Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis and the Deathly Hollow of American Justice

If I've said it once, I've said it once: I love irony. I live in a country that fancies itself a, if not the, moral leader of the universe. And why shouldn't it? After all, it's a predominantly Christian country and we all know that Christian ethics are the best.  They have to be for were it otherwise, we'd all have those ethics. Just ask us.

It's refreshing to see quite a lot of the world condemning my native land for the premeditated murder of one of its citizens.  This has the smack and feel of the self-aggrandizing pickle tickle we give ourselves when we speak in muted tones about the immorality of Iran, say, for murdering one of its citizens for the crime of being raped. At least in those cases, the perpetrator/victim being murdered is at least nearly for sure 'guilty', which is to say that the rape in question occurred, and its murder victim is the same as the rape victim/perpetrator.

The certitude we have about one of the murders the United States committed last night is somewhat murkier.  7 out of 9 prosecution witnesses have recanted their tellings of Troy Davis and his role in a 1989 murder of a police officer. Oh well. I guess it's just his tough luck that remaining 2 witnesses were just better, more reliable witnesses than these 7 turncoats were.

In about 95% of my moods, I'm fairly resolved that state sponsored murder is immoral. I allow for the other 5% because I'm not at all heartbroken that Saddam Hussein was hanged. This implies to me that there is a continuum of crimes along which there exists a point of evil so great that I'm comfortable allowing for the proposition that the doer of the things at least at that point has forfeited his/her life. I am almost entirely certain this is an ethical failing on my part. Still, I didn't lose any sleep over his murder.

So leaving to the one side the Hitlers and Stalins of the universe, I am now met with the rather more mundane cases of run of the mill type murders, and how to punish those who commit them. I've listened to all of the stock arguments in favor of why committing murder is a fabulous idea. None of them is persuasive ethically, or intellectually. Only one example is emotionally cogent to me, but I immediately dismiss this one out of hand.

This latter example takes the form of something along the lines of that I am to imagine my child has been raped, tortured, and dismembered while alive. Upon learning of this and that there's a video of the event, and hundreds of eye witnesses, say, am I really going to argue in that case there's a chance of mistaken identity. Obviously not. Then it goes down the tired list of all the other stock arguments and ends with some implication that if I don't want to see my child's rapist, torturer, murderer killed in return, then I don't love my children quite enough.

Perhaps. But it seems most people who make this chain of reasoning, or one of its variants, miss a crucial piece of data. Conflict of interest. We don't let the victims of families decide the guilt and punishment of perpetrators of crimes, even the mundane ones like, say, pick pocketing. I live in a society where I am, fortunately enough I suppose, prevented by law from being the judge, the jury or the executioner of someone who's wronged me. It therefore is irrelevant if I would feel the urge to murder the person who murdered my child.

I would most likely feel that. I am a mammal. I am human. I have feelings much like anyone else does. But my personal comfort is not the proper concern for determining what is true. In fact, that I have these emotions and I am personally involved in the disposition of a factfinding endeavor peculiarly makes me the least qualified person to render a decision on the matter. Of all the people in the universe of people, a mentally retarded person would be no less bad a choice to select as the decider. He might not be better at it than I, but he could certainly not be any worse at it. The worst he could be choice-wise is as poor a candidate as I am a poor candidate.

I am happy to live in a society where we prevent victims from deciding the cases. I am happy to live in a society where when my ethics might be overpowered by my suffering, others step in to make sure that 'justice' truly does balance the equities involved. Nothing would bring back my child, of course.

So, I'm right back where I started. And to add to my reasoning for opposing the death penalty--still leaving aside the Hitlers of the world--is the simple fact that the logic used in murdering murderers is considered poor and inexcusable in every other domain of justice.  In punishing rapists, we do not rape them to demonstrate to them--and others by way of an example--that rape is wrong. We do not mug the muggers. We do not beat the batterers. We do not set alight the homes of arsonists.

Yet when murder is on the table, I live in a country that has so poorly calibrated its moral compass that it seems most are convinced that murdering the murderers is a perfectly cogent way to show that murder is always wrong.

I suppose to get my children habituated to this chain of reasoning, when they get home from school today I'm going to start punching the shit out of them to show them hitting people is wrong. It is, after all, a chain of reasoning sufficiently ethical and properly cogent to justify--in the minds of my countrymen at any rate--committing murder as a demonstration that committing murder is inherently wrong.


Anonymous said...

brinkka2011 says: I printed a lot of your blog out thanks my friend

Maria Maltseva said...

Your failure to object to the killing of Hussein probably is a moral failing, but it's not one that I'm going to lose any sleep over, considering that everyone has moral failings of one sort or another. Based on my hard-determinist, lack-of-free-will musings, only restitution and restraint are ever appropriate as punishment in my eyes.

The Justicar said...

Yeah. The extrema here is what gives me any ethical pause or difficulty. It's fairly non-taxing for me to argue why all the run of the mill type cases aren't deserving of murder as a response, for the rather elegant parity reasons listed in the article. 

But given the choice between being able to hang Hitler, or give him life in prison I am greater difficulty to appreciate the totality of the situation. 

The best I can do in that way right now is recognize that I'm also not able to sensibly wrestle with quantum mechanical behavior in any comprehensible way.  This is where I have to trust the formulaic mechanisms we've devised to handle that which eludes our intuition.

If the response isn't suitable for one murder, then it doesn't seem to be suitable for two. If not for two, then not for three. Why the analysis would change later on isn't obvious to me, but for the reasoning that with 6 million, say, dead, is one more really a big deal?

But this relativistic value being placed on one life is precisely what leads to the problems from the outset. So that reasoning cannot be good.

Maria Maltseva said...

I look at it as punishing a wolf for the act of being a wolf. It benefits everyone to train it or to restrain it, but not to kill it. The number of the wolf's victims don't matter. Of course, the morality of killing members of a different species is a different question, but for practical purposes the reasoning seems the same. What is best for everyone in the scenario, killer included? And that's restitution and restraint. I'm not sure I would object to giving a killer the right to elect humane, medical execution, however. But that's a different discussion.