rights in developing countries while sustainably ending the
February 2017, revised October 2018
Information on my withdrawn 2012 text on the death penalty and climate denial: EnglishDeutsch
Comparing gigantic crimes and tragedies
a few thousand criminals are killed by their own governments;
ten million people die in connection with poverty caused by an
unfair global economic system (by which I mean that the rich countries
could have all but eliminated this death toll by now, if they wanted
comparable number (perhaps ten million) of children in developing
countries are effectively put on death row by the greenhouse gas
emissions of the richer countries (by which I mean that climate change,
in conjunction with poverty, will cause their premature deaths in
The first point is well known. It is promising that roughly
half of the world's people oppose this archaic form of punishment.
Unfortunately, the other half still consider the death penalty to
justified response to the "most serious crimes".
If the death penalty is enormously shocking, the death toll in
connection with poverty is much more so. If we consider that every
human life has the same value (regardless of any criminal guilt), then
the problem expressed in the second point above is at least a thousand
times worse than the first. A thousand times! For every executed
criminal, a thousand innocent people die prematurely because of
poverty. We should, one might argue, give this problem a thousand times
the attention we give to the challenge of ending the death
As stated, the third point is as bad as the second. If so,
it should also receive a thousand times more attention than the death
penalty. The third point is even more shocking than the second, because
it is largely ignored -- even by development aid organisations and
human rights groups -- as if those millions of children did not exist.
I am talking about the prediction that climate change caused by
our emissions is effectively killing some ten million future people
(many of whom are children today) every year. As I will show, this is
not a radical or exaggerated claim.
The inherent inconsistency of the death penalty
Death-penalty supporters usually advocate this "ultimate punishment" for the most serious crimes. But they disagree
about what those crimes might be. Getting those people to change their minds is one of the great challenges of our time.
principles of conflict resolution can be useful. A fruitful discussion might
begin by considering their specific
arguments and fears, taking both seriously and considering their
implications before proceeding. Most people on both sides of this conflict agree in principle that
human lives have equal value (regardless of age, gender, skin color
etc.) and that nothing is more important for humans than human lives.
It follows that the most serious crimes are those that cause the
largest numbers of deaths. A systematic analysis of
the deaths indirectly caused by the decisions and activities
influential people in modern politics and business reveals that
many influential individuals are currently indirectly causing thousands
or even millions of present or future deaths. Calculations of this kind involve order-of-magnitude estimates of possible outcomes and their
probabilities, and theories of risk assessment and expected values.
That being the case, those who consider the
death penalty to be justified in response to the "most serious crimes" should favor the death penalty for such highly
influential people and
not for those who
cause “only” one or a few deaths. It follows
that death-penalty supporters should favor the release of all criminals
currently on death row in
all countries. But those
supporters also realise that for political reasons the death penalty is
not a realistic option for
rich, famous, or influential people, either.
The surprising upshot of this analysis is that death-penalty
supporters, if they
consistently follow their own principles, must logically oppose the
death penalty in all cases. That is a promising realisation. An open
public discussion along these lines could slowly but surely reduce the number of
death-penalty supporters, sustainably ending the death penalty in
The death penalty is not today's biggest human rights issue. Global
poverty and global
warming are even more serious. Taken together, they could cause a
billion deaths later this
century. The victims will die prematurely from various
causes including preventable hunger, disease, and violence. The
proposed approach to ending the death penalty would accelerate progress
sustainable solutions for both global poverty and global warming
by clarifying and highlighting the contributions of individual
influential global players. Their responsibility would be exposed and
they would find themselves under unprecedented pressure to promote
The approach of Amnesty International
I first became aware of Amnesty International's position on the death penalty in
when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed by a military
following a short show trial. Most people responded as the media did,
expressing relief that this cruel dictator was finally dead.
explained, as they have always done, that this is an inappropriate
response. The death penalty is never justified, even in such extreme
cases. All criminals, including the very worst, should be tried fairly
by a court of law, and the worst punishment should be indefinite
imprisonment. According to this principle, even the worst Nazi
Holocaust perpetrators convicted at the Nuremburg trials should not
have been executed.
I remember being surprised by this argument at first. Then I realised
that Amnesty was right. Theirs is the only
consistent position. Among other things, it is consistent with the
overarching aim of reducing or eliminating violence with the ultimate
aim of improving security and quality of life for people
everywhere. If we decide on this basis to reject violence altogether, we must
reject both torture and the death penalty.
