Aug 26, 2007

the death penalty undermines democracy

The current resolution states:
Resolved: A just society ought not use the death penalty as a form of punishment.
Let us assume, for discussion, the following line of argument:

[1]. A democracy is the only just form of society. (Or, to paraphrase a more famous aphorism, it is the least unjust form.)
[2]. The death penalty undermines democracy.
[3]. A just society / democracy values its preservation, both in existence and in character.
[4]. Therefore, in order to preserve its existence and character, a just society / democracy ought not use the death penalty as a form of punishment.

[1] is arguable, but defensible, with reference to human rights, the rule of law, representation, pluralism, and the like. [3] is intuitively strong, and [4] would follow from [2] and [3]. But can [2] be warranted?

Austin Sarat, a leading capital punishment scholar, describes the cultural, legal, and social effects of the death penalty in When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition in order to argue just that. He writes,
Capital punishment is the ultimate assertion of righteous indignation, of power pretending to its own infallibility. By definition it leaves no room for reversibility. It expresses either a "we don't care" anger or an unjustified confidence in our capacity to recognize and respond to evil with wisdom and propriety. Democracy cannot well coexist with either such anger or such confidence. For it to thrive it demands a different context, one marked by a spirit of openness, of reversibility, of revision quite at odds with the confidence and commitment necessary to dispose of human life in a cold and deliberate way. Moreover, democratically administered capital punishment, that is, punishment in which citizens act in an official capacity to approve the deliberate killing of other citizens, contradicts and diminishes the respect for the worth or dignity of all persons that is the enlivening value of democratic politics. A death penalty democratically administered implicates us all as agents of state killing.

"Capital punishments," Benjamin Rush once observed, "are the natural offspring of monarchical governments.... An execution in a republic is like a human sacrifice in a religion." Along with the right to make war, the death penalty is the ultimate measure of sovereignty and the ultimate test of political power. With the transition from monarchical to democratic regimes, one might have thought that such a vestige of monarchical power would have no place and, as a result, would wither away. Yet, at least in the United States, which purports to be the most democratic of democratic nations, it persists with a vengeance. How are we to explain this?
Sarat takes the rest of the book to explain the death penalty's persistence. Readable, even for novices, the book is a great resource for understanding the peculiarly American approach to capital punishment.

You can probably see a potential case structure unfolding. You might also see potential weaknesses with such a case. Feel free to point them out and discuss them in the comments.

Oh, and a question: is this reformulation of the argument stronger or weaker?

[1]. A just society requires democracy.
[2]. The death penalty undermines democracy.
[3]. Therefore, in order to preserve its existence and character, a just society ought not use the death penalty as a form of punishment.


TheTachyix said...

I can't swallow number one for a lot of reasons. If you limit the context to America, judges and most of those who run the judiciary are very well educated people who've spent years professionally in the sphere. In my mind there's a fairly significant bias within the system. I'm not saying that it won't promote or improve justice, but that it presents a certain kind. Which, when it comes to social issues and from those, economic issues, skews a just society.

Summarized in a question: How many rich, famous people get the death penalty?

Looking more broadly, how does democracy provide justice? Western morality, for example stems largely from Judeo-Christianity values, and neither God nor the desert tribes were all that democratic. Are we supposed to remove any/all/most morality from our concepts of justice?

I'm not saying that you can't make a case for [1]. I am saying that its easy to attack and worth attacking and with out it the following premises are much more tenuous.

Jim Anderson said...

1. Though the quote talks about America, it's not theoretically limited to the U.S., except for the fact that the U.S. is practically the only democracy still applying the death penalty.

2. We're still talking about democracy in the abstract, not any particular democracy--claiming not perfect justice, but the closest possible human approximation.

3. How a democracy provides justice would be the substance of [1]. Democracy is the fruit of Greek, not Judeo-Christian, morality, so I'm not sure where your objection is coming from. It also seems to rule out the evolution of morality since then. I don't care if desert tribes were non-democratic, if they weren't just. (They also implemented the death penalty, and not just for capital crimes.)

TheTachyix said...

In response to your second reply, I'm not entirely sure if its wise to keep a discussion in the abstract. You yourself have noted the importance of stats and probability in assigning death. Even imperfect justice doesn't deserve being botched. Which comes back to my (badly stated--sorry) point that if there is systemic preference for particular groups. Why else would you have a democracy if not for an equal distribution of rights?

In regards to the morality claim it wasn't as clearly articulated as I would have like. Common definitions of justice often include a degree of moral behavior. So I guess I am wondering what sort of moral behavior democracy offers that no other body can or does. Especially since neither the Greeks nor Romans were light on the capital punishments. Mobs can be both wise and cruel, which doesn't necessarily make for a long term just society.

Democracy is a political medium, but is justice? I say no, not at least without further substance.

Jim Anderson said...

We have to argue on some level of abstraction--otherwise, we'd just tell stories about murderers and victims. I don't mean simply spouting arcane syllogisms, but focusing on principles, and not on problems uniquely endemic to particular societies.

The reason I'm not interested in nomadic or Greek morality, other than in a historical way, is that democratic principles have evolved since then, and trying to link modern-day notions of equal rights to the Greek conception is to risk a genetic fallacy.

I'd also be using a fairly careful definition of democracy, and not something like "rule by the majority" or "political medium-finding," although such charges are sometimes levied at democracy.

A broader question you've raised, though, and a good one, is the relationship of justice and morality, which I will tackle in the next post.

TheTachyix said...

My real point was this; certain concepts of justice formed away from democracies (both then and now). Today, they're considered crucial and infrom values today. To insist on democracy and democracy only, seems to defy the pluralism that democracy is supposed to bring.

And I look forward to your next post. Hopefully other people will add things.

Emily said...

I like this idea...the cards are interesting and compelling.
However, like thetachyix indicates, I think you would have to do some work definining what a democracy actually does value and what it means to be democratic. Does a democracy really have to value a spirit of openess and respect for all persons? Or can it just respect its constituents that it deems worthy (ie those who don't kill people, etc)
Even democracies have to be sovereign in some instances in order to survive...An argument could be made that in order to preserve democracy DP must be used, perhaps in matters of national security, deterrence, or eliminating those that are bent on the destruction of the democracy.
It is also important to remember that the United states uses the death penalty so by your logic you're arguing that the US is not democratic. This doesn't mean the argument is bad you should just be prepared to hear that.
Finally, When explaining what a democracy would do it is wise to be very clear, since democracy too quickly becomes one of those fluffy value words that has lost all true meaning.