Moral Philosophy and the Death Penalty
Philosophy is tough sledding, as I’m finding in the Moral Decisions class at St. John Fisher Church. The word philosophy is Greek and we immediately think of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in the 4th century BC. Socrates asked questions like What is justice? What is poetry? He began the Socratic Method, a questioning dialog without answers. Plato is widely believed to have been a student of Socrates and to have been deeply influenced by his teacher's unjust death. Plato's brilliance can be witnessed by reading his Socratic dialogues.
Aristotle believed that humans know some things inherently (the basic truths about themselves and the world) and that philosophy builds on that knowledge.
In the twelfth century Aristotle’s writings were translated into Latin and St. Thomas Aquinas made a lifelong study of his works. G.K. Chesterton noted that the central theme of St. Thomas’s work was the compatibility and complementarities of faith and reason. When this does not occur, it is because reason has become scrambled.
Modern philosophy began in the sixteenth century with Rene’ Descartes who doubted everything. “I think; therefore I am” was the end result of his search for something that could not be doubted. In contrast to Aristotle, Aquinas and the Catholic Church, Descartes believed that unless some method is first learned, one cannot know anything. To Descartes, the study of philosophy confers on one his first certified grasp of truth. (It is interesting that Descartes has become the patron saint of many non-believers, but he was a zealous Catholic, believing that science is possible only because God exists and God cannot lie.)
Philosophy means the quest for wisdom, and involves the disciplines of logic, mathematics, natural science, ethics and theology. Ethics, or moral philosophy, seeks knowledge in order to help us become good. But what is good? Humans are not essentially individuals, at the most basic level. We are born into a family -- not by choice, but by nature. Thus, human good is communal, the common good.
Thus, it seems to me that when considering any complex moral issue (say immigration, abortion or the death penalty) we should carefully consider the common good.
The death penalty for capital murder has long been debated in the industrialized world. It is outlawed in Europe and is all but non-existent in America. In 2005, there were over 16,000 cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the US. There were 60 executions.
The common good argument is that executing murderers would deter murder and save lives. But the death penalty opponents challenged the veracity of that assertion. Finally, the results of several recent university studies are available.
A series of academic studies over the last half-dozen years analyze the hotly debated argument — whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. The analyses say yes, counting between 3 and 18 lives that would be saved by the execution of each convicted killer.
One of the studies by Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. “The results are robust, they don't really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them? The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.”
Statistical studies like his are among a dozen papers since 2001 showing that capital punishment has deterrent effects. To explore the question, they look at executions and homicides, by year and by state or county, looking at the impact of the death penalty on homicides while accounting for other factors such as unemployment data, per capita income, the probabilities of arrest and conviction, and more.
Among the conclusions:
1. Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University.
2. The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over four years following, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston.
3. Speeding up executions would strengthen the deterrent effect. For every 2.75 years cut from time spent on death row, one murder would be prevented, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor.
The reports have horrified death penalty opponents.
Steven Shavell, a professor at Harvard Law School and editor of the American Law and Economics Review, said that his journal intends to publish several articles on the statistical studies on deterrence in an upcoming issue.
The University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein, a well-known liberal law professor and critic of the death penalty, has begun to question his own strongly held views. “If it's the case that executing murderers prevents the execution of innocents by murderers, then the moral evaluation is not simple,” he told The Associated Press. “Abolitionists or others, like me, who are skeptical about the death penalty haven't given adequate consideration to the possibility that innocent life is saved by the death penalty.”
Moral philosophy says to look to the common good, in this case saving the lives of innocents. To ignore this would be immoral, and the sign of a scrambled mind.