If we want to punish someone for killing other people, we had better
practice what we preach and avoid violence. There are many other reasons for completely and absolutely
ending the death penalty, as listed here.
this issue is so important, Amnesty has been at the top of my list of
charities since I moved to Austria in 1998, when I started donating
over 100 Euros per year. Amnesty also addresses many other issues
in the area of human rights. Please support Amnesty.
In 2008, the infamous Austrian politician Jörg
died in a car accident of his own causing. For decades, Haider
had dragged Austrian politics back in the direction of fascism. He had
caused more damage to the country its inhabitants and reputation than
anyone else. By fanning the flames of racism for decades, he probably
indirectly caused thousands of deaths. When he died, some lefties and
greenies celebrated. Alexander van der Bellen, the green politician who
later became Austrian president, was not among them, and neither was I.
Vdb reminded us
that every death is a tragedy, and he was right.
the death penalty is one of the great challenges of our time. The
problem is not only important for its own sake - a world without the
death penalty would also be a world with more respect for human life
generally. It would be a world with less violence of all kinds. The
best way to stop people being killed is to stop participating in the
The problem involves both politics and education. A Gallup poll in 2000
revealed that about half of all people in the world still support the
death penalty (more).
This is astonishing when you consider the clarity and simplicity of the
arguments against it, and the consistency with which these
arguments have been presented for so many decades by Amnesty
International and the United Nations. Surely people have realised by
now that the death penalty never achieves anything?
Attitudes to the death penalty depend on many factors. First, there are
differences between countries and regions. For example, support is
higher in the US than in Western Europe. Then there are effects of
"race" - within the USA, apparently most whites are in favor and most
against, and there is an appalling positive relationship between racism
and death-penalty support (more).
Beyond that, there is an inverse
relation between educational level and support for the death penalty.
The better your education, the more likely you are to realise that the
death penalty is never justified. One solution, then, is to
improve education for everyone, which is also important for its own
Another is to find
clear, direct ways to convince people that the death penalty
never justified, which is the main aim of this statement.
Talking to death-penalty
How can we, the opponents of the death penalty, most efficiently
achieve our goal of a world without it? There has been some progress in
recent decades, but it was excruciatingly slow. Somehow we need to
sustainably change the attitudes of large numbers of people. How can
that be achieved?
One option is to insist repeatedly and publicly that the death penalty
is never justified, explaining the main arguments, again and again in
different ways. The strategy may be most effective in connection with
specific cases in which death-penalty supporters might feel empathy
with a specific victim. That might just finally change their attitude.
This is essentially the strategy of Amnesty International, and I fully
But focusing on a few individual cases means that the overwhelming
majority of cases get no publicity at all. We need more information
about more individual victims in the media. Take the case of China,
where some two thousand people are killed by their government every
year. The exact number is a state secret. People are mainly convicted
for murder and drug trafficking, but also for a long list of what we
might consider lesser crimes. The death penalty appears to have the
support of most Chinese citizens. How does one respond to that?
Another strategy is first to take the arguments of the death-penalty
supporters seriously, and then attempt to contradict them. We can even
found our arguments on their arguments. A common argument is that the
most serious crimes should be punished by death, because "they
deserve it" (the idea that revenge is ok), or because "an eye for an
eye" is somehow fair, or because death acts as the best deterrent.
Whatever the justification, this line of argument immediately raises a
interesting question. What are "the most serious crimes", in fact?
Imagine how a well-informed, well-educated death-penalty supporter might respond to the following argument.
1. From a human rights perspective, the
most important value that we as humans have is the value of a human
life. Every life has the same value, regardless of age,
gender, skin color, disability, and so on.
If our death-penalty
supporter could agree with that, and it is hard to disagree with it,
then our discussion might move to the next stage.
2. The most serious crimes are those that cause the largest numbers of premature
deaths. Causing suffering can be almost as serious as causing death,
but for the sake of argument we can begin by considering only crimes
that cause many deaths.
Ok. The second point follows directly from the first. If our friendly opponent agrees with that, we are ready for
the third stage.
3. Which people in the world are causing the
largest numbers of deaths? Genocide is an obvious example, but it is not the only one. If we look at what is happening in
international politics, international trade, exploitation of developing
countries, tax evasion, the arms trade, military campaigns, climate
denial and so on, it is possible identify individuals who are
indirectly causing large numbers of deaths.
