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Capital Punishment



When it comes to the subject of capital punishment, it seems a ubiquitous requirement of anyone on the political left to be against it.  Most liberals/democrats/leftists are against the death penalty, and always have been, as far as I am aware.  While I have absolutely no loyalty to any party, camp, tribe, or movement, and typically reject all political labels these days, it's also a fact that I typically fall left of center on most social issues.  However, I am actually for the death penalty, at least at the moment.  I feel as though I am admitting to something monstrous by saying this, but allow me to explain.  Before I can do that, however, we need to get philosophical.

In my previous entry, Shallow, I posited that there's no such thing as free will as we tend to think of it.  If you're not acquainted with this idea, I suggest reading at least the first couple of paragraphs of that entry, as well as listening to the short audio clip I embedded there.  The TL;DR is that we don't create ourselves in any deep sense, we're not responsible for our genes nor brain chemistry, we don't author our thoughts, and there's not a cell in your body that you brought into being.  Because of this, our thoughts, and by extension our actions, can be viewed as essentially just another force of nature that no one is the ultimate author or agent of.  This doesn't erase responsibility or accountability--not by any means.  But what this perspective does do is close the door for hatred and open the door for compassion.  If you truly understand this no-free-will idea, then it becomes clear that hating people simply for being evil makes no sense.  I'm not saying it's easy to get on board with this idea, but it is a logical position nonetheless.  If you accept the fact that free will doesn't exist, then the idea of revenge, vengeance, and retribution go out the window.  We would still need to protect ourselves from dangerous people, but we should also want to help them if we could, and not punish them simply because they "deserve it", and for no other reason.  The following audio clip is an excerpt from a podcast with Sam Harris and Robert Sapolsky.  Listen to it to gain a better understanding of this idea:



So, the point is that in a more evolved, more ethical society, we should be moving away from a retributive justice system, and towards a restorative one.

As a person with a passionate, often fiery sense of justice, a person disgusted and infuriated by evil, it is extremely difficult for me to fully get on board emotionally with the ideas I've just laid out above.  My instinctual, gut reaction is to want to punish evil people as brutally as possible.  My default state is more of a medieval justice system; and eye for an eye, so to speak.  If someone I loved was murdered, admittedly I would be strongly inclined to go on some sort of a Liam Neeson Taken-esque man-hunt, a Captain Ahab quest, a Kratosian rampage to find my loved one's murderer and kill them with my bare hands.  I would want bloody revenge.  But the logical, rational part of my brain realizes the folly of such a reaction.  That's why I'm glad that I'm not in charge of making our justice laws, and happy to leave that task to wiser people.  Vengeance my emotional response, but on the record, in my dispassionate moments, I do not condone revenge for it's own sake, and I support a restorative justice system.

When I feel the most inclined towards hatred and revenge, I think back to one of my favorite Star Trek Voyager episodes, Repentance.  A masterpiece of an episode, it perfectly demonstrated how one could come to feel completely differently about a quintessentially evil monster.  I highly recommend watching this episode if you have access to it somewhere, such as a streaming service.  It requires absolutely no previous experience with Star Trek, nor context with Voyager whatsoever to appreciate it.  The basic plot (spoiler alert) is that an evil mass murderer is cured of his psychopathy by an advanced medical procedure, and he subsequently comes to view his previous self as a monster, and he is just as disgusted by his past actions as we the audience are.  By the end of the episode, it will have any capital punishment supporter questioning their position.

So... what the hell am I talking about, then?  I opened by saying that I do support the death penalty... and then I spent the next several paragraphs essentially repudiating it, so... did you miss something?  Did I miss something.  No.  Now I'll bring this together and it will make sense.

I would be against the death penalty, save for one important thing--I simply cannot look at inmates serving life sentences without feeling extreme sorrow and anguish for the innocent people of the world who, by dint of bad luck, are suffering unimaginably.  It is an undeniable fact that prison inmates in the United States, even those serving life sentences in maximum security facilities, have it far better than many of the unluckiest people on Earth, people who desperately need our help.  Prison inmates have a bed, a roof over their heads, a proper amount of food and clean water, and access to basic medical care.  There are millions of people on Earth at this moment who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with such a prisoner.  There are so many people in impoverished countries who live in squalor, who are starving to death, are forced to drink filthy water, and are dying of diseases, many of which could be easily treated or cured if they lived in developed countries.  It seems intolerable to me to provide basic food, water, shelter, and medical care to murderers and rapists when so many innocent people suffer.  How can I watch these commercials full of emaciated children suffering horribly and not feel incredibly distressed knowing that there are criminals receiving a far better standard of living?  It just feels so wrong to me.  I would rather that we help innocent people who are suffering, regardless of which country they're in, before helping violent criminals.  If we can put murderers and rapists to death and redirect that money and resources to innocent people who need it more, and who are more deserving, then that seems like a just and good choice to me.

However, I realize that there is one gaping, glaring hole in my logic--I have heard the statistic that it's more expensive to execute a criminal then to keep them in prison for life.  That's probably true, but that is a fact that I simply cannot wrap my head around.  It seems so ridiculous, so counter-intuitive, and so insane that...  that... I just don't even know what to say.  It's f*ckin' nuts.  You can't make this stuff up.  No matter what they come up with in science fiction movies, real life will always be crazier.  Providing someone with food, medical care, and basic room and board for life is cheaper than just ending them?  Like.... what?!  What the f*ck??!  But alas, I'm sure that's true, and if it is, then that alone punches a hole through my idea like a f*ckin railgun.

It's not just the execution cost, either.  As always, the complications of real world economics make everything so much harder than it should be.  I realize that simply eliminating a cost in one place doesn't mean you can just redirect that money to some other, more deserving place.  Doesn't work like that.  Money can't just flow to and fro to whoever needs it most.  Money is earmarked for certain things, and money saved by one company or department or body cannot simply be scooped up and put towards something more preferable.  Perhaps someday, if we come up with a better system.  But for now, I know it doesn't work like that.

For those two reasons, I suppose the death penalty isn't a good idea after all.  However, on an emotional level, I just can't help from feeling raw about it.  It seems so unfair and out of whack that if a starving person from an impoverished village could come to the U.S. and commit a homicide and get incarcerated, they'd have a better life than where they came from.  Where's the justice in that?  I realize that I'm also completely disregarding the harshness of prison life with respect to the violence from other inmates and such.  I dunno--still seems like an upgrade from the starving, disease ridden villages.

It's also important to note that my opinions about all of this would change if we truly understood "evil" at the level of the brain, and could intervene and help violent people, essentially "curing" them of their violent impulses.  Imagine if we invented a pill or a shot that could cure psychopathy.  If we could treat psychopathy as we would treat diabetes, then we would no longer look at violent people as "evil", but merely unlucky to be born with that brain chemistry.  Look at it this way--we would never consider withholding insulin from a diabetic as some sort of perverse punishment for having diabetes.  Likewise, as Sam said, if we could cure psychopathy, then it would be monstrous to deny that cure to a psychopath as some sort of retribution.  On that day, on the day that society looks like Star Trek Voyager's Repentance, then I would definitely be against capital punishment.  Until that day... I guess I remain agnostic.  Ultimately, I just wish that there was a better, more global, more cosmopolitan way of prioritizing money and resources, and helping those who need it most, first.

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