Crime and punishment
This is not a post on Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s famous novel Crime and Punishment. Rather, it is a post on capital punishment, its moral implications and social consequences. As such, it might be slightly controversial and easily offended readers might do well in skipping this post.
There. Warning over. (Side note: I haven’t done a post where I had to put a warning or disclaimer at the top for a while now. Am I losing my sting?)
There are only four types of legal systems in use in the world today. The most common is Civil law, which is based on abstracted laws and rules legislated by a governmental body. This is the legal systems used throughout Europe (except for the UK) and most of South and Central America, Asia and Africa.
The second most common system is Common law, based on the old legal system of the British Empire and famous from all the British and American films and television shows. It is essentially a precedential system, where judges develop the laws in court, creating precedents that will act as guidelines for subsequent cases of a similar nature.
Then we have religious law, now only represented by the Islamic Sharia, where laws are based on rules found in religious scriptures. It is mainly practiced in the Middle east and parts of Northern Africa.
Finally – and now all but extinct – we have the Customary law systems, where old customs are essentially viewed as laws in court. In practice, if things have always been done a certain way, it becomes the law and people are required to continue doing them that way. Today only Mongolia and Sri Lanka practice Customary law.
I’ve talked about fairness before, both in The fairness syndrome and The moral code. I concluded that there seem to be a hardwired sense of fairness in us humans, where we expect people to behave decently and if they don’t, we become outraged. This fairness sense is the basis of all legal systems, both current and ancient. We want our societies to be fair, and for everyone to be treated fairly. However, the way in which we realise this fairness has varied over the ages and across borders.
In the beginning we had the old ‘Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’-system. If someone knocked out one of your teeth, you had the right to knock that persons tooth out in return. Or stab out their eye, had they somehow managed to cause you to lose an eye. It’s a very direct and basic system and it’s still in use today. In fact, in the Korowai people in Papua New Guinea, you are allowed by the village elders to take revenge on a murderer by killing him/her yourself. And then you’re allowed to eat him/her, to regain some of the energy lost when the murderer killed the victim. But this is a dying practice (no pun intended) and most societies now delegate the punishment to a legal institution of some sort.
This brings me to the core subject of this post: capital punishment. Just like the old ‘Eye for an eye’-system is declining, so is the practice of sentencing people to their death. Currently, out of 206 countries, only 57 actively practice the death penalty. Of those, most are developing countries, and there’s an obvious trend towards abolishment in countries where the economy is advancing. The only post-industrial countries still practicing death penalties are Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and United States.
So the number of countries using the death penalty is steadily decreasing. And this raises a question: why has so many countries abolished the death penalty? Is it for moral reasons? A sense of becoming a more enlightened society? Or is there something more practical behind the decision?
An argument in favour of the death penalty is that the presence of capital punishment will act as a deterrent and stop people from committing heinous crimes. In reality, that doesn’t seem to be the case. With the typical practicality of the human mind, criminals (like all humans) tend to suppress uncomfortable facts and rationalise that it ‘could never happen to them, anyway’.
The statistics seem to validate this view. As seen in the graph to the right, there is no obvious correlation between the use of capital punishment and the percentage of homicides committed per year. For instance, most European countries have the same low-level of homicides as Saudi Arabia, even though none of the European countries practice capital punishment and Saudi Arabia does. And on the other side of the Atlantic, United States does practice capital punishment but still have the same amount of homicides per year as Argentina, that has abolished it.
So, perhaps the reason almost every single developed country has abolished the death penalty is because it just doesn’t work as a deterrent?
But there’s also the moral side of capital punishment to consider. In recent years, more and more elaborate methods of absolving the executioners have been invented. The (in)famous lethal injection machine of United States uses a control computer with a randomising function and a mix of lethal and non-lethal syringes in order to allow the two operators to stay ignorant of who did actually order the machine to perform the execution.
From a philosophical point of view it’s a bit of a folly, since each operator is required to press the button and therefore is essential for the execution to take place. That way, however much they would like to avoid it, they are both equally responsible for taking the prisoner’s life.
But the phenomenon does highlight a conflict of interest. Even though a state wishes to be able to enforce the death penalty, it doesn’t want to force anyone to have to carry out the sentence. This is a symptom of trying to escape responsibility of performing the executions. It’s similar to the notion of people not wanting to know how the meat they’re having for dinner has been produced. And just like suppressing the thoughts of slaughter houses filled with petrified cows and pigs is the first step towards vegetarianism, trying to avoid the guilt associated with executions is the first step towards abolishing the death penalty all together.
As mentioned, there is a global trend towards abolishment of the death penalty. More and more countries join the ranks of post-industrial nations and in the process, most of them leave capital punishment behind. And for good reasons. Capital punishment has no place in a modern society; it doesn’t work as a deterrent and is just a brutal and archaic form of punishment that’s left over from when we had a much more primitive view on justice.
But being an abolitionist doesn’t make me a pacifist. If someone were to hurt someone I love, I would turn to violence in an instant. But that’s just me allowing my limbic system getting the better of me. I would hope that an enlightened and advanced society would keep itself above such primitive emotions and be guided by a clear state of mind. Courts of law are supposed to be about justice after all, not knee-jerk simian responses to emotional triggers.
So let’s call capital punishment for what it is: revenge, not justice.