September 02, 2011
Am I right that conclusive deterrence evidence would "solve" death penalty debate?
I mentioned in class my belief that if we had truly conclusive and indisputable empirical evidence that using the death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers indisputably saves innocent lives, then there would be very little political and social debate concerning using the modern death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers. Does anyone want to take issue with this claim? Specifically, does anyone wish to argue that, even in the face of truly conclusive and indisputable that abolishing the modern death penalty would cost some innocent lives, that we still should get rid of the death penalty?
Critically, as revealed by reports at this pro-death penalty website and responses at this anti-death penalty website, there plainly is not clear empirical evidence that using the death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers saves innocent lives. Thus, one might reasonably accept my contention and still categorically oppose the death penalty given the current (and perhaps inevitable) absence of conclusive empirical evidence. Still, I want to have a discussion — here on the blog and/or in class — concerning my basic assertion that conclusive empirical evidence here could end what is often cast as a purely moral debate.
UPDATE: Inspired in part by the many thoughtful and effective responses to my initial inquiry, I am going to sharpen the hypothetical and see if the responses stay the same.
Let's suppose that we now have truly conclusive and indisputable evidence that the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden served to very significantly reduce the number and scope of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world (including attacks being planned for the US), whereas the capture and continued confinement of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has served to very significantly increase the number and scope of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world (including attacks being planned for the US).
If we did have truly conclusive and indisputable evidence that OBL's quick execution saved many innocent lives in the US and around the world while KSM's capture and likely life imprisonment has cost many innocent lives in the US and around the world, do you think persons with moral opposition to the death penalty would still want all major terrorist suspects handled like KSM rather than like OBL? (Ignore, for purposes of this hypo, that KSM was waterboarded, though maybe that makes it easier to accept my supposition that how the US has dealt with KSM has cost more lives than how the US dealt with OBL.)
Steve D. gets to the heart of my inquiries here when he states that "only someone who bases their morality on pure utilitarianism would be swayed by such evidence," but he then claims that "most people are not utilitarians." I have the contrasting belief that everyone is a utilitarian if and when — and perhaps only if and when — the stakes get high enough and the empirical evidence is conclusive. And I think this is a critical issue to explore at the outset of any death penalty discussions becausemany people on all sides of the DP debate are often (1) quick to assert that nothing is more valuable/important than innocent lives, and (2) eager to claim that they have strong (but not conclusive) empirical evidence to support their DP position(s).
January 27, 2010
Some "scientific" and "academic" discussions of death penalty deterrence
Though we did not have time for me to finish connecting my themes of scientific discovery and deterrence theory in the context of the death penalty, I do have space on this blog to link to lots of (totally optional) reading on the topic of whether the application of the death penalty in the United States may actually save innocent lives.
Specifically, a collection of some of the recent scientific-data-crunching research on on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is available here from the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. In addition, a few years ago Professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule created a stir with a provocative law review article suggesting that new deterrence evidence might make the death penalty morally required for states concerned with value of life. In this older post you can find links to this paper and to various responses it has generated.
If you do some Google searching, you can quickly find lots of other websites with lots of other death penalty deterrence discussions. But you will generally find that folks/organizations against the death penalty are often eager to stress studies and evidence undercutting deterrence claims, and that folks/organizations for the death penalty are often eager to stress studies and evidence bolstering deterrence claims.
In the comments to this post and in class next week, I would like to hear thoughts about whether folks believe this kind of bias is inevitable and unavoidable in all studies/debates about deterrence (whether in the death penalty context or in other criminal justice settings), or whether I should continue to hope that someday will we have good enough scientific tools and smart enough researchers to come to a definitive conclusion as to the "true reality" of deterrence in the application of particular types of punishment.
January 11, 2007
Assembling recent DP deterrence literature
As I mentioned in class, last year Professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule created a stir with a provocative article suggesting that new deterrence evidence might make the death penalty morally required for states concerned with value of life. Below I have provided links to this paper and various responses it has generated:
- Cass Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule, Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions, and Life-Life Tradeoffs
- Carol Steiker, No, Capital Punishment is Not Morally Required: Deterrence, Deontology, and the Death Penalty
- John Donohue & Justin Wolfers, Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate
- Cass Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule, Deterring Murder: A Reply
- Eric D. Blumenson, Killing in Good Conscience: What's Wrong with Sunstein and Vermeule's Lesser Evil Argument for Capital Punishment and Other Human Rights Violations?
- Thomas Kleven, Is Capital Punishment Immoral Even if it does Deter Murder?