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?