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January 27, 2015

Deterrence research and the "life-saving" argument that the death penalty is morally required

As I mentioned in class, some years ago 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. Here is a link to this article and its abstract:

Cass R. Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule, Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions, and Life-Life Tradeoffs , 58 Stan. L. Rev. 703 (2005):

Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect.  But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. The familiar problems with capital punishment -- potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew -- do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent.  The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve.  The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

As explained in class, the suggested prompt for mini-papers to be submitted on Feb 9 is to write to a legislator who is a kind of "agnostic supporter" of the death penalty based on the research suggesting executions help to save at least a few innocent lives.

Alternatively, if you like digging into social science research, you can write about the modern empirical debate informed perhaps by a collection of some recent data-crunching on the deterrent effect of capital punishment available via this page assembled by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.  Notably, CJLF is supportive of the death penalty; the Death Penalty Information Center is opposed to the death penalty, and it has this webpage criticizing the studies appearing on the CJLF's page concerning deterrence.

January 27, 2015 in Deterrence | Permalink


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