For many people, this is an eye-opener, to be sure. But it is hard to
argue against it. If for example we agree that climate change is caused
by humans, and climate change is causing future deaths, and some people
are more responsible then others, then it is obvious that some people
are causing more future deaths than others.
I will explain these
ideas in more detail below. The explanation involves estimating numbers of future deaths in specific cases by combining evidence from
different sources and estimating the probabilities of different
conceivable outcomes (risk assessment theory). For
the moment, I am interested in the possibility of convincing
death-penalty supporters to change their stance by arguing in this
But that is not all. If we are serious about defending human rights,
and I for one am
serious about it, we can then take another step. The next step is to
substantiate claims about the future deaths caused by individuals
in interdisciplinary academic research and forward the results to
courts of law including the International Criminal Court. After that,
even staunch death penalty supporters who insist on the death penalty
for the "most serious crimes" will have to agree that the death penalty
warranted for crimes that involve "only" a few deaths or even
deaths at all, because such crimes are obviously much less serious than
the "most serious crimes" -- the ones they think the death penalty will
simple realisation could stop most executions.
Criminal Court might then proceed to try the most serious criminals,
considering the results of the academic research. But the maximum
sentence handed down by the ICC is life imprisonment. Besides, most
death-penalty supporters have not thought about whether they would
support the death penalty for rich, famous, or highly influential
people; put on the spot, they would probably instinctively reject it,
realising that it is politically unrealistc. In this way, the death
penalty would suddenly be history.
presented a similar argument elsewhere, a few years ago, and
completely misunderstood. My aim was to shock -- to wake people up to
the urgency of
the fundamental right to life of a billion people in developing
countries. Our unfair global economic system, combined with global
warming, is effectively putting a billion people on death row. With a
certain probability, a billion innocent people will die prematurely as
an indirect result of the conscious actions of other people. From a
human-rights perspective, that is surely the biggest scandal in the
history of humanity. Nothing could be more important than defending the
life of people in developing countries, and I mean actually doing that
rather than just talking about it. I am still waiting for people to
understand that. more
The case of Singapore
Singapore is a beautiful place. But to my knowledge the
majority of the population still supports the death penalty for murder,
drug offences and a list of other crimes. Singapore is not alone in
this regard, of course - but allow me to use it as a quasi-random
I met a lovely Singaporean
family once. They were the nicest people - I could have invited them
for dinner. The mother explained to me that her two boys could die if
became addicted to illegal drugs, and she was right. I also have
children and sometimes I worry about that too. Therefore, she said, the
government is right to execute drug traffickers.
At the time I was so
shocked that I didn't know what to say. In retrospect I should have
pointed out that killing a drug trafficker only increases the number
of deaths that we could have prevented. It is more effective to put the
culprit behind bars, where s/he can't traffic any more drugs.
kind lady thought that it was unfairto
allow someone to live who might risk the lives of her children. What I
should have said in reply is this. Her idea of fairness was based on
revenge, which is surely a primitive emotion. Should we not instead try
rational solution - to this and other problems in the world?
Moreover, every executed drug trafficker also has a
mother, and how do you think she feels about it? And besides, how can
you be sure that your own children will never be caught trafficking
drugs into Singapore? The children of the nicest people get into all
kinds of trouble when they start to get adventurous and want to test
the limits, and everyone can make a mistake. That's no excuse for drug
trafficking, but it is certainly not a reason to kill someone.
If she was still not convinced, I would ask if she was religious, and
then ask what her god or holy scriptures say about killing people, or
about appropriate attitudes towards one's enemies.
summarizing: it's always possible to jail criminals for an
indefinite period and in that way to ensure with high probability that
no one will come to harm, let alone be killed. That is always better
than killing someone. These days, criminals
seldom escape from high security, and if they do they are soon tracked
down and recaptured (more).
Five quasi-universal principles
way to meet death-penalty supporters eye to eye, and eventually
convince them to change their minds or at least soften their stance, is
to break the problem down into smaller components. In the following, I
will consider five quasi-universal principles of justice and punishment
that just about everyone understands and agrees with. On that basis, I
will show that the death penalty is never justified. If a
death-penalty supporter agrees with all five principles, and it is hard
to disagree with any of them, then it follows logically that she or he
should agree to change her or his mind.
