Aug 20, 2007

parsing the death penalty resolution

Let's take a closer look at the current LD resolution:
Resolved: A just society ought not use the death penalty as a form of punishment.
First, "a just society." This phrase gives the Affirmative a task and a burden to levy on the Neg. The task: defining justice in a societal framework. More to the point, the harms of the death penalty must be harms against society, or harms incurred through societal mechanisms. If the death penalty, for example, is racially unbalanced in application, the Aff can't just say "the death penalty is racist." The Aff must show why this is opposite the values of a just society--and the word "ought" will become important here, too, since it establishes the criterion for a just society. Is it an ought of utility? An ought of constitutionalism? An ought of democracy?

Secondly, the Aff must remember to place a specific burden: whatever goods the Neg claims about the death penalty, they must be linked to justice in a societal framework. The Aff can't allow the Neg to say "but the death penalty is an effective deterrent!" without concurrently showing why deterrence is a valid and sufficient aim of punishment in a just society. This goes double for any arguments based on individual liberties, no matter which side proffers them. What is the connection between individual liberty and a just society? It must be made explicit.

The overarching point is that all arguments must link back to a vision of the just society, and any argument that strays beyond can be dismissed as nonresolutional (or, to sound a little less debaterish, irrelevant).

I haven't worked out in my own mind exactly how "as a form of punishment" affects either side of the resolution, other than to note that punishment's effects go beyond the punished. Punishment can be retributive, torturous, instructive, deterrent, preventive, excessive, slight, fitting, cruel, unusual. It can be examined empirically and philosophically. The ultimate question in the background, as alluded to before, is, "What is the role of punishment in a just society?" This essay might point you toward some initial answers.

7 comments:

Euan said...

Why would the issue of the death penalty's deterrence effect have anything to do with whether or not the DP is JUST? If deterrence alone warranted a law being just, then the most insane things could be just! If I knew that I would be tortured and then devoured by tigers if I robbed
someone, well then I probably wouldn't rob them, but why would the punishment be a just punishment? Deterrence is a good reason to have
it in the practical world, and a lot of people say that the deterrence effect of the death penalty makes it okay to have (we're willing to overlook that it may be immoral because it stops murder), but the deterrence effect does not justify the death penalty at all.

Jim Anderson said...

I wouldn't make the deterrence argument, either--that's why I'm warning about the potential distraction.

Your argument raises some interesting questions:

Is a "just society" required to act justly in all circumstances? In other words, can we be satisfied with a society that is, say, 70% just? Is there a minimum threshold of justice--and if so, what is it?

Is it possible that an act can be narrowly unjust, but justifiable in a broader context? Is there a potential analogue between, say, the death penalty and eminent domain, where a rights violation can be justified by an appeal to the greater good (the greater good)?

Euan said...

Hmm . . . Execution is narrowly unjust, because it is ending the life of another human being, but in certain situations it becomes a just response because it becomes what is best for the greater good. I like that.


Another question . . . Where does culpability lie?

If an innocent man is convicted of murder and executed, and no one involved in the proceedings (jury, prosecutor, judge, whoever) was malicious and were all honest and acted on what they believed, who is culpable for this innocent man's death? Do we blame on it on the death penalty itself? If so, is it now an unjust punishment? Does this even have anything to do with the debate?

Jim Anderson said...

The question of distributed moral responsibility is interesting, because it is particular to societies that use judge-and-jury systems. Are those a requirement of a "just society?" I'm wondering how many debaters will read the resolution from an American-focused perspective.

However, I don't think it's central to the debate, which concerns society as a whole, and doesn't presume a particular justice system. If the death penalty is inherently unjust (which will probably be the most common Aff argument), then perhaps society as a whole is culpable for allowing its continued use.

TheTachyix said...

What did Aristotle say about justice? The median between between enacting injustice and recieving injustice? Those are rhetorical questions by the way, right in spirit if not quite in body.

It seems that justice and all of its associated goals, values, and what-have-yous can be and are socially determined. So we shouldn't wonder if state-sponsored killings are necessarily "just"; we should just wonder if they're consistently (fairly) applied.

A society that valued the sanctity of individual life (or utility...because usefulness is the easiest value of them all) could not claim to be a just society and use the death penalty liberally. They'd have to prove that more harm exists with the anti-values individual alive than if he were dead. A society that values collective rights could use the death penalty until it reached a point where the collective was hurt. A society that values economic efficency could use it to best maximize resources. I am sure there are more.

Screw absolutes.

Anonymous said...

that whole article can be summed down to: "The neg has to prove that the death penalty ought to be used in a just society."

You've said nothing.

More importantly, the little you did say was redundant and obvious.
Ex. "he Aff can't allow the Neg to say "but the death penalty is an effective deterrent!" without concurrently showing why deterrence is a valid and sufficient aim of punishment in a just society."

Translation: "Don't let NC's make up links." But that would be were the criterion structure fits in. No debaters (except maybe novices- who have a horrible coach) would even try to say that DP-->Deterrence--> Negate, unless more links were made.

"First, "a just society." This phrase gives the Affirmative a task and a burden to levy on the Neg. The task: defining justice in a societal framework. More to the point, the harms of the death penalty must be harms against society, or harms incurred through societal mechanisms."
Wrong. Just society isn't the evaluative term, it is the actor. Ought is the evaluative term.

The resolution asks what ought to happen.

"the word "ought" will become important here, too, since it establishes the criterion for a just society. Is it an ought of utility? An ought of constitutionalism? An ought of democracy?"
No. Ought would lead to the value, not the criterion. The criterion would be something deriving from whatever ought means.

The end goal isn't justice, it is: what ought to be done.

Jim Anderson said...

anonymous,

Come off your high horse--this site is visited by all levels of debaters in all situations. If you don't agree with (free) advice, go ahead and critique it, but you don't have to be a jerk about it.

If you think "just society" doesn't set up a value of justice, bully for you--but that's why this is a philosophically complex subject. If the resolution had read "A fair society" or "a good society" or merely "society," we'd have a much different value / criterion structure, at least as I see it.

"The end goal isn't justice, it is: what ought to be done."

Regarding punishment in a "just society," it seems pretty clear that justice is what "ought to be done."

If you don't think that "just" is an evaluative term, you might want to revisit your definition of "just."