Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Is the Death Penalty Barbaric?

Is there never a moral justification for capital punishment?

Steven Hayes, one of the two men accused in the brutal home invasion in Connecticut in 2007, was sentenced to death in 2010 (see the news announcement here). For those of you unfamiliar with the case, he along with Joshua Komisarjevsky, broke into a home, kidnapped the mother with the hope of her retrieving funds from the family's bank account, eventually killed the mother and two young daughters after having sexually assaulted the mother and the younger daughter, beat the husband badly with a baseball bat (attempted murder), and set the house on fire immediately prior to fleeing the scene. Most people (myself included) have absolutely no qualms with the notion that these inhumane beasts are likely to be executed for their crimes. Yet I can assure you that among "enlightened" individuals, the idea of favoring capital punishment is vulgar, non-progressive, and lowly. After all, most "civilized" nations have abolished capital punishment so only barbaric individuals and/or societies can hold on to such draconian penal practices.

Execution_Chamber

Let me address some of the most frequent arguments against the death penalty:

(1) Innocent people are oftentimes found guilty. As such, the possibility that a single innocent person might die is sufficient to abolish this practice. Here is my rebuttal: This is certainly a very serious concern that can nonetheless be addressed by ensuring that the legal criteria that need to be met for imposing the death penalty are made much more stringent. For example, if your DNA is found on the murdered and raped bodies of four children then it is unlikely that you are an innocent (or framed) defendant. In other words, we can make the triggering criteria for capital punishment such that it becomes next-to-impossible for innocent people to be put to death.

(2) The death penalty fails as a deterrent. My rebuttal: Notwithstanding the fact that I am not a lawyer I do not believe that the penal code is primarily meant to serve as a deterrent to future criminality. Punishment is de rigueur rather than deterrence. Humans have evolved a repertoire of emotions that served as adaptive solutions to problems of evolutionary import. One of these emotions is the universal need for revenge. This is such a pervasive element of the human condition that it constitutes one of the seven deadly sins. In other words, our human nature is so predisposed to seek retribution that moral philosophers and theologians alike have tried to temper our drive to punish those who harm us. As a civilized society, we have agreed to "subcontract" our vigilante desires to the state. However, our need for the most extreme of retributive justice does not suddenly disappear because we are a "civilized" people.

(3) The death penalty is applied in a racist and biased manner. My rebuttal: If the legal criteria for the imposition of the death penalty are made more stringent in line with my first rebuttal, this should resolve (or greatly attenuate) this problem.

(4) Murder is murder irrespective of who commits the act. My rebuttal: This is undoubtedly the weakest of all anti-death penalty claims. According to such moral relativism, the Nazis exterminating Jews at Auschwitz is no different than the state putting a recidivist child killer to death.

(5) An individual who commits a heinous crime must have been "damaged" by his environment. Hence, there are always mitigating factors that can be used to "explain" any crime. My rebuttal: Child abuse is oftentimes used as a mitigating factor. Apparently, having been abused or neglected as a child might explain why you end up stalking a mother, killing and raping her, molesting her young daughter, killing the two daughters, beating the husband with a baseball bat, and setting the house on fire. Needless to say, millions of children are abused every year, and yet few end up becoming sadistic rapists and killers. As a matter of fact, several infamous serial killers have testified to the fact that their childhoods were bereft of any abuse. Incidentally, humans have free will. Hence, it is difficult to argue that an individual's past, irrespective of how difficult it might have been, forced him into a life of heinous criminality. This would be tantamount to environmental determinism, which is ironic given that those who believe in such determinism abhor so-called genetic determinism  (which contrary to popular belief, no serious evolutionist argues for such a position)!

(6) Only God has the right to impose such definitive punishments.  My rebuttal: Many are unwilling to subcontract this task to Him, or wait until the “afterlife” for the ultimate justice to be truly served.  We live in the here and now.  Hence, waiting for the afterlife is a gamble that many are unwilling to take.

In my humble opinion, the only barbaric attitude is one that suggests that there is not a single act that an individual can commit that would make him lose his right to live. Our evolved emotions are contrary to such an "enlightened" position.

I welcome differing opinions but please try to be polite and respectful.

Source for Image:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Terrehaute_gur...

Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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