I hope you all enjoyed today’s talk!
Since this is the first post of the quarter, let me make a few preliminary remarks. First, I will be posting on this blog every Friday before 5pm regarding the day’s talk. Your blog responses should be posted as comments to my post (again, you need to write 6 responses this quarter, and they should be ~300 words). Second, in my post, I will usually offer some suggestions as to what you could address in your responses. Today’s talk was great in that Prof. Marshall really emphasized the ethical issues involved in the death penalty, especially from the point of view of a reformer like himself. Oftentimes, the ethical issues will be less obvious– so my suggestions will try to bring them out. Third, I encourage you to make your responses as much of a part of a discussion as possible! Try to respond to the thoughts of those who posted before you, agreeing where you see fit, disagreeing where you see fit.
Now to today’s talk. Prof. Marshall’s talk on the death penalty was filled with ethical problems and questions, and many of them were obvious– feel free to comment on any of them. But his three main points were as follows. He first talked about the ethics of devoting so much human resources to save the life of a single man (remember the surgeon who challenged him at the cocktail party). Second, he talked about the possibility of “Friendly Fire”; If the death penalty is an effective deterrent, then the abolition of the death penalty would allow for a lot of violence that would not have existed with the death penalty. Third, Prof. Marshall talked about the worry that, in advocating the abolition of the death penalty, one is oftentimes advocating an alternative (though perhaps lesser) evil– life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
To start the discussion off, I want to offer two thoughts in response. First, I wonder how legitimate the surgeon’s challenge to Prof. Marshall was. Are we really morally required to spend our resources in the most efficient way possible? If that were the case, then I guess Prof. Marshall would have been required to say no to the plea of the wrongfully convicted death row inmate to review the case– he would have been required to say something like, “Sorry, I have to spend my time dealing with other problems in this world, and I realize that your life may have been wrongfully taken away from you, but I am morally required not to help you.” I think there is a pretty strong intuition that something has gone wrong there. Perhaps what we’re required to do is not to spend our resources in the most efficient way possible, but rather not to ignore the moral injustices that come to our attention, given the sort of life that we’re leading.
Second, I want to offer one way of thinking about the death penalty– i.e., within the framework of a theory of punishment in general. I’ve heard at least four general functions of punishment that legitimize the state’s use of it– punishment as retribution, punishment as rehabilitation, punishment as prevention, and punishment as deterrent. Retribution is the idea that the society can “get back” at the criminal for the crime; rehabilitation is the idea that the society, through punishment, rehabilitates the criminal by “teaching” him that the crime was wrong; prevention is the idea that the society can remove the criminal from society in order to prevent that criminal from engaging in future crimes; and deterrent is the idea that punishment serves as a general reason for people not to commit crimes. You can read about more of these functions (and much more on the philosophy of punishment) here. But given this framework for understanding what punishment is supposed to do, how well does the death penalty serve the functions of punishment?
Those are just two thoughts that I have, but as I mentioned before, feel free to comment on anything that Prof. Marshall talked about, or, even more broadly, anything that is relevant to his talk!
And, as always, feel free to email me with any questions or concerns (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Looking forward to reading your responses!