Thoughts about the Death Penalty

In the previous post I mentioned that I support the death penalty, without providing any details.  Commenter Darryl asks:

Aron, (and other commenters, too!) I wonder if I might probe your notions on the death penalty. Given that in the US alone at least 120 (a fairly conservative estimate depending on which sources one consults) persons on death row have been exonorated by DNA evidence, what are your thoughts on this quote I came across the other day: "So, as long as the death penalty is in place, you are pretty much guaranteed to occasionally execute an innocent person."

I agree with the quote at the end of Darryl's comment.  However, I would add that "So long as imprisonment is in place, you are pretty much guaranteed to occasionally imprison an innocent person," and "So long as fines are in place..." etc.  Any human system of justice, no matter how careful, risks punishing the innocent.  And the more cautious the system is to protect the innocent, the more often the guilty will remain unpunished.

In this respect, the only thing that is different about the death penalty is that once you do it, it cannot be reversed.  However, this is a relative rather than an absolute distinction.  If you sentence someone to 25 years and then the person is exonerated 20 years later, you can give back the 5 years but you cannot give back the 20 years.  (In politically unstable countries, the reversibility of imprisonment may even be an argument for the death penalty, if one is worried e.g. that the genocidal dictator's old faction will retake power and set him free.)

I also do not think that the death penalty is really even an order of magnitude worse than life imprisonment.  If I were unjustly accused of a crime, I would prefer A) 50% chance of being released to rejoin my family and my career; 50% chance executed, over B) 100% chance of life imprisonment w/o possibility of parole.  Remember all those Revolutionary War slogans about liberty being more important than life!—do we still believe that?

Obviously, whenever an innocent person is executed this is a travesty of justice, a very bad outcome.  We live in a modern, first-world nation in which long-term humane imprisonment is possible.  Therefore, if there is no particular good to be had from executions rather than imprisonment, then it is our moral duty to abolish the death penalty.  But is that really true?

The trouble with most debates about the death penalty is that the begin in the middle (quibbling about statistics) rather than at the beginning, which is to ask why one might have the death penalty at all.  Until you first ask what the purpose of the death penalty is, you cannot know whether the trade-off is worth it.

Here are some possible motivations for punishing the guilty:

  1. compensation of victims
  2. prevention of future wrongdoing
  3. deterrence
  4. rehabilitation of the offender
  5. retribution (i.e. because they deserve it)

In our system of justice, we make a clear distinction between civil proceedings (which exist to compensate the wronged) and criminal proceedings (which exist to vindicate the state's abstract interest in justice).  I think that this is a good distinction, and that therefore #1 is irrelevant to the current question.

With respect to #2 and #3, life imprisonment and executions are probably about equally good.  In principle, if execution is worse, people ought to be motivated more strongly to avoid it.  But I'm not sure it works out that way in practice, given criminal psychology, and the remoteness of the punishment from the crime.  (However, there is an important exception in the case of inmates who murder prison guards or other prisoners—in this case locking them up obviously doesn't prevent the crime, and if they already have a life sentence, the death penalty seems necessary as escalation.)

With respect to #4, the death penalty may well be better than life imprisonment.  True, life imprisonment provides more time to repent.  But the death penalty provides better circumstances.  If the prospect of one's own immanent death—due to one's own crimes, no less—does not cause someone to reconsider their way of life, it is hard to see what would.  Here the nonreligious and Christian might part ways.  The former is likely to feel that it doesn't matter much if a person repents, if you have to kill them to get it.  While for those like myself who believe in an eternal divine judgment following death, it is a matter of the greatest importance.

But I think the core issue at stake is actually #5: does anyone deserve to die?  Is it possible for someone (such as the mass murderers described in my last post) to be so polluted by guilt, that it is a travesty of justice for them NOT to be executed?  I think so, and it is for this reason that I support the death penalty.

For example, a while back there were two Judges in Pennsylvania who accepted bribes from a privately-run juvenile jail, in order to send the kids that appeared before them to jail, regardless of the nature of the circumstances.  These men betrayed their position of power and deliberately perverted justice in a way likely to corrupt and destroy the innocent.  Words cannot express how reprehensible their crime was.  Actions are better.  They ought not to have been allowed to go on breathing.  (Instead they received 28 and 17.5 years.)

I said earlier that the death penalty didn't seem that much worse to me practically than life imprisonment, which is permanent exile, slavery, and confinement all wrapped up in one package.  But there is one other respect in which "death is different", namely that it is psychologically horrible (and fascinating).

Ironically, I think the controversy over the death penalty itself illustrates this psychological response.  Passions are stirred; zealous anti-death advocates hasten to show that the person was convicted unjustly.  Those 120 people who were exonerated due to DNA tests were probably lucky to be on death row—if not, their cases would probably have been neglected, and they would still be in jail.

Death is numinous.  In that post I wrote concerning the concept of atonement for guilt:

This is a numinous problem, not just an ethical problem.  So it needs a numinous solution.