I will again attempt to acknowledge what is good
or correct about the arguments of the death-penalty supporters before
proceeding to contradict
them, as far
using their own language or ways of thinking. For this I will attempt
to apply general principles of conflict resolution, which according to Wikipedia
(16.11.2017) include "actively communicating information about ...
conflicting motives or ideologies ... (e.g., intentions; reasons for
holding certain beliefs), and ... engaging in collective negotiation".
Every child knows that the
size or a punishment should be proportional to the size of the crime.
parents have traditionally trained their children to understand and
respect rules of
social behavior. Anything else would be unfair. The
same should apply in every court of law. This is the principle of proportionality, and it is
often considered to be
universal. Presumably, most members of every known culture in the world
would agree with it.
Societies all over the world have followed this idea to its apparently
logical conclusion, claiming that most serious crimes should be
punished by torture or death. The
most serious crimes have often been seen as those that contradict
social order as reflected by the current power structure. This has
given rulers since time immemorial an excuse to torture or
kill their enemies. Their other subjects were afraid to
lest they suffer the same fate, creating a rule of terror. The torture
chambers in the dungeons of European castles show how frighteningly
recent such attitudes are. But the traditional legal systems
of many nomadic and indigenous cultures also included death
raises an interesting question. What are the "worst crimes", in fact?
Even death-penalty advocates will agree that every human life
the same value. Anything else would be
blatantly racist, sexist, ageist, or some other kind of -ist. After
all, many death-penalty advocates are also
opposed to abortion. Their "pro-life"
position is based on the equal value of every human life. They merely
take this idea too far and forget that women also have equal rights,
which include reproductive rights.
On that basis, most people will agree that the worst crimes are those
that cause the
largest numbers of deaths. Therefore, the principle of
proportionality suggests that the death penalty is justified for
genocide and similar
offenses. But genocide is not the only way one person can cause
enormous numbers of deaths. Other examples include the fossil fuel
industry, whose activities are enabled and supported by influential
climate denial networks. This industry could indirectly be causing
millions of future deaths.
death penalty will
never be applied in such
cases, and we can be glad about that. First, the ICC rejects the death
penalty. Second, the accused
would have too much political power and influence. Third, from a
democratic viewpoint, most
people would consider it absurd to apply the death
penalty in these cases.
But if these cases are absurd, surely the death penalty is generally
the principle of proportionality cannot be applied
consistently to the death penalty.
That makes the death penalty inherently unfair, which alone
is a good reason never to apply it.
But even that is not the main point. The main point is to defend the
basic human rights of a billion people in developing countries.
Footnote on risk
assessment using order-of magnitude estimates
Before continuing, I should explain in detail what I mean by
theory to this problem. Risk assessment theory essentially says that
the size of a risk is proportional to the magnitude of a possible
future loss multiplied by the probability the event will occur. Expressed mathematically, the risk R is the loss L
in scenario i
multiplied by the probability
p of that
p(Li). More generally, the risk is a sum of such products:
R = ∑Li
Consider the case of financial risk. A company might estimate the
probability of losing a certain amount of money in the next ten years
and then buy insurance to cover that situation. The amount they should
reasonably pay for that insurance is calculated by risk assessment
theory. In insurance companies, actuaries calculate fees
for different kinds of insurance (premiums) similarly. These are
everyday ideas that large numbers of people understand. We may
therefore confidently predict that the application of these ideas to
the task of saving human lives will also be widely understood.
the end of this century, hunger,
disease, and violence resulting from global warming could kill hundreds
of millions of people. Given what we now know about global
warming, global politics, global economics, and global poverty, we can
estimate that the probability of such a future scenario is moderate
(neither high nor low). According to risk-assessment theory, if 200
million people will die with a
probability of 50%, that is like 100 million dying with a probability
of 100%. Given the unpredictable size of climate
feedback effects and interactions between different effects of global
warming, climate change could in fact kill billions. If one billion die
probability of 10%, that is the same as 100 million dying with a
probability of 100%. The estimates in these examples are deliberately
conservative - people familiar with the detailed predictions of climate
science, the multiple interacting consequences of climate change, and
the dependency of human food and water supplies on fragile ecosystems,
may predict even larger numbers of deaths.
