I consider myself fairly confident and decisive in my political stances, but the death penalty is one of those thorny issues for me. On the one hand, it costs taxpayers an average of $40,000 a year per inmate. So if somebody is found guilty of a truly heinous and violent crime then it stands to reason that putting the perpetrator to death is the better financial option. On the other hand, should money really be a factor when we’re talking about a human life?
This seems to be the real quandary. There are some who argue that it’s simply immoral to kill, but that angle is far too black and white and stems largely from the more religious population. The question isn’t a moral one. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Allow me to explain.
Do you think it’s okay to kill a teenager that steals a video game from a Walmart? Unless you’re some kind of sociopath or suffer from a major mental illness, I suspect your answer is as obvious as mine. Petty criminals never deserve to die and the murder of a child on top of it would be especially tragic. Now what about someone guilty of leading an attempted genocide, such as Hitler? Is it okay to kill someone like that? Yes? My guess is that you and I are likely on the same page then.
What we’ve established is the merits of moral relativism. It’s not whether killing is right or wrong, but rather the context of a given situation.
Let’s push this a little further. What if the mass-murderer were a child?
I little more morally ambiguous, right? Killing a child? Awful. But a child that caused the death of millions. You might still think, “Oh, he’s just a kid… he didn’t know better!” But at the same time the sheer scope of his crime is substantial. I suspect that a majority would still support putting a young Hitler-type figure to death, but not quite as overwhelmingly.
So the two contexts to consider boils down to the severity of the crime committed and the age of the perpetrator. These are our criteria for deciding whether or not to exact capital punishment. I think we can all more or less recognize the difference between a child and an adult, so the age factor isn’t an area of sizable contention. It’s an important part in making the decision, but since age is more of a concrete filter we can dismiss it from the subject of moral relativism.
Let’s stick to an adult. He/she is found guilty of murder. Let’s say there was only one victim. To kill the convicted individual would lead some to protest that “an eye for an eye makes the world blind”, but this would over-simplify the argument because it only works if both the victim and the criminal are equal. Sure, they might both be equally human, biologically speaking, but that alone doesn’t designate value. Does it? Is the one who kills the innocent person worth as much as the innocent person? How do we assign worth? If the victim were a homeless man or a school teacher would that really make a difference? Not really. It’s the simple descriptor of “innocent” that makes the victim more valuable than the killer. They aren’t the same. They aren’t both “eyes”. The platitude of Hammiburabi’s Code is rendered mute.
A convicted murderer isn’t human. Or, more accurately, is less than human. The individual has lowered in value. Therefore the supposedly inhumane penalty of death is at least more justified, albeit perhaps not entirely.
And this is where the problem lies. Most people would probably be in agreement with me up to this point. But the remaining obstacle of “Is this less-human individual so devalued that he/she is deserving of death?” This is why the financial numbers are a fair factor to consider. Because we’re talking about value. Is this person’s value less than $40,000 a year? Or should taxpayers fork over forty grand for decades so this “less-human” individual can live in a cage?
If you’re a hardcore, touchy feel-y person then you probably would say yes. Yes, we should keep him alive because even though he’s less valued he’s still worth more than our tax dollars. And I empathize with that. But this same touchy feel-y crowd also must consider the quality of life the individual is going to have. Is it really humane to force someone to spend his life in a cage? Like an animal? Wouldn’t it be more merciful to put the person of his misery?
So if you’re apathetic and think about this convicted person’s life in terms of dollars and cents, the death penalty would make the most sense. If you’re empathetic and value even a murderer’s life more than any monetary amount, the death penalty also makes sense because of advocating for mercy.
No matter what column you fall under I think that we all deep down agree that capital punishment is appropriate for extreme violent crimes (murder, rape, etc) BUT only if it’s absolutely indisputably proven that the alleged perpetrator is truly and utterly guilty.
Unfortunately that is rarely the case since new facts can come to light down the road, the only exception being if the accused pleads guilty. Granted, the person could hypothetically be suicidal and purposefully lying in order to die, but at least society would be removed from any shackles of guilt if that were the case. If a murderer blatantly says, “Yes, I killed So-and-So”, then the death penalty is fully justified in my eyes. In any other circumstance it remains a toss-up.