As the Bible says in a chilling passage:

“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.” (Genesis 9:6)

Unless there is such a thing as real guilt, there is also no such thing as real forgiveness.  Thank God that we have the "sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel" (Heb. 12:24), which is sufficient to atone for all of our sins!

Now, how much evidence should we have before we execute someone?  I can see nothing wrong with the standard implicitly required by the U.S. Constitution, namely beyond a reasonable doubt.  If it is unreasonable to doubt whether the person did the crime, then it is unreasonable to take into account the possibility of their innocence when sentencing them.

In this country, no one is executed unless either (a) 12 citizens unanimously agree that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or (b) the accused waives his right to a jury trial.  After that there are usually 5 different levels of appeals courts empowered to inspect the case for procedural flaws.

It may well be that juries fail to apply beyond a reasonable doubt to the cases that come before them, and as a result some innocent people are found guilty.  But this has nothing per se to do with the death penalty.  If you are not found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the correct judgment is an acquittal—not life imprisonment.  Not even a $20 criminal fine can be imposed in this case.  If our current justice procedure is unreliable, this is a problem for all cases, not just capital ones.

If there are people on death row whose cases were never proven beyond a reasonable doubt, they should be released!  That is not a good reason to commute the sentences of those criminals who were proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at UC Santa Barbara. Before that, I studied the Great Books program at St. John's college Santa Fe, and got my Ph.D. in physics from U Maryland.
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17 Responses to Thoughts about the Death Penalty

  1. Sharon R. says:

    Whenever I read about the application of the death penalty in Texas in particular, but other states occasionally, my feelings against the death penalty harden. From my reading, our system of justice *does* seem to be too broken for a death sentence to be reasonably imposed.

    Touching on some of your arguments, even someone imprisoned for life may still usually have letters and visits and phonecalls with family and friends. If they have been wrongfully executed, they are lost to their family completely. Our withholding earthly justice from some wrongdoers in order to avoid accidentally (or egregiously as has sometimes been the case) executing an innocent does not preclude God's justice from applying to the truly guilty.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Sharon,

    True, at the end of time God will provide perfect justice for everyone; the unjustly convicted as well as the unjustly acquitted. Yet the Bible indicates that God still expects earthly governments to provide a form of justice here and now, albeit one with lower pretensions. (One would certainly never want to apply the argument in the opposite direction, and argue that it doesn't matter much if we execute an innocent person because God can provide them justice in the next life!)

    I don't feel any particular need to defend Texas (which is the only state not to allow unilateral executive clemency, by the way). But I do want to ask you this question: do you think there has ever been a time or place when the death penalty has been applied with sufficient fairness to justify it? If not, the problem is not Texans or Americans in particular, but humanity.

    On the other hand, if the brokenness is fixable, maybe it would be better to focus on just fixing it. (For every capital case, there are more than 30 times as many people with life imprisonment; presumably the system is just as broken for them, but they get less media attention.)

  3. Luke says:

    The first commandment says "thou shalt not kill." There is no amendment to that which says "thou shalt not kill, unless there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the person you want to kill has killed someone else (or done some other reprehensible enough crime)". Also, there is no commandment against wrongfully imprisoning people, so based solely on the commandments I think it is not fair to hold these two scenarios as basically equivalent (different in measure, not in kind).

    The passage you cite about shedding blood of those who shed others' blood is too metaphorical to know whether it refers to killing people (as opposed to physical harm) without more context. Also sounds quite similar to the "eye for an eye" rule, which I thought Jesus had revised to "turn the other cheek". I don't see how the death penalty jives with turning the other cheek.

    You might object that the commandment is better translated as thou shalt not "murder," but I counter by questioning the boundaries of it means to kill vs. murder. Killing someone on purpose seems at least a reasonable 0th order definition of murder. So a reasonable person might defend the position that killing someone on purpose after a socially organized trial is only different in measure, not kind, from killing someone without such a trial. Which sounds like a slippery slope to me.

    You sound like you feel those people taking bribes to send juveniles to prison ought to suffer death because *you* decided that is a worthy punishment. But who gets to decide what the boundaries are between a crime reprehensible enough for death as opposed to imprisonment? And based on what? This is the fundamentally grey area at issue, and so such an example does not prove the point, it merely begs the question. I agree that it is a reprehensible crime, but to sentence them to death doesn't *even* fit the "eye for an eye" criterion. Absent that, what criterion do we have?

    //Pardon my quick and rough language for dealing with such a weighty subject; I don't have enough time to be careful enough in my wording! But I felt it was better to say something rather than nothing. Please know that I mean no offense, and my lack of careful language is because I'm entering this discussion at a somewhat academic level, rather than a personal one...I hope this disclaimer will help to avoid misunderstanding!//

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Luke,

    Thanks for your reply, your apology at the end is unnecessary; I reread your comment to see if I could find anything offensive in it, but I couldn't. :-)

    As you expected, I will reply that the commandment you mention is better translated using the word "murder", where murder refers to wrongful killing with malice aforethought, and has a number of implicit exceptions in it, including (legitimate instances of) wars and capital punishments. We can know that this was the original understanding, because the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21) are only the top-level summary of a more detailed legal code which immediately follows (Exodus 20:22-23:33), which interprets the 10 commandments in specific situations. That legal code explicitly has the death penalty for murder, but not manslaughter:

    Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death. (Exodus 21:12-14, NIV)

    This law code also has the death penalty for some offenses which are not murder, showing that "eye for eye" was not interpreted literalistically in all cases. For example, false imprisonment by a private party would seem to be covered by this law against kidnapping:

    Anyone who kidnaps another, and either sells him or has him when he is caught, must be put to death. (Exodus 21:16)

    In a legal context wrongful imprisonment is obviously also forbidden, although executing an innocent is of course even worse:

    Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness. Do not follow the crowd when doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuits....Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge, and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous. (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8)

    Just to be clear, I don't think that modern day Christians are bound to follow Old Testament Law exactly in all of its details, but I do think that it was originally given by God and that we can extract certain general principles from it.

    Let us now consider Jesus' teaching. If "turn the other cheek" refers to legal punishments, then I don't think that fining or imprisoning people is very much like "turning the other cheek" either. So we would have to abolish all punishments; and a Christian could not be a judge or juror. There have been Christian pacificts (like Tolstoy) who have believed this. But by far the majority opinion is that Jesus is referring to private revenge, or civil lawsuits for personal damages, but that the government magistrate is still entitled to enforce criminal law. This would be in keeping with Paul's teaching that:

    Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been instituted by God....But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the evildoer. (Romans 13:1,4)

    You ask who gets to decide what is worthy of death. The answer of course is legislatures, prosecutors, judges, juries, and governors, and the criterion they use is their own moral intuitions and sensibilities, influenced by whatever legal and spiritual traditions they accept. I as a private citizen have the ability to advocate for my position, and to vote in accordance with it. But in the case of the corrupt judges the Pennsylvania Legislature and U.S. Supreme Court don't agree with me, and they are the governing authorities, not me.

    There is no "slippery slope" between kiling people after a trial and killing people with lynch mobs. There is an important distinction, having to do with "due process of law", separation of powers, and other fundamental attributes of our legal system. The whole point of having trials is that the decision is made by somebody else, with authority, besides the person who was injured. This helps ensure that the decision is based on abstract justice rather than malicious revenge.

    A better argument from Jesus' teaching comes from the famous story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus says, "He that is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her" (John 8:7). This is stronger, because it is in the context of an actual proposed judicial execution (although this was forbidden by the Romans, and the question was designed to trap him). One could interpret this as forbidding all executions (but not other forms of punishment?) although one would have to make an argument, since Jesus doesn't explicitly say how general his pronouncement is.

    I do think there is definitely a case to be made for a nuanced abolitionist position, for example that expressed by Confucius:

    The Master said: How true is the saying that after a state has been ruled for a hundred years by good men it is possible to get the better of cruelty and to do away with killing. (Analects XIII.11)

    It is quite arguable that in the highest possible form of justice, there would be no capital punishment. But, by abolishing capital punishment here and now, do we rise to that level of justice, which has true forgiveness for sins? Or do we sink to a lower level, in which we do not really believe there is anything which deserves death? Leniency is not always the same as mercy.

  5. Никто says:

    "In our system of justice, we make a clear distinction between civil proceedings (which exist to compensate the wronged) and criminal proceedings (which exist to vindicate the state's abstract interest in justice). I think that this is a good distinction . . ."

    I am very curious why you believe this is a 'good' distinction.

    Or to put it more pointedly, the entire premiss of 'abstract justice' is a contradiction in terms.

    Justice is but always the morally correct conditions or consequences following form an action or situation; this means that the morality is the 'abstract interest', but as the state is a purely mechanical phenomenon, the notion of the state being able to have any moral value is flatly self-contradictory.

    Put another way, the idea of 'criminal proceedings' as they exist in the modern legal architecture are not just self-contradictory themselves, but flatly unethical -- because it calls for punishment when no individual has been harmed, or when the individual who might seek redress declines to do so.

    I suggest you contemplate also the self-contradictory nature of democracy; it operates on two mutually exclusive principles: that man can rule himself (that man is fit to choose his own governor), and that man must be ruled (that such a governor must be selected).

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Welcome to my blog, Никто.

    Self-contradictory? To quote the Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it does."

    In many ancient legal systems (e.g. Jewish or Greek), there was no clear-cut distinction between civil and criminal cases--all cases were brought by some private party. However, eventually Roman law made a distinction between the two, precisely in order to "[call] for punishment when no individual has been harmed, or when the individual who might seek redress declines to do so."

    The classic case is murder. This is not a victimless crime, but unfortunately the victim is DEAD and therefore inevitably declines to seek redress. The victim's family could sue in court, but what if the victim doesn't have any family (or their family didn't like them)? For this reason the State has an official prosecutor who acts on behalf of the victims. That way, justice for wrongful death is not just for the rich and well-connected, but for everybody.

    Another good example is running a red traffic light. This risks causing great harm, but if you happen to miss the oncoming traffic then no specific individual was harmed. Nevertheless, it makes sense to punish it in ALL cases, not just the ones where people get hurt. That way people won't do it, and everyone is safer.