Another relevant example is the
condom ban of the Catholic church. During the 1980s and 1990s, the
probably indirectly caused millions of AIDS deaths by restricting
access to a life-saving device, especially in the most seriously
affected African countries. In the 1980s, one could have predicted on
the basis of existing knowledge that by lifting the
condom ban perhaps 10% of future AIDS deaths could be prevented. One
could also have predicted that, given the way the epidemic was going,
perhaps 10 million would altogether die from AIDS. Therefore, lifting
the ban would effectively have saved 10% of 10 million lives, or one
million. This is only an order-of-magnitude estimate, but when
considering such extraordinarily important issues, any quantitative
estimate is better than none at all. What actually happened is that
altogether some 40 million people died of AIDS; in retrospect, we can
still say that this number would probably have been roughly 10% smaller
if the Catholic church had lifted its condom ban in the 1980s. This is
an order-of magnitude estimate: the proportion is certainly much
smaller than 100% and certainly much larger than 1%. One could go
further and study in detail the political decisions within the Catholic
church that led to its failure to withdraw the ban in spite of strong
pressure from the medical profession and international aid workers over
many years. On that basis, one could assign responsibility for large
numbers of deaths to individual players within the church, again using
order-of-magnitude estimates. If we were serious about defending human
rights (and I am sure Jesus would agree with me on this), that is what
we would be doing.
An even more important example is the fossil fuel industry. I have
that we kill one future person every time we burn a thousand tons of
carbon. This again is no more than an order-of-magnitude estimate.
Again, in such extraordinarily important cases a rough estimate is
better than no estimate at all. In short, the argument runs like this:
if we burn a trillion tons of coal altogether (we are halfway there),
we will increase mean global temperature by two degrees Celcius, which
in turn will probably increase the global preventable death rate from
10 million to 20 million per year over a period of a century, which
will effectively cause the premature deaths of a billion people. A
trillion divided by a billion is a thousand. We can continue the
argument by identifying the most influential players in the fossil fuel
industry, including influential climate deniers such as the powerful
climate-denying politicians who have been blocking international
climate talks for decades, and ask how much carbon they have indirectly
caused to be burned during their lives, or -- seen another way -- how
much carbon would not have been burned if they had lived quite
different lives. In this way it is possible to claim that a given
person has caused a given large number of deaths, and in many cases it
is reasonably possible to argue that this number is in the thousands or
even millions. Conversely, it is also possible that a given influential
politician might have indirectly saved thousands or millions of lives
in other ways.
It is not my role to make these calculations in specific cases, but I
do wish to claim that if we are serious about defending human rights,
this is a critically important project. Many academics representing
many different academic disciplines should be working on it. Given how
much is at stake, there should also be an institution in place that
guarantees the neutrality and safety of the researchers. After
extensive peer-review procedures, comparable to those of the IPCC for
climate science summaries, the results should be made available to the
International Criminal Court.
Equality and human rights
universal principle of justice that every child understands is this:
Everyone is equal before the law. Everyone should have the same
opportunity. If my brother gets an icecream, I should get one
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN adopted in
1948, goes into detail about how different people can and
be treated equally, in different ways and situations. Equality is
addressed directly in Article 7: "All are equal before the law and are
entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law."
The declaration contains a
problematic ambiguity: it does not explicitly prohibit the death
penalty, but two of its articles clearly point to such a
prohibition. Article 3 says "Everyone has the right to life,
and security of person." If "everyone" includes convicted criminals,
then they also have the right to life. Article 5 says "No one shall be
subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment." The death penalty is obviously all three of these
things: cruel, inhuman, and degrading.
Some of the countries that adopted the declaration have nevertheless
continued to kill their political opponents. Does their
right hand know what their left hand is doing?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is surely one of humanity's greatest achievements.
It was a reaction
to the Holocaust - the worst crime of all time. A
primary aim was to prevent a recurrence of genocide. The confusion
about the death penalty may have to do with events
immediately following the war. In 1945,
few people thought it was problematic that the
worst Nazi criminals would be executed. Their punishment seemed small
comparison to their crimes. Anyway, people were still traumatized by
the horrors of war. They were relieved that they had
with day-to-day problems. A few decades later, at the trials that
followed the Rwandan genocide,
the world had changed. The prevailing international legal opinion was
that the death penalty was never justified, but within Rwanda it was
still an accepted part of law.
In hindsight we can look back and see that
even the executions following the Nuremburg trials were wrong, because
all executions are wrong. It may seem obvious now, but this attitude is
relatively recent and it seems that many people still disagree with it,
even in liberal Europe.
