• Against the Death Penalty

    I was angered by the executions of eight prisoners recently by Indonesia. I’ve been strongly opposed to the death penalty my entire life; it was the very first political issue I took a position on, and though many of my other political views are in a state of flux I am practically certain that this one won’t change.

    Though my opposition to the death penalty doesn’t depend on it, the rehabilitation of the condemned was considerable. Watch this video to see goodness in Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran (the Australian ringleaders of the “Bali Nine” drug smugglers):


    Briton Lindsay Sandiford, a fellow death row inmate of Chan and Sukumaran, said:

    I really admire Andrew. He’s been an incredible help to me and he would be there for anyone who genuinely needed help inside the prison.

    The heart of the prison has gone since they left. They organised rehabilitation projects. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have running water on the blocks, or the classes in painting, cookery and computers. I would like to send my deepest condolences to their families and loved ones.

    Many things have been said about whether Andrew and Myuran deserved to die for their crimes. I didn’t know those men at the time they committed those crimes 10 years ago. What I can say is that the Andrew and Myuran I knew were men who did good and touched the lives of a great many people, including myself.



    The thought that these people were shot through the heart – deliberately and permanently destroyed after ten years of successful rehabilitation for a stupid mistake is deeply sickening, and I fail to see how anyone could be content about it. However, many people seem to have no problem with what happened, and I’ve read various defenses of the killings. I’ll briefly deal with the main ones.


    “It’s a deterrent”

    It is often claimed that having the death penalty for drug smuggling is likely to deter people who would otherwise smuggle drugs into the country from going through with it. We can outline the argument as follows:

    P1: We ought to implement whatever prevents or lessens the likelihood of crime C being committed.

    P2: The threat of the death penalty for crime prevents or lessens the likelihood of C being committed.

    C: Therefore, we ought to implement the threat of the death penalty for crime C.

    I take crime C to be either the crime in question, or any crime considered bad enough to make the premises true (depending on what’s being argued). I’ll leave aside whether P2 is actually true or not, and instead discuss P1.

    I think P1 is partly true in that something has to be done to prevent crime, and in many cases this will involve curtailing the freedom of those who commit crimes (my reasoning for this would make no mention of desert, and would solely be based on practical benefits like prevention and most importantly rehabilitation). But even the most fervent advocate of the death penalty would acknowledge that the punishment should “fit” the crime (however this is understood).

    Think of all the punishments that might deter people from smuggling drugs. Prison. Death. Torture. Why is torture never suggested as a punishment for particularly bad crimes? Surely that would be a deterrent, as much if not more so than the death penalty. We might offer some reasons why torture isn’t on the table for criminal punishment. It’s uncivilised, it’s unnecessary, it doesn’t rehabilitate… and yet I’d say all these reasons apply equally well to the death penalty. Yet it might deter people from committing the crime – in some cases perhaps when even the death penalty isn’t sufficient (I’m thinking of people who don’t fear their own death).

    It might be argued that the death penalty may be undesirable in itself, but so are the deaths (indirectly) caused by drug smuggling, so we’re choosing between two consequences. But consider those who aren’t deterred by the death penalty. How might we deter them? Well, we could threaten their family with vicarious punishment. I doubt even the most cold-hearted among us would consider this reasonable, but why? It could be an effective deterrent, and after all, if killing a family member or two would prevent a greater number from dying of drug abuse. The answer is that deterrence isn’t a sufficient reason to implement a particular form of punishment – you still have to consider whether or not it is reasonable and consistent with the actions of a just and civilised society.

    My point is this: ultimately, arguments based on deterrence beg the question. If a form of punishment is unjust, then we shouldn’t use it regardless of whether it might be a deterrent or not. P1 is false because there are things that might be a deterrent that we still shouldn’t do, and so the deterrence argument for the death penalty is unsound.


    “They knew the risks”

    Chan and Sukumaran knew the risks, and got caught committing a crime in a country with the death penalty for that crime. How can anyone complain?

    The short answer to this is that knowledge of an unjust law doesn’t make that law just. Nor does foolishness (and they were of course very foolish) mean that you deserve to spend ten years in a prison only to be taken out and shot.

    I remember about 15 years ago I ran across the road when I couldn’t see around the corner. I almost got hit. I knew the risks and acted stupidly. I could have been killed. It doesn’t seem to me that I deserved to die for it. Needless to say I’m much more careful these days.

    Ok, but running across the road isn’t a crime (in the UK at least), and so let’s consider another example. All decent, reasonable people now consider the “indecency” conviction of Alan Turing to be greatly unjust, and yet he did break the laws of the country he was in. We in 2015 are right to complain about his conviction though, aren’t we?

    It might be objected that Alan Turing committed a crime that shouldn’t have been a crime. Drug smuggling isn’t like that – it really should be a crime. Final example: In my teens I once stole a Milka chocolate bar from a Prague convenience store (I regret doing it and haven’t done anything like it since). Foolish as I was, I got away with it but I did worry about what the Czechs would do to shoplifters who get caught, since I had no idea. I know they don’t, but what if they chopped off a hand like some countries do? I’d be paying for my idiotic act my whole life! Is it right? Surely not – chopping off a hand is a horrible punishment even for something that ought to be a crime.

    I knew the risks running across the road. Alan Turing knew the risks engaging in a gay relationship. Thieves in countries where they chop off hands know the risks. Knowing the risks doesn’t justify the consequences of taking the risks, or make them any less regrettable.


    Since this post is getting too long I’ll leave the following common defenses of the death penalty as an exercise for the reader, and will perhaps visit them later:

    “Keeping them inside is a drain on resources”

    “What about the victims’ families?”

    Category: EthicsPolitics

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.