    Now, you may think that modern legal systems have too many crimes, or that they prosecute them in ways that don't always make sense. And I would agree, but to say that criminal law is inherently unethical in all cases is just silly.

    Similarly, to say that democracy is inherently self-contradictory is absurd. Deciding who will rule us by majority vote is not like a square circle, in fact considering that democracy is strictly speaking a procedure (rather than a proposition that can be true or false) I'm not sure it even makes sense to call it a contradiction.

    People need to be governed by laws because they are not perfect. In a democracy, these same imperfect people choose who makes the laws. Therefore, they will also make mistakes in voting. Duh! No one ever promised you the system would work perfectly. The best argument for democracy is not that we are completely fit to rule ourselves, but that any smaller aristocratic group is even less fit to rule us. Someone has to do it. You know the joke, "democracy is the worst system of government except for all the other ones".

  7. Darryl says:

    Aron: I have some thoughts on your kind reply to the quote I proffered, but am in the swirling vortex of final exam week and until all grades are posted, nearly everything else is getting shunted to the back burner. Having glanced through the comment thread, however, I thought I would offer support to your reply to Никто’s comment in the form of this quote from Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address. It pertains to the final paragraphs of both Никто’s comment and your reply to it.

    “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?” –Thomas Jefferson

  8. Никто says:

    I know precisely what the term means. You are failing to see beyond the limits of your cultural context. You are a Christian, and an ethical man, and I expect you to adhere to certain values as a consequence, but I do expect better than this. Just because you have not seen the contradiction does not mean it doesn't exist.

    "The victim's family could sue in court, but what if the victim doesn't have any family (or their family didn't like them)? For this reason the State has an official prosecutor who acts on behalf of the victims. That way, justice for wrongful death is not just for the rich and well-connected, but for everybody."

    It is arguable that a killing person so hated that nobody -- not friends, family, business associates, or neighbours -- would seek redress for their death is in fact doing the world a favour. I don't expect you to agree with that point itself, but having been both well-off and a street rat, I can tell you with confidence that even the lowliest homeless beggar may have friends, if he is worth befriending, even if they are no more powerful than he -- and those friends are often far more loyal than those with money. As long as a means of redress were available, they would make use of it -- so the solution is to make a means available.

    In other words, make prosecution for such crimes a state-operated affair -- so that money or standing is not a deterrent to anyone seeking redress -- but an affair which only happens at the behest of some (even vicariously) injured party. The inconceivably rare case -- of a man who may be a good man but is mourned by no-one, is so unlikely that it should be dismissed from consideration -- and CERTAINLY not used as the basis for creating a flatly self contradictory legal representation of ethics.

    "Another good example is running a red traffic light. This risks causing great harm, but if you happen to miss the oncoming traffic then no specific individual was harmed. Nevertheless, it makes sense to punish it in ALL cases, not just the ones where people get hurt. That way people won't do it, and everyone is safer."

    This is a terrible example. Stop lights and stop signs are actually detrimental to safety (look up the case studies of unmarked roads in certain European cities) -- and even if they were an asset, that would not make them infallible.

    There are many cases -- probably at least one every time anyone who isn't in an utterly grid-locked city goes driving -- where the light is against them, but there would be no risk in running it. Zero. None.

    Consequently, running a red light is, without an element of recklessness (failing to account for opposing traffic, in other words), not a crime -- and treating it as a crime is the precise kind of "rules for the sake of rules" balderdash which is the antithesis of a liberated society.

    So let me reiterate that abstract justice is self contradictory, and add that the idea of a "victimless crime" is so utterly and obviously flawed that any child can see it -- it takes years of brain washing for adults to buy into something so flatly insane.

    "Now, you may think that modern legal systems have too many crimes, or that they prosecute them in ways that don't always make sense. And I would agree, but to say that criminal law is inherently unethical in all cases is just silly."

    In the case of the latter, I said nothing of the sort -- in many cases it is, by coincidence, the correct action; the principle is unethical, even when the practise is not. In the case of the former, that goes without saying.

    "Similarly, to say that democracy is inherently self-contradictory is absurd. Deciding who will rule us by majority vote is not like a square circle, in fact considering that democracy is strictly speaking a procedure (rather than a proposition that can be true or false) I'm not sure it even makes sense to call it a contradiction."

    It is logically inconsistent; that makes it self contradictory -- it expresses a contradiction in terms.

    And aside from begging the question, you have not illustrated why it is absurd to say that it is self contradictory. More to the point, you have not illustrated that it is consistent -- and neither has anyone else I have seen, and not for a lack of looking.

    "People need to be governed by laws because they are not perfect. In a democracy, these same imperfect people choose who makes the laws. Therefore, they will also make mistakes in voting. Duh! No one ever promised you the system would work perfectly. The best argument for democracy is not that we are completely fit to rule ourselves, but that any smaller aristocratic group is even less fit to rule us. Someone has to do it. You know the joke, "democracy is the worst system of government except for all the other ones"."

