Reading the New York Times at breakfast is more than a habit. It is a sort of addiction. One experiences withdrawal symptoms in places where the paper is not available (especially when the only alternative is USA Today). At least in this country, the Times has no serious rival for good international news coverage, by some of the best journalists around. The editorial page is another matter, a predictable assortment of politically correct opinions. [Relevant joke: What will be the very last headline of the New York Times? – “World Ends Tomorrow: Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered Persons Hit Hardest.”] I rarely agree with a Times editorial. I did on April 13, 2012. The editorial was headed “More Evidence Against the Death Penalty”. The conclusion, with which I strongly agree, was that “Capital punishment… should be abolished throughout the United States.” I do have some questions about the “overwhelming evidence” cited in support of the conclusion.
The editorial was triggered by the news item that Connecticut has just voted to abolish the death penalty, thus becoming the 17th state without the penalty and the 5th to abolish it in the last five years. There is now a growing movement in this direction. Repeal measures are being prepared in California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky and Washington, and death penalty laws are under review in Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania. If this movement continues, there is some chance that the United States may cease to be the exception among Western democracies in its enthusiasm for capital punishment. According to Amnesty International, which keeps abreast of this matter, the US is among the 22% of member nations of the United Nations who retain the death penalty both in law and in practice (quite a few have it on the books, but fail to use it). In 2011 the US was the only country in the Americas to have carried out executions. In 2010 it occupied the fifth place in the number of executions carried out (46). Only four countries were ahead of the US—China (2,000 executions), Iran (250), North Korea (60), Yemen (53). A noble company, one might say. As is well known, no country can be a member of the European Union if it retains the death penalty, and the US difference has been an important contribution to anti-Americanism in both Europe and Latin America.
According to Gallup, there have been ups and downs in public opinion concerning capital punishment (possibly related to varying degrees of fear of crime). As of 2010, 64% of Americans were in favor, though there has been some movement toward favoring abolition. This is greatly increased if life imprisonment without parole is offered as an alternative. In any case, the legislative trend is clearly not a response to a big shift in public opinion, but rather a development within the political class. Since this blog has a religion focus, it should be mentioned that support for the death penalty correlates negatively with degree of religious involvement – 65% in favor among those who attend services weekly or more, 69% among those who attend monthly, 71% of those who attend rarely or never. There are interesting differences as between religious groups – 71% of Protestants are in favor of the death penalty, 65% of Catholics, 57% of those with no religious preference. There has been a notable decline in support among Catholics (possibly due to recent teachings about a “culture of life” by the Catholic Church). Across all denominations, Christian as well as Jewish, religious conservatives are more in favor of the death penalty than religious liberals. Not surprisingly, this difference is very visible within Protestantism—among clergy and lay people, and in official positions of church bodies. All mainline Protestant churches have made abolitionist statements, while Evangelical churches (notably the Southern Baptist Convention) have supported retention. Again not surprisingly, the (liberal) Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has come out for abolition, the (conservative) Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod for retention. The ancient affinity between priests and hangmen has not completely disappeared; this is not the place to repeat what I have written elsewhere on this unfortunate phenomenon.
But back to the development commented upon in the Times editorial: What are the arguments made in the current legislative debates? There is the argument that the death penalty is grossly unjust, being imposed disproportionally on the poor and on racial minorities. Thus 35% of executions since 1976 were suffered by African-Americans (currently 12.6% of the population). And there have been many reports of blunders made by court-appointed defense counsels for indigent defendants. There has been a disturbing number of cases where death row inmates were freed as a result of DNA evidence (leading to the reasonable supposition that they were the lucky ones, while others were executed in the absence of such evidence). Yet these facts have been acknowledged by those in favor of capital punishment, only used to call for more stringent procedures.
We live in an era of government deficit. Thus the major argument in favor of abolition has not been for the reasons just mentioned, and even less on grounds of the inhumanity of capital punishment, but quite prosaically because of its cost. According to one study, since 1978 (when a more extended application of the death penalty was enacted) the state of California spent about $4 billion in order to carry out 13 executions. I suppose this could be seen as a rather bizarre proof that the legal system is reluctant to execute, therefore giving a defendant ample time for appeal. Be this as it may, the cost is clearly huge. Donald Heller, who helped draft the ballot initiative which led to the 1978 law, now calls for another ballot to repeal the penalty: “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it… is so dollar wasteful that it serves no effective purpose.” Suppose that the cost/benefit analysis came out differently: Would we then drop any opposition to capital punishment? Or suppose that the routine use of torture by the police greatly reduced the crime rate and its great cost, would we then endorse the practice?
Whatever morally neutral arguments may be used in public debate, the basic motive for abolition is moral: It is the conviction that capital punishment is an intrinsically inhuman barbarity. [Full disclosure: I fully share this conviction.] Thus a moral conviction, and not any arguments about economics or unfairness, led to the abolition of the death penalty throughout a Europe still under the shadow of the monstrous inhumanity of Nazi power. Two passionate books by famous authors were influential in the debate about this—Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging (1956) in Britain and Albert Camus’ Reflections on the Guillotine (1957) in France. [It is significant that Koestler narrowly escaped execution by the Franco forces in Spain, and that Camus was active in the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France.]
Opponents of capital punishment might wish that similar moral arguments, rather than economic calculations, would lead to the end of capital punishment in the United States. However, it is results rather than purity of motive that finally matter in what Max Weber called the ”ethic of responsibility”. Quite frequently in history morally desirable changes occurred for reasons that had nothing to do with morality: How important in the abolition of slavery was the insight that keeping slaves was more expensive than employing free labor? How many South African businessmen turned against apartheid because it was ruining the economy, rather than because they were impressed by sermons on racial equality? And must one deplore if some east European states are improving their treatment of minorities in accordance with European Union law, not because they are sorry about past atrocities, but because that is a condition of obtaining EU subsidies? History is not an ongoing seminar in moral philosophy. This does not mean that moral considerations play no role; it does mean that, much of the time, it is more effective to appeal to interests rather than conscience.