Reasoning to a stalemate

George Will considers the death penalty and concludes that its use is contrary to reason. He reaches this conclusion after juxtaposing the views of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (pro death penalty) and attorney-novelist Scott Turow (against it). Romney cites three reasons why the death penalty should be used in some instances — its deterrent effect will prevent some murders; it expresses and reinforces society’s “proportionate revulsion” against the most heinous crimes; and its presence can induce criminals to turn state’s evidence in order to avoid execution.
Will does not undertake to show that the second and third benefits are illusory. He does make the valid point that the death penalty isn’t used enough to provide much deterrence. But this fact need not make reasonable people “turn away” from the death penalty; they might just as reasonably argue that it should be used more often in the category of cases to which it applies.
Ultimately, Will sides with Turow because he agrees that the justice system is imperfect and, therefore, will execute the innocent at times. But a reasonable person could conclude that the death penalty will save more innocent lives than it takes. In this regard, it should be noted that advocates like Turow, who base their opposition to the death penalty on skepticism about the perfectabililty of the criminal justice system, seem nonetheless to assume that the penal system is perfect. If one takes a more realistic view, it becomes clear that, absent the death penalty, convicted murderers will kill in jail and will escape (or even be released) from jail and will kill again on the outside.
In the early days of Power Line, I wrote that the death penalty is essentially an aesthetic issue. Rocket Man demurred, perhaps rightly so. What I meant, though, is that there are reasonable policy and moral arguments on both sides of the death penalty debate, and that neither side can demonstrate that the other is morally or pragmatically wrong. Where one ends up on this issue depends on what one thinks society should look like. Reason can take us only so far in this debate.
HINDROCKET adds: I agree that the death penalty is an issue on which reasonable minds can disagree. What strikes me most about the debate is that all human institutions are, inevitably, imperfect; yet it is only with respect to the death penalty that it it widely believed that imperfection must lead to abolition. The parole system is imperfect too, and it would be easy to show that the number of innocent people who have been murdered by convicts on parole vastly exceeds the number of innocent people who have been wrongly executed. Yet I’ve never heard anyone argue that because mistakes in the parole system can lead to innocents being killed, that system must be abolished.
Of course, a distinction can be drawn between capital punishment, which is intentional on the state’s part, and the killing of a third person by a criminal on parole, which, from the state’s perspective, was unforeseen. Maybe a higher standard of care in the former case is appropriate. But is that distinction enough to justify the death penalty’s status as the only human institution from which perfection is expected? I don’t think so.


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