    So you would compound this problem by making flawed laws enforced by flawed people? That is a strange solution: compounding one error with another -- two flawed premisses do not make a correct assertion, much as two drunks do not make a straight line.

    The system does not work at all. The only places I have seen which were reliably civilised, safe, and sane were all highly rural and entirely self governed. The local constabulary, inasmuch as it existed at all, functioned exclusively in the capacity I described above: to deal with the potential case where someone was shot and the family felt it wasn't an innocent hunting accident -- but I never heard of that actually happening, not in 20 years of living there.

    Nobody stole. Nobody lied. Nobody got hurt, except by accident. Nobody had to get a permit to build a new house. Nobody worried about cops breaking in their door at night. Nobody went to jail -- we didn't even have a jail within 30 miles. Nobody locked their doors.

    You might engage in some hand-waving about population density or whatnot -- but this also worked in a city context, in the Kowloon Walled City -- see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kowloon_Walled_City#Culture -- it isn't cops which keep people in line, it's people who keep people in line. You should know that; you're not a child.

    People -- and again, I am disappointed to see you making this basic mistake -- seem to have conflated the failings of society with the failings of ruling structure. While it is true that an insane and depraved monarch, for example, might make his subjects' lives a living hell, his insanity is limited to him. Cut off his head and the replacement may or may not be worse -- but he can be replaced.

    Democracy replaces the monarch with a system -- an individual elected by all of us, but none of us are held accountable for our decision. More importantly, systems cannot be beheaded. You cannot cut the head off a democracy; even if you impeach the president and replaced all of congress, the ruling impetus of the system is decentralised; in effect you would change very little.

    So now we have replaced a broken system with an unfixable system -- this is like buying a car which can't be repaired at a mechanic, and bragging it's better than the old junker you traded in, while it only has 10,000 miles on it. We have had thousands of years to see the failings in the alternatives, but only 200 years to see the failings of democracy -- and you think yourself wise enough to compare the two?

    I suggest you read about the sin of Pride and get back with me.

  9. Aron Wall says:

    Dear Никто,

    I don't think you know what logically self-contradictory means. It means that a proposition is necessarily false in every logically possible set of circumstances. That's just what the term means. It is not the sort of thing which depends on "cultural context" (except through the definitions of words); if a proposition is self-contradictory then this can be shown by pure reason without using any empirical evidence whatsoever. For example, "George is both a man and not a man", if "man" is taken to mean the same thing in both parts of the sentence. We don't need to know anything about George to know that this sentence is false.

    It does not and cannot apply to things like "democracy" and "the criminal justice system", because these are not the sort of things that can be true or false. "Democracy is false" is a meaningless statement, because democracy is a system rather than a proposition. Democracy may be a good system or a bad system, but if it is a bad idea, it is not because it is self-contradictory, but because some other specific practicable system can be shown to be better. Democracy (like almost any other system) has some good points and other bad points. You seem to be too much of an absolutist to recognize this fact.

    As a "Christian, and an ethical man", I am indeed horrified by your suggestion that it is acceptable to murder a "person so hated that nobody -- not friends, family, business associates, or neighbours -- would seek redress for their death". Just because someone is disliked or friendless doesn't mean that they ought to be murdered.

    In any case, there are practical matters involved as well. I myself have been friends with homeless people, and for the most part it is very difficult to keep track of their whereabouts. If one of them were to die in a back alley, I would probably never know about it. I certainly wouldn't hire a private detective to gather evidence just because I hadn't seen the guy recently (and if he has fellow homeless friends, they cannot afford to do so). Try applying a little bit of skepticism to your own ideas, not just the current system!

    Just because there are some situations where good behavior can be enforced without rules, doesn't mean that all circumstances are like this. From the wikipedia article you cite, the Kowloon Walled City does not sound like a place that I would want to live. There was a low reported crime rate; that doesn't mean the crime rate was actually low. Who would bother to report crimes to the police if the police are afraid to enter, and don't have effective control over the territory? As the wikipedia article says, "The Walled City had become such a haven for criminals that police would venture into it only in large groups." If it was unsafe for large groups of police, surely it was also unsafe for ordinary people. I don't doubt that the ordinary people stuck together and helped each other as best they could under such poor circumstances. But that doesn't mean it was ideal. For a person who is so skeptical of police, you seem strangely optimistic about the behavior of organized crime (the actual rulers of the Kowloon Walled City according to the article).

    In any case, police (and some government to appoint them) are necessary even in the system you propose, where people can sue murderers. Someone needs to haul the murderer into court and enforce the punishment.

    So you would compound this problem by making flawed laws enforced by flawed people?

    All systems involve flawed people. Every one! So how can this be a criticism of democracy when it applies to every alternative as well? What specific system would you propose as an alternative to democracy? I guarantee you it will also involve flawed people. I also suspect it may have been tried for considerably less than 200 years.

    More importantly, systems cannot be beheaded.

    Yes they can. There are things called Revolutions and Constitutual Amendments. However, they require a certain amount of popular support. This is a good thing, otherwise crankish people would try to change things every 10 years.

