A prominent political blogger has launched a campaign for restoration of capital punishment.
Some doubt that blogger's sincerity in doing so. If he is insincere, then it would be a rather crass form of opportunism for a blogger to promote his site by urging more people to be killed than otherwise would be.
But his sincerity ultimately does not matter.
This is a debate which needs to be aired every so often, and the argument against capital punishment is one which needs to prevail - and be seen to prevail - each time the debate takes place. People's minds can be changed.
First of all, there are some easy practical points to make against capital punishment. For example, capital punishment is not actually cheaper, as the costs of the inevitable appeals and re-appeals mean that it is rather an expensive process. It also places witnesses further at risk, as the murderer now has every interest in avoiding detection and capture.
Of course, the most significant practical argument against capital punishment is that it is irreversible.
Any mistake cannot be rectified. It relies entirely on the efficacy of a criminal justice system which, at best, can lead to determinations of guilt "beyond reasonable doubt" (and that is often got wrong). The criminal justice system does not provide the means of making decisions based on absolute certainty. Indeed, each component part of the criminal justice system - police investigations, media clamour, prosecution decisions, conduct of trials, soundness of appeals - can go wrong. There is nothing to suggest that the judicial taking of human life would be based on any infallible process.
Then there are the points to be made about the intellectual confusion of many who support capital punishment. There are the "libertarians" who do not accept that the State has the legitimacy or competence to administer taxes or provide the police with powers but then contend that the State can rightly and safely take lives. There are those religious fundamentalists who blithely disregard the imperatives of their own holy texts.
And then there are those who favour the deterrence argument, who contend that the deliberate taking of life by the State somehow sends a signal that the deliberate taking of life is wrong. Even on its own terms, taking a life as a "deterrent" is manifestly unjust: it means that the punishment is not on the basis of the facts of its own case, but on the basis of speculation about incidents which may never exist.
However, none of the above points are conclusive, even if they are compelling to any sensible person. One could accept all the points so far made and still, in one's gut, believe that capital punishment is not wrong and so should be made available to the courts, perhaps only in exceptional circumstances.
This is the view which I am seeking to challenge.
Such a sentiment is often premised on murder being a uniquely bad crime and that it is not capable of being punished by mere imprisonment.
That murder is a uniquely bad crime is generally correct (though there are other serious offences against the person which also render the victim with a life which is effectively over).
The deliberate taking of life is a revolting act which requires severe punishment.
However, it does not follow that for the State to then deliberately take the murderer's life that there has been some morally right outcome.
The deliberate taking of life is still absolutely wrong, even when it is orchestrated by police, lawyers, and executioners. All one has achieved is another moral wrong.
Capital punishment is wrong because it formally requires other people to be complicit in the deliberate taking of human life.
One may have the enthusiast who would "pull the lever themselves" but one often gets people who want to kill others for the "right reason".
But capital punishment demands more than a willing executioner and cheering spectators; it needs for the whole of the State apparatus to be augmented so that the end of a given formal process is the deliberate killing of a human being. The absolute wrongness of the original act is then repeated by the State on our behalf.
This is why capital punishment can be fairly said to be barbaric. It takes something which is wrong, and then projects it on the political and legal institutions of the State: it makes repeating that wrong a purpose of public policy.
And this is not to be a "bleeding heart liberal" about murderers. One can readily support "life meaning life" with no possibility of parole.
But killing people, like torturing people, is wrong; and is still wrong when it is arranged and done by officials on our behalf.
Two wrongs make two wrongs.
(As a footnote, I supported capital punishment as a teenager. I was brought up in a Tory environment, and I held many illiberal views about "law-and-order". But with the patience and kindness of decent sensible people my opinions were challenged and exposed as incorrect and inhumane; because of this I arrived at all the positions I set out above. That is why I regard engaging in debates as important. The devil may well have the best tunes; but the liberals will usually turn out to have the better arguments.)
Also see this excellent post by Charon QC, doyen of legal bloggers, setting the background to the current debate.
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