Introduction to Political Theory
- The sense of injustice if it is found that an innocent person has been executed.
- The loss to the executed person, both the immediate pain and the loss of his
future (it is, in fact, incredibly hard to ‘compute’ the costs of death for the dead
- The loss to the murderer’s family.
- The brutalising effects of capital punishment on state officials and the population
These are not exhaustive lists, but hopefully it is sufficient for you to get the
point. In assessing consequentialist arguments for and against the death penalty it
is important not to concentrate entirely on the issue of deterrence. However, given
the centrality of deterrence to the consequentialist debate over capital punishment
it is useful to make a few points about theinterpretationof the evidence for and
against deterrence. Steven Goldberg, who supports capital punishment on grounds
of deterrence, makes the following points (see Goldberg, 1974):
- Capital punishment quite obviously does not deter the murderer – if it did, he
would not be a murderer – but it might deter potentialmurderers. A similar
point can be made about imprisonment – even if there were a 100 per cent
recidivism rate this would not prove that prison does not work to deter people,
because it is the people who do not commit crimes, but in the absence of lengthy
prison sentences might commit crime, who matter.
- Comparing different countries can be misleading. Many European countries have
a lower murder rate than the USA, and some of the 18 non-retentionist American
states have a lower rate than some retentionist states. This does not in itself
disprove the deterrence argument, because Texas, for example, might have an
even higher murder rate in the absence of the death penalty. Much depends on
the cultural characteristics of a society.
- Comparing countries over time can be misleading. Until the end of the Second
World War most European countries retained the death penalty, and some
(Western) European countries have practised it until quite recently (France carried
out its last execution in 1977 and abolished the death penalty in 1981). These
societies may still carry the socialised effects of marking out a particular offence
- premeditated murder – with a very particular kind of punishment (death). We
might have to wait generations to see the effects of abolition on European
Ernest van den Haag – another defender of the death penalty – cites as evidence
of the deterrence effect the fact that very few prisoners on death row accept death
over life imprisonment: this is why the overwhelming majority seek to exhaust all
channels of appeal against their sentences (van den Haag, 1986: 1665). It follows
that even murderers – who admittedly were not deterred from murder (see point 1
above) – recognise that death is worse than life imprisonment. Both Goldberg and
van den Haag admit that the statistical evidence for deterrence is inconclusive but
we can, they suggest, surmise that death does deter.
There is, however, some confusion here, which is picked up by Jeffrey Reiman
(1985: 144). To be fearful of something is not equivalent to saying that the feared
thing is a deterrent. Most normal people will be terrified at the thought of execution,
but they do not under normal circumstances need the existence of the death penalty
to deter them, because there are other reasons why they would not commit murder.
Chapter 7 Punishment 155