    You seem to have put some unnecessary insults into your comment. It is not childish to believe that sometimes rules are necessary to keep people safe, and that regrettably this sometimes means sometimes enforcing rules even when no harm occured, if the net effect of always enforcing the rule is good. At least, most adults seem to agree with me rather than with you.

    Nor is it the sin of Pride to disagree with Никто (although it may be Pride to believe that disagreeing with Никто is Pride).

  10. Aron Wall says:

    Darryl,
    I look forward to your comments, once you have the time.

  11. Никто says:

    "I don't think you know what logically self-contradictory means. It means that a proposition is necessarily false in every logically possible set of circumstances."

    I already gave you the contradictory premisses of democracy -- that it assumes a man is fit to rule himself while assuming he must also be ruled. If you require simplification of why this is a contradiction, or how it applies to democracy, I am not interested in explaining it.

    "'Democracy is false' is a meaningless statement, because democracy is a system rather than a proposition."

    The practise can neither be true nor false, but it can be inconsistent, and that inconsistency can be rooted in a self contradiction present in the assumptions upon which the system is founded.

    "As a "Christian, and an ethical man", I am indeed horrified by your suggestion that it is acceptable to murder a "person so hated that nobody -- not friends, family, business associates, or neighbours -- would seek redress for their death". Just because someone is disliked or friendless doesn't mean that they ought to be murdered."

    I was discussing criminality, not acceptability. Even if it were doing the world a favour, it might still be morally wrong -- but it would not be a crime. While you might consider the law to be a moral authority, you should know better than to expect other people to adhere to your religious beliefs.

    In other words, don't put words in my mouth. I illustrated why it wasn't necessarily a crime to kill someone, without treating the general question, "Is un-provoked killing immoral?"

    "In any case, there are practical matters involved as well. I myself have been friends with homeless people, and for the most part it is very difficult to keep track of their whereabouts. If one of them were to die in a back alley, I would probably never know about it. I certainly wouldn't hire a private detective to gather evidence just because I hadn't seen the guy recently (and if he has fellow homeless friends, they cannot afford to do so). Try applying a little bit of scepticism to your own ideas, not just the current system!"

    The point of law is to treat known injustice, not to make injustice impossible: that would require morally perfect humans. A missing persons investigation might similarly operate at the behest of a concerned individual -- to address your supposedly 'practical' concern. That is how it works now, after all -- so if it is a practical problem with my idea, it is a practical problem in the current system too.

    "There was a low reported crime rate; that doesn't mean the crime rate was actually low."

    I'm 100% certain the "crime rate" was sky high -- just look at all those people . . . building things, doing things, having control over their own lives -- all without a permit!

    Or maybe you meant the kind of rampant violence which would have reduced the city to ashes in a week. I have news for you: it lasted a lot longer than a week. If you want an idea what uncontrolled violence looks like, look at the ghettos of any large city: gunfire between tower-style residential complexes controlled by rival street gangs, which fail to escalate into outright warfare only because the surrounding government would bring in the military if they did. If the violence in Kowloon had been of that magnitude, particularly in the absence of gov't control, it would not have gone unrecorded, and the city would not have lasted anywhere near the time it did.

    " If it was unsafe for large groups of police, surely it was also unsafe for ordinary people"

    There are many places where you may go as a citizen, which are openly hostile to law enforcement -- because law enforcement is, at best, a capricious force which may or may not be acting in the interest of justice at that moment, but certainly is there to stir shit up.

    Put another way, as a LEO, one represents a system of interests which are easily identified -- and may be in opposition to the group upon whom they are intruding; in that case, they are immediately identifiable as opponents to that group, whereupon an unaffiliated individual presents no threat whatsoever.

    Besides: even if it might be unsafe for you or I to go to such a place, doesn't mean it's unsafe for the citizens thereof. You have no right (moral, practical, ethical, or even religious) to assert that you may go wherever you wish, welcome or not, and intrude upon other people's societies--and they have the right to treat you like an invader and attack you accordingly if you do, just like you have the moral right (I have no idea if it's legal in California to defend one's home) to defend your property from intruders and thieves--even to the point of killing them.

    "I don't doubt that the ordinary people stuck together and helped each other as best they could under such poor circumstances. But that doesn't mean it was ideal. For a person who is so skeptical of police, you seem strangely optimistic about the behavior of organized crime (the actual rulers of the Kowloon Walled City according to the article)."

    If you may be sceptical of the "reported crime rate" for the city, then surely you'll understand that I'm suspicious of reports which assert "organised crime" rules a city where most of its inhabitants were undoubtedly engaging in some crime of some fashion -- unlicensed buildings, unlicensed water and utilities, probably saying and doing *all kinds* of things the state didn't approve of . . . by definition, the entire city operated as a "criminal organisation" -- which would, although technically accurate in a certain sense, render the description rather circular.

    Within the "lawless" context of the city, the various organisations were merely capitalist enterprises protecting their interests -- which is exactly how corporations in the US operate, too -- except we export our murder to sweatshops and little known villages in other countries where it's not as liable to make the news. How is that preferable?

