this, other than that the “death tax” tends not to be very efficient and that large bequests aren’t an especially important source of inequality or the reproduction of class. So, I guess I’d need to learn that inheritance taxes don’t create a lot of wasteful, evasive resource shuffling, and do significantly contribute to class mobility if I were to develop a more favourable opinion of them.

That is about as clueless as it gets. Where is the right to do with one’s property as one likes, as long as the doing is not harmful to others? What a strange oversight by WW,  given his commitment to the control of one’s own body. If a person cannot control the legitimate produce of his bodily labors, he lacks effective control of his body.

If consequences were all, as they seem to be for WW, the ability to leave an inheritance is an incentive to do productive things, either directly or by making loans and investments that enable others to do productive things. For what earthly reason would anyone want to blunt or cancel that incentive? Out of a sense of “fairness”? What gives the likes of WW and Barack Obama the ability to reach into the minds and souls of millions of Americans and judge their relative worthiness to make and receive bequests? The inheritance tax is an exercise in social engineering that any self-respecting libertarian ought to reject categorically, not provisionally, as WW does.

WW often posts sensible things at his various outlets. But “Empiricism in politics” is a sign that WW should take a break from punditry, as he has said he might. On the basis of “Empiricism,” I would characterize WW as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He pays lip-service — but nothing more — to the value of social traditions. He stands ready to jettison them at the drop of a statistic. As I have said, he is far from the sole possessor of that trait. I single him out here because “Empiricism” is an exemplar of utilitarian amorality.

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Related reading: Jay W. Richards, “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives?: The Tough Cases of Abortion and Marriage

Related posts (with many more linked therein):
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Crime, Explained
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Is There Such a Thing as Society
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Substantive Due Process and the Limits of Privacy
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
What Is Justice?
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke
Why Conservatism Works
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather

Why Stop at the Death Penalty?

Some prominent internet libertarians (I use the term to distinguish them from true libertarians) have their knickers in a twist on the subject of the death penalty. Their discomfort seems to have been caused by the allegedly wrongful but actually justified execution of cop-killer Troy Davis.

Jason Brennan weighs in with “Kill the Death Penalty,” a post that is sandwiched by two of Will Wilkinson’s: “The Killing of Troy Davis” and “Moral Progress and Arguments against the Death Penalty.”

Brennan writes:

For a state to have the right to kill criminals, it must make decisions about guilt and hear appeals in a fair, competent, and reliable manner. It must have rules that reliably let the innocent–or those whose guilt is reasonably in doubt–go free. The American criminal justice system fails to meet these standards. Perhaps a government of smart angels should be granted the right to kill.

It’s the old Nirvana fallacy at work: If it ain’t perfect, it’s no good. Well, by Brennan’s “logic,” the state should never exact punishment for anything. After all, how certain can cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries be about anything? Radar guns aren’t perfect; what looks light the running of a red light can be chalked up to parallax; eyewitness testimony is notoriously flawed; etc., etc., etc.

Let’s just do away with punishment, starting with capital punishment and running the gamut to smacking an unruly child. Why not go whole hog and reward anti-social behavior?

Wilkinson makes a more subtle case against capital punishment, in the second-linked post:

I have here advance proofs of Steven Pinker’s forthcoming book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. It’s a smorgasbord of data on liberalizing moral change. Pinker shows that modernity brought about a stunning shift in norms, including attitudes toward capital punishment….

[graphs indicating steep declines in the use of capital punishment]

In the face of such a decisive trend in moral culture, we can say a couple different things. We can say that this is just change and says nothing in particular about what is really right or wrong, good or bad. Or we can take take say this is evidence of moral progress, that we have actually become better. I prefer the latter interpretation for basically the same reasons most of us see the abolition of slavery and the trend toward greater equality between races and sexes as progress and not mere morally indifferent change. We can talk about the nature of moral progress later. It’s tricky. For now, I want you to entertain the possibility that convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong counts as evidence that it is wrong. This would suggest that those American states yet to abolish the death penalty are cases of arrested development. Looking at these trends, it seems overwhelmingly probable that we will look back on the death penalty as a shameful bit of lingering of savagery. And we won’t be wrong. If our smarter, more angelic future selves wouldn’t concede, even just for the sake of argument, that capital punishment is okay, why concede it now?

I would count convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong as evidence that it is wrong, if … that idea were (a) increasingly held by individuals who (b) had arrived at their “enlightenment” unnfluenced by operatives of the state (legislatures and judges), who take it upon themselves to flout popular support of the death penalty. What we have, in the case of the death penalty, is moral regress, not moral progress.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?

Saving the Innocent

Paul Compos, writing at The New Republic, celebrates “The American Justice System at Its Best“:

[I]t’s reasonable to argue that the acquittal of Casey Anthony … represent[s] … the system working as it should. But accepting that argument requires acknowledging deep imperfections that our legal system must tolerate, even when it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

The most disturbing of these inevitable imperfections is a product of our supposed commitment to the principle that we prefer a large number—whether it’s 10, 50, or 100, the precise number is never clearly stated—of guilty people going free to the conviction of an innocent defendant. That is the practical significance of requiring the state to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”—a standard that, interestingly, the system always avoids defining in any but the most general, non-statistical terms….

