Yet again, in the can't tell if trolling category, we have Ross Douthat, New York Times Columnist, arguing for the death penalty. It's the not fact of arguing for it (full and irrelevant disclosure: I think we're better off without it), it's the way he does. His argument has all of the earmarks of a sophistry challenge:
This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.
Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.
Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.
That Troy Davis's likely unjust (and therefore actually unjust) execution inspired people to care about his fate is not an argument in favor of the death penalty anymore than the outpouring of blood donation and patriotism was an argument for 9/11. Some in the public responded in the appropriate moral way to an atrocity. Good for them. But the atrocity is not the reason for their being moral. Take away that atrocity and they can be moral about something else–like prison reform, about which many already care death penalty aside–Douthat's insinuation is a false dichotomy (it's either death penalty elimination or broader prison reform!).
There's too much that's just awful here to comment on. Here, however, is the worst of the worst:
Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.
And thus the sophistry challenge. Eliminating the big injustices would merely (albeit justifiably) undermine confidence in the unjust system. That would be unjust.
2 thoughts on “Just is”
A question: is the issue of guilt being compressed with the issue of punishment here, John? Douthat's challenge is that of 'moral evasion' of the punishment, which if any moderate retributivitst theory is right, follows, is one of political efficiency.
If retributivism is right in outline, then D's line of argument isn't that far off the mark. Maybe this isn't a logical issue, but an ethical one.
Douthat's challenge, or part of it (as I see it) is that if we abolish capital punishment because of the chance of executing the innocent, then we are engaging in moral evasion. But the only way to make that claim is to suppose three things: (1) that the opponents of the death penalty don't have other reasons; and (2) that people claim getting rid of capital punishment is sufficient moral work for our world, (3) that the death penalty is the only alternative to "utilitarianism" and "cynicism" (don't know why those go together).
One of the reasons CP is wrong, so some would argue, is that can never be fairly imposed. This does not entail utilitarianism, I think, or cynicism.
Comments are closed.