    The point, by the way, isn't that the city was paradise -- it's that the city functioned, and damned well considering its lack of resources and tiny size. And all without the bureaucratic overhead of a government. I'd bet you almost anything, though, that it was safer to be in that city than to visit a lot of parts of supposedly "governed" cities, American or otherwise.

    "In any case, police (and some government to appoint them) are necessary even in the system you propose, where people can sue murderers. Someone needs to haul the murderer into court and enforce the punishment."

    Keep your ideas straight. I proposed two things: a workable alternative to the way our current political system operates (which would, functionally, work exactly the same -- do you think cops REALLY investigate your homeless friend, beaten to death in the alley, in this current system?) except without the pretence; and that such "systems" were more trouble than they were worth and actually CREATED crime -- which they then used as justification for their own existence. Don't make the mistake of thinking these are the same idea.

    "All systems involve flawed people. Every one! So how can this be a criticism of democracy when it applies to every alternative as well? What specific system would you propose as an alternative to democracy? I guarantee you it will also involve flawed people. I also suspect it may have been tried for considerably less than 200 years."

    I didn't say this should prevent us from trying new systems -- at least, by the way, I am honest in my condescension toward you, and actually have a reason for it; you merely encode yours into disingenuous replies which really have nothing to do with what I said -- I said that you are positively comparing democracy to things like monarchy, without enough data to make a valid comparison.

    "Yes they can. There are things called Revolutions and Constitutual[sic] Amendments. However, they require a certain amount of popular support. This is a good thing, otherwise crankish people would try to change things every 10 years."

    I have watched -- both in my own lifetime and through the lense of history -- several revolutions occur around the world. The success rate is pathetically low, even in the case of substantial popular support. The reason being, of course, that the same ruling class which controlled gov't A will almost invariable come to control gov't B, generally by gaining traction in the revolutionist camp by offering them the support needed to overthrow the 'oppressors'.

    Even in America, in that revolution, the story was much the same -- the honeymoon period lasted a little longer than it did in the Leninist revolution, sure, but the same inexorable process happened in both places. America even has its own private little Gulag -- called Guantanamo, and that's the one we, the uninformed public, know about because someone squealed. How many other internment camps exist? I don't have clearance for that information, and neither do you. It *might* be zero, but America's track record suggests otherwise -- it is reasonable to assume a criminal who commits a crime once will commit it again.

    As for your assertion that 'crankish' (I trust that adjective was not directed at me; if it was, it compounds what I say below) people would change everything every 10 years -- perhaps that would be better: then we'd have a higher chance of stumbling upon a working system preferable to the one we have now. As it stands, we operate like the old bush fire fighters with the zero-burn policy -- keep putting out little fires until an unstoppable inferno breaks loose. Is that really an intelligent way to run ANY dynamic system?

    Remember: "Those who admire the massive, rigid bone structures of dinosaurs should remember that jellyfish still enjoy their very secure ecological niche."

    "You seem to have put some unnecessary insults into your comment. It is not childish to believe that sometimes rules are necessary to keep people safe, and that regrettably this sometimes means sometimes enforcing rules even when no harm occured, if the net effect of always enforcing the rule is good. At least, most adults seem to agree with me rather than with you."

    It is childish to think that rules for the sake of rules are an intelligent, useful, or helpful notion. That is different from intelligent rules which rarely (or never) apply in the case where there was no potential harm.

    Again, to use your example of traffic controls, it is vastly different to pull over a car which blows through a busy intersection during rush hour (an obviously reckless manoeuvre) and to pull over a car who rolls through a stop sign at 3:00 AM at a deserted intersection -- so while a rule against reckless driving makes sense (if it's not reckless it's not a crime, regardless of particulars), a rule against a specific activity which may or may not be dangerous at a given time is NOT.

    A much better example, by the way, would have been building code -- particularly fire safety code, which I agree with in the context of crowded building environments, where one building going up in flames can take down an entire city block. (Note that the same fire code does NOT make sense in areas where the only building at risk is the one thus constructed -- if I personally wanted to live in a tinderbox full of gunpowder and open flames, and it wouldn't hurt anyone else, nobody has any business telling me I shouldn't.)

    The difference should be obvious -- a building which is a fire hazard is ALWAYS a fire hazard, and if that hazard affects other buildings, then there is an onus of responsibility on the owner to mitigate such risk. However, running a red light is STRICTLY a case-by-case scenario, where the particulars will unilaterally determine if it presented a risk to other people or not.

    And since you haven't bothered to do your homework:
    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20061110/011804.shtml
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.12/traffic.html
    http://www.dw.de/european-towns-remove-traffic-signs-to-make-streets-safer/a-2143663

    Hopefully these links will do some good, but I've lost interest in conversing with you. I don't expect you to agree with me, but if you're going to disagree, I do expect you to do it intelligently. I don't even care if you're rude, as long as you are rude openly. I expect you to think -- because you have proven in other posts that you are capable of thought, and I wouldn't have bothered posting at all if you hadn't. But you instead were careless, sloppy, and insulted me, all in your first reply -- and that little ad hominem about "disagreeing with Никто" is beneath contempt.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Dear Никто,

    I apologize for having offended you. I regret this; it was not my intention. Please forgive me.