[In Anthony's case] The state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a two-year-old child was murdered, and that her mother was, at the least, a deeply irresponsible parent with a propensity to lie to authorities. The prosecution also demonstrated, in my view, that it is far more likely than not that Anthony committed the crime. But I also believe the jury’s verdict was correct….

The case against Anthony was largely circumstantial, buttressed by arguably—yet only arguably—strong forensic evidence. But the prosecution was hampered by its inability to provide a compelling narrative explaining either how Caylee Anthony was killed or why her mother purportedly murdered her. This failure was not, as far as we know, a product of prosecutorial incompetence. The hard truth is that it is extremely difficult to successfully prosecute a murder under these kinds of circumstances—and the harder truth is that we are supposedly committed to the principle that this is, on the whole, a good thing.

Or is it? Compos refers  to the dictum of the noted English jurist, William Blackstone:

Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.

“n” — the number of guilty persons — has increased since the late 1700s, when Blackstone wrote. Alexander “Sasha” Volokh offers some useful perspective:

Charles Dickens generously endorsed a value of n = “hundreds” for capital cases, and not just “that hundreds of guilty persons should escape,” but that they should escape “scot-free.” 99 Dickens was, in fact, so generous that hundreds of guilty persons escaping scot-free was not only better than one innocent person suffering — it was even better “than that the possibility of any innocent man or woman having been sacrificed, should present itself, with the least appearance of reason, to the minds of any class of men!” 100….

Of course, such blithe invocation could easily lead too far down the road to “inconsiderate folly” and “pestiferous nonsense.” As one author noted, there is “nothing so dangerous as a maxim”: 107

Better that any number of savings-banks be robbed than that one innocent person be condemned as a burglar! Better that any number of innocent men, women, and children should be waylaid, robbed, ravished, and murdered by wicked, wilful, and depraved malefactors, than that one innocent person should be convicted and punished for the perpetration of one of this infinite multitude of crimes, by an intelligent and well-meaning though mistaken court and jury! Better any amount of crime than one mistake in well-meant endeavors to suppress or prevent it! 108….

Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, warned against the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from large values of n:

We must be on guard against those sentimental exaggerations which tend to give crime impunity, under the pretext of insuring the safety of innocence. Public applause has been, so to speak, set up to auction. At first it was said to be better to save several guilty men, than to condemn a single innocent man; others, to make the maxim more striking, fix the number ten; a third made this ten a hundred, and a fourth made it a thousand. All these candidates for the prize of humanity have been outstripped by I know not how many writers, who hold, that, in no case, ought an accused person to be condemned, unless evidence amount to mathematical or absolute certainty. According to this maxim, nobody ought to be punished, lest an innocent man be punished. 128 ….

James Fitzjames Stephen suggested that Blackstone’s maxim

resembles a suggestion that soldiers should be armed with bad guns because it is better that they should miss ten enemies than that they should hit one friend. . . . Everything depends on what the guilty men have been doing, and something depends on the way in which the innocent man came to be suspected. 134….

The story is told of a Chinese law professor, who was listening to a British lawyer explain that Britons were so enlightened, they believed it was better that ninety-nine guilty men go free than that one innocent man be executed. The Chinese professor thought for a second and asked, “Better for whom?” 238

That is the question: Better for whom? It is better for the guilty, who may claim more victims, but it certainly is not better for those new victims.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty

Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty

Here’s my position:

The econometric evidence is there, for those who are open to it: Capital punishment does deter homicide. See, for example, the careful analysis by Hashem Dezhbaksh, Paul Robin, and Joanna Shepherd, “Does capital punishment have a deterrent effect? New evidence from post-moratorium panel data,” American Law and Economics Review 5(2): 344–376 (available in PDF format here). Dezhbaksh, Rubin, and Shepherd argue that each execution deters eighteen murders. That number may be high, but the analysis is rigorous and it accounts for relevant variables, such as income, age, race, gender, population density, and use of the death penalty where it is legal. It’s hard to read that analysis and believe that capital punishment doesn’t deter homicide — unless you want to believe it. I certainly wouldn’t take “Ouija Board” Goertzel’s opinion over that of careful econometricians like Dezhbaksh, Rubin, and Shepherd.

Now, I must say that I don’t care whether or not capital punishment deters homicide. Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because it was certain and harsh. There must be a hierarchy of certain penalties for crime, and that hierarchy must culminate in the ultimate penalty if criminals and potential criminals are to believe that crime will be punished. When punishment is made less severe and less certain — as it was for a long time after World War II — crime flourishes and law-abiding citizens become less secure in their lives and property.

John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, makes a succinct case for the death penalty, regardless of its deterrent effect:

I’m a bit surprised . . . [by the] claim that “the burden of empirical proof would seem to lie with the pro-death penalty scholar.” If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.

I wish I’d said that.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)

A Roundup of Crime Posts

A misguided social engineer at work: Mark Kleiman, guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy last year (posts are in reverse chronological order).

Now, for some antitodes.

A breath of fresh air from Bryan Caplan, on the subject of addiction-as-disease as an excuse for anti-social and criminal behavior.

A look at crime and race in New York City, from City Journal.

A series of posts (in reverse chronological order) by Lester Jackson, writing at TCS Daily about the death penalty.

My own contributions:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)