Moral leadership in this country is as dead as it was during slavery.

Citizens should be appalled at the way the death penalty is discussed today. Like the slavery debate, the discussion on the death penalty has been subverted by economic and legalistic rationales and both parties are responsible. Conservatives rail against the taxpayer dollars spent on prisoners and liberals bemoan the broken and unjust judicial system that fills death row disproportionately with black men. Prisoners are expensive and the justice system is racist, but neither argument should matter.

The death penalty debate is fundamentally about values. By making it about something else, we allow the American people to hide.

The South’s economic defense of slavery obscured the important debate of whether or not owning a human being was morally acceptable to Southerners. Today’s Republicans are doing the same thing by making the cost of keeping prisoners alive a central feature of the death penalty debate. Liberals are guilty too, though not equally so. Institutional racism, judicial failures, and “cruel and unusual punishment” are not the biggest reasons to abolish the death penalty. The country might eliminate jury bias and rid itself of incompetent judges and come up with a more effective cocktail. But addressing those practical concerns shouldn’t end the debate.

Money and legality and constitutionality and everything else distract from the issue. I have more respect for South Carolinian preachers who believe that the death penalty is a proper and fitting punishment in accordance with their religious convictions than I ever will for a liberal college student hiding behind precedent or the Eighth Amendment.

The crisis the American public faces as it confronts the death penalty is a moral one and should be faced with moral arguments, not with amicus briefs or spreadsheets.

The American public has an obligation to ignore legal and economic reasoning for or against the death penalty. They should dismiss with great prejudice the notion that any legal code or judicial precedent or constitution is so sacrosanct as to supersede the moral compass of America as a republic. They should resent the implication that the fractions of a penny a taxpayer might save is of greater value than a human life. The American public should seethe and hiss and boo at the prospect of community leaders and congressmen and even sitting presidents that make arguments for or against the death penalty on the basis of anything other than their consciences.

Laws can be struck down and constitutions can be amended. Prisons can be made less expensive and judicial systems can be made more fair. There is more to the death penalty debate than practical concerns and justifications. There is a moral imperative to consider, a responsibility to fully confront divisive issues. Objections to the death penalty on practical grounds are reasons to repair the system, not abolish it.

Society has the right, even the responsibility, to protect itself. The American republic is empowered to repel foreign invasion, suppress incursions, and jail violent criminals in order to protect the citizenry. Every constitution in the world has a societal self-defense provision. But should that right extend farther? How much farther? Is a nation empowered to dispense punishment outside the bounds of societal self-defense or does the buck stop with security? Is vengeance the dominion of the state or is that too high a price to pay for a victim’s closure?

There is an incredibly important debate to be had here and we’re missing it. Any American unable to stand for or against the prospect of a death penalty on the basis of morality and conviction alone stands in dereliction of their duties as a citizen. Systemic attacks and economic defenses are predicated on impermanent premises and detract from the more important discourse. The death penalty is justice or the death penalty is barbarism. It is exactly that clearcut.

Finkel is a member of the class of 2018.

  • Horatio Gates

    To be honest, I think most supporters of the death penalty support it for moral reasons. They deem it a moral and just repercussion, and that is why they support it. I think the people who try to defend it in economic or social terms are the very small minority.

  • Man with Axe

    All those “other” reasons, economic, constitutional, are extremely relevant and important, maybe as much or more so than moral reasons.

    The importance of the constitutional argument arises from the fact that people will have different moral views about the death penalty. Kant supported it as the only fitting penalty for murder. The Bible and the Koran approve of it. The US Constitution clearly assumes it is an appropriate punishment for “capital crimes.” Thus, it leaves it to the states to decide if they agree with you or not as to the moral character of the death penalty. Some do, but most do not.

    Economic arguments are valid as well. One economic argument, in the sense of costs and benefits, is whether the deterrent effect of the death penalty is worth the chance of an innocent man being executed. If it happens to be true (I don’t know if it is) that each execution deters on average 5 murders, then one could argue that it is immoral not to execute murderers, even if one out of 100 is actually innocent. One hundred executions would then be responsible for saving 500 innocent lives at the cost of the execution of 99 murderers and one innocent man, the former cost many would argue is not a cost at all. I’m not saying any of this is true, only that it is a relevant argument to have.

    Another example which raises cost-benefit issues: Is the death penalty appropriate for the brutal rape of an eight year old girl? It’s conceivable that the death penalty for such a barbaric act might reduce the number of such rapes, but it might also lead to more murders of victims as a perpetrator rationally calculates that as he already faces death for the rape, killing the victim decreases his chances of being caught without increasing the punishment if he is caught. Thus, the killing reduces the expected value of the punishment.

    The cost of imprisonment is also an issue that has moral implications. If it is the case that the state can save $1 million for each prisoner it executes instead of keeping imprisoned for life in a maximum security facility, that is $1 million it could use to provide health care to crippled children, or for some other worthy cause. At the margin, spending money needlessly to keep murderers alive is implicated in the suffering of many whose lives could be saved or improved with those funds.

    • Bobcat Goldthwaite

      A reasonable and well put together response that makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

    • Confused by your ramblings

      It is more expensive to enact the death penalty than to imprison somebody for life due to the cost of appeals. I also don’t understand how you are trying to calculate the deterrent factor, and you seem to be comparing it to no punishment rather than to life in prison.

      “I’m not saying any of this is true, only that it is a relevant argument to have”

      O good, I was worried for a second there. Carry on!