    However, you have been much ruder to me than I have been to you. If you go back and reread your comments, I think you will see that. You may prefer open rudeness, but as the moderator of this blog I do not. I think I agree with you that this particular conversation should end here.

    Best wishes,
    Aron

  13. _Shepherd says:

    Why would I pay taxes to allow the criminal continue his life while I, the victim, suffer the loss of my relatives ?

  14. Aron Wall says:

    Dear _Shepherd,

    I find your comment perplexing. Keeping people alive is the usual moral thing, and we shouldn't kill people unless there is a good reason to. Neither your status as taxpayer nor your status as victim gives you the right to kill someone. In a society of laws, the death penalty is allowed only when a neutral arbiter finds that someone has done a crime deserving of death. To quote the U.S. Constitution, "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

    In any case, you ask "why would I?" when in fact you have no choice whether to pay the taxes or not--the government takes it from you for its own reasons.

    PS If you continue to comment, you MUST provide me with a valid email address, or your comments will be deleted. I will not share this email with others.

  15. Aron Wall says:

    Or more briefly:

    Why would I vote to give taxpayers the right to kill prisoners?

  16. Dylan Zwick says:

    Mr. Wall -

    In your post that generated this one, you said that you could accept the term "pro-life" as a broad term that includes opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, although you personally do not oppose the death penalty. I'll assume this means you do oppose euthanasia. If not, then the following question doesn't really apply.

    I'm always curious as to why somebody would support the death penalty but oppose euthanasia, because it implies what I believe is an improper relation between the individual and the state. That is to say, the state is allowed to decide the criteria under which a person may die, but that person is not.

    You mention in your post that you believe the two Pennsylvania judges should have been executed. So, I assume you believe the death penalty should be applied to cases outside murder. Who is to decide which crimes warrant the death penalty? The only answer I can see is the state - its lawmakers, judges, and enforcers. If the state is allowed to decide upon criteria under which an individual is to be put to death, or, in other words, the state has the power to decide whether an individual lives or dies, why is the individual not given this same power over his or her life?

    As a specific example - let's take a state in which the death penalty exists and is enforced, but euthanasia is outlawed. Suppose a doctor or medical technician purposely delivers a lethal dose of a drug to another human being. On the one hand, if directed to do so by the state because the recipient of the drug committed a crime, the doctor is paid. On the other , if directed to do so by the recipient of the drug because that recipient is in intense pain that will not end outside of death, the doctor is jailed. Is this just?

    I believe an individual's right over his or her own life is greater than that of the state, and a state that practices the death penalty while outlawing euthanasia is fundamentally inverting this essential liberty.

    I'd be interested in your take on this.

  17. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mr. Zwick.

    You are right to infer that I disapprove of euthanasia. I believe that our lives belong, not to ourselves, nor to the State, but to God. As such, neither an individual nor the State can take a human life as if it were their own property, but only when there are special justifying circumstances.

    I believe that God has delegated to human governments the obligation (and therefore also the right) to mete out criminal and civil justice, to protect their citizens, and to wage just war when necessary. In the pursuit of these duties, the State may sometimes kill. In emergency situations involving self-defense or protection of the innocent, this duty to kill might fall to bystanders, but I wouldn't want to empower private individuals to decide that in the ordinary course of events.

    You mention the "power to decide whether an individual lives or dies", but I think that's operating at much too high of a level of abstraction. I don't think anyone should have such an unlimited power. Your focus is on who makes this decision, but I think the more relevant distinction between the death penalty and euthanasia is why the decision is made.

    In the case of euthanasia, the motivation for the killing is to end severe pain or disability. In the case of the death penalty, the killing is a punishment for guilt. These two purposes are completely distinct. As a Christian, I believe that pain is a relatively trivial thing compared to sin. Severe pain does not make ones life worthless, nor does it contaminate those around you. Sin, on the other hand, endangers one's own soul and the souls of those around you. (Of course, the State can only be involved in punishing limited kinds of bad behavior, which we call crimes.)

    Traditionally, the Christian church has taught that suicide is self-murder, and is objectively speaking just as wrong as killing another innocent person. I believe that euthanasia is murder whether it is authorized by the individual, their family, their doctor, or the State. (The libertarian fantasy is that this decision can be made freely even though the typical candidates are sick, befuddled, elderly patients, who may feel like a burden on their family, with doctors who are encouraged to cut costs for their hospital. When the Netherlands decriminalized euthanasia, a study showed that almost half of the cases involved doctors killing the patient without their consent!)

    On the other hand, in the case of punishment for guilt there are obvious reasons to have the State make the decision rather than the individual in question. Few individuals would voluntarily punish themselves, and those that did would likely be motivated by psychologically unhealthy guilt rather than an objective assessment. Furthermore, actively killing oneself is normally an act of despair (e.g. Judas), while passively accepting a punishment imposed by society is consistent with moral self-improvement and hope for the mercy of God. For these reasons it seems completely inappropriate for the individual to make his own decision regarding whether or not he should be executed.

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