BAD ARGUMENTS FOR A GOOD IDEA
I’ve been watching more CNN than usual at Planet Fitness these days (No Judgement!). And maybe it’s because of this that I’ve recently found myself disagreeing vocally—sometimes shouting at the TV like Grandpa Simpson on a treadmill—with folks who are supposed to be my political allies. I support the overall causes they’re trying to promote; I just think many of the quick arguments the non-Rupert Murdoch-controlled media put out there to serve these causes are increasingly weak. (NB: The arguments put forth by Fox News I just find ridiculous. Reliably so. In a world of constant flux, one takes a certain comfort in this consistency.)
And on no issue is this perhaps more the case than capital punishment, which according to an article in The Guardian yesterday, 60% of Americans support: http://www.theguardian.com/…/six-10-americans-support-death…. I feel more comfortable hanging with the other 40. I am against the death penalty –in my gut I feel it’s not right–but I’ll admit up front that I have a hard time offering clear and compelling arguments for this conviction. What I do know is that some of the usual quips and bumper stickers the Left earnestly trots out on this issue are kind of embarrassingly bad. The big one is the terse “capital punishment doesn’t deter violent crime,” to which I can only offer the even more terse: “bullshit!” If the moral and physical laws of the universe were wired in such as way so that any person who murdered someone else was instantly struck dead by a thunderbolt (as philosopher Louis Pojman once suggested), I’d bet all the former lightning rods on the Great Plains that the universe would see less murder. And a few more thunderstorms. Capital punishment in the U.S. may fail to deter murder, but that’s because it isn’t applied swiftly and widely enough. Please, let’s grant the pro-cap-punish folks the cogency of their lightning- bolt scenario.
Another liberal comment I hear repeatedly is that poor people and especially poor people of color in the U.S. are sentenced to death, per capita, at a much higher rate than the rest of us. So, this unfortunate fact suggests that if you’re in poverty and African-American, you frequently get the short end of the stick. Wow. That’s so weird because African-Americans are usually treated so well by the justice system. And hasn’t American-style capitalism been incredibly beneficial to the poor? Sorry for the sarcasm dump, but my question is why draw the line of stopping injustice only at death’s door? I suspect the answer might be that too many of us will tacitly support a system that locks in unfair economic and educational opportunities for a lot of people as long as the state doesn’t have to execute anybody to keep that system in place. When we start actively killing our less fortunate citizens, well off “liberals” finally start to get nervous.
Finally, there’s the fear of wrongful conviction argument. It suggests that it’s better that 10 guilty murderers go free than one innocent person is put to death. I get this but my inner Utilitarian rears his impish head to ask, “Really? 10? What about a 100? What about 1000?” Nobody likes having blood on his hands, but it’s naïve to think we all don’t already. We are indirectly complicit in, say, the deaths caused by the war in Iraq (even if we were personally against the invasion) or even an accident on the interstate. How many lives would be saved if we agreed to an onerous 40 mph national speed limit? I would die from stress on the Jersey Turnpike, but you get my point. That’s what a democracy does to you: it takes away your excuses. Those living under despots can more rightfully claim they’re politically powerless. Recognizing that a representative government is a fallen state means that sometimes innocent people die and that sometimes you and I need to take some of the blame for that.
Part of the problem with this specific issue is that we don’t do “death” well, which is to say that we largely hide from it in fear, keep it at arm’s length, or pretend it will never come for us or our loved ones – until it does. (Which also partially explains the current Ebola hysteria, not to mention all the distractions of our youth-obsessed culture.) But the larger problem with political discourse more generally is the way we argue, especially online: with glib, pithy remarks and catchy phrases only to be countered by more glib remarks, summed up—if we’re polite—with a joke to defuse all the tension. We don’t seem to be after the difficult truth, only scoring quick points and—if we’re smart—playing nice. It’s only a game, for those of us who can afford it. The use of “we” and “us” in this paragraph is intentional – I single out myself along with many other people.
So what good arguments are there against the death penalty? Well, I’d really (!) like to hear them from anyone who cares to offer them. My own suspicions are that much of this has to do with repair, with creating a less coarse society, with realizing that we’re all a lot more alike (supposed saints and convicted felons) than we think we are, and—yeah— with forgiveness. The f-word. (Here’s maybe an issue even more difficult to talk about in our larger culture than death.) Although I’m not sure, I suspect that it’s possible that the only viable answer at the end of the day is a religious one. I’m not ready to try to patch that all together here in this post, but I’m thinking about it, turning it over during idle moments. Instead, my purpose here is simply to ask: should we resist making cheap arguments for our larger causes, simply because they seem clever, omit inconvenient information, or let us grandstand on idealistic principles we have no right to take as our own? Maybe once in a while we should try to do the hard work of trying to line up our words with our hearts. David Hume thought all ethical and political arguments really were only the handmaidens to our more basic and overriding emotions: the lyrics of reason to the passionate melodies that truly move us. If that’s true—and I suspect it is, in part—we owe it to our hearts and ourselves to come up with reasons and words that are true to who we are. Otherwise, all we’re doing is trying to ingratiate ourselves with our ideological teammates as we mock the other side. And what could be more safe than that? *High fives all around to everyone who thinks like me!* It seems that we need less tribes and tribal thinking today—in lunch rooms and legislatures, in faculty lounges and on Face Book–and more risky but deep, careful thought about what is true, kind, and just.
I’ll now try not to trip as I step down from my soap box.
Appreciate the introspection on a tough subject. I’d like to say I can engage without being sensational but I don’t know if I’ll do as well. Here goes anyway. :-)
I’m not hearing any reason to consider capital punishment a defensible idea. Re: “Capital punishment doesn’t deter crime”, you say bullshit. I’m sure you could slice the stats either way. But if deterring crime is the only goal then the answer is a police state. So that’s just one variable it seems, not the thrust of the issue.
You say why start at capital punishment when there are deeper social problems that start at birth not death? Again a fair point but again not a reason to support capital punishment. Sure let’s do more, but it’s no reason to do less.
In the end, it is an extremely simple subject to me. We can do better as a society than an eye for an eye. I believe that people are worth the effort to explore every avenue of rehabilitation. It is a risk worth taking.
I say this as a white male of privilege and opportunity, as one who has never been assaulted or mugged or even ever felt seriously threatened. I have never been seriously victimized by a culture that is biased against me. You can call me out on that. And you should. I maintain this viewpoint because I have had this privilege. But until life becomes hard enough that I feel a need to exact revenge, or even worse, proactively hold the world at bay through force, I’ll proudly continue to be a member of this minority that holds out hope for every person. In fact I think it is my place and duty.
On the other hand, every day leaves me feeling more and more in the minority, hostility all around. Maybe the world is just too rough a place. I guess time will tell.
Thanks for sharing thoughts.