The death penalty contradicts the principle of equality in other
important ways. People
connections are often exempt, because they can indirectly influence
proceedings. A jury is less likely to agree to a death sentence if the
accused otherwise has a good reputation. Another well-known problem is
that those who belong to the right "race"
are executed less often. In the USA, for example, there is a strong and
consistent tendency to execute more blacks than whites relative to the
proportion of blacks and whites in the population. Although the reasons
for this are complex, we can still reasonably claim that the death
penalty is part of a racist social system and argue that it should be
abandoned for that reason alone.
3. Avoiding hypocrisy
A third popular moral principle that every child understands is this:
Those who administer justice should practice what they preach.If
I am a child and my dad says I should spend less time staring at my
mobile phone, he
should do the same. Christians and others who have read and thought
about the gospel stories know how important it is to identify and
I will call this the hypocrisy principle. A positive label
would be preferable, and integrity
are candidates; but those words are also used in a more general way.
To avoid hypocrisy, the state should obey its own laws.
corruption in the private sector
is illegal, the government should not engage in it.
If it is
steal, the state should not steal either. Taxes are an obvious
exception: money is created by the state on the implicit
condition that citizens will play according to the rules and fund the
state's operations according to their means.
If it is
illegal to sell a
gun to someone who might use it to kill someone else, the state should
not allow the sale of weapons to another state that might use them to
kill people. The only way to uphold this principle unambiguously is to
stop all international arms sales.
If it is
illegal to kill except in
self-defense, the state should not kill except in self-defense.
This counts out not only the death penalty but also all
foreign military escapades that do not clearly have the character of
self-defense, which includes most US foreign bombing raids
since 1945 (more).
implication is clear. Individuals should not kill except in
self-defense, and neither should the state. Evidently, many people
don't get this. But in reality nothing could be simpler.
The role of premeditation
Every child knows that you should not do bad things on purpose.
Accidents can be forgiven, but not carefully planned acts of mischief.
In law, this is the principle of premeditation. Premeditated crimes are
more serious and attract larger punishments than accidental
death penalty can be seen as a form of premeditated murder. The state
decides to kill after a
long and careful procedure. I have already mentioned hypocrisy. What
could be more hypocritical than that?
Of course a judge must think long and hard, and consult all
relevant witnesses, experts, and juries, before sentencing someone to
death. But the similarity between this process and premeditated murder
is striking and cannot be ignored. The only reasonable solution is to
abandon the death penalty altogether.
Every child knows that their parents make mistakes. If children are
playing and something goes wrong, the parents are unlikely to know the
whole story. They have to reconstruct it, and in the
wrong person can be blamed.
The same is true for courts of law: the evidence is never complete, and
judgments are often incorrect. The unjustly accused therefore have the
right to take their case to a higher instance. The right to appeal is
enshrined in the legal systems of most countries: If you think the
court made a mistake, you can take your case to a higher level or
Usually this system works, but there is a big exception. The death
penalty denies the right to appeal. You can't appeal if you are dead.
Summarizing so far, I have presented five quasi-universal legal
proportionality, equality, (avoidance
of) hypocrisy, (the
role of) premeditation, and error management. The death penalty is
inconsistent with each one of them.
principle of proportionality seems at first glance to be consistent
with the death penalty, but for political reasons it is impossible to
apply the death penalty in a proportional fashion.
death penalty contradicts the principle of equality in two ways. First,
it contradicts the legal foundations of equality as set out in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Second, in practice people with
connections or the right "race" are executed less often.
death penalty is hypocritical. If the state declares that it is illegal
for citizens to kill each other except in self-defence, it should
follow its own rules.
crimes are worse than accidental ones. The death penalty can be
premeditated murder by the state.
courts can make mistakes. Usually, they can be corrected by appeal
processes. The death penalty eliminates this possibility.
aim of punishment
There is another basic issue in legal philosophy lurking here. What is
aim of punishment, in fact? Is it to exact revenge? Is it to
protect society from a dangerous person? Is it to teach someone a
lesson in the hope that they will never do that bad thing again? Is it
to give someone time to think about what happened and develop a new
personal identity that rejects crime?
If we are willing to take responsibility for the society we live in,
and care about our children who will inherit our world after we die, we
realise that the most
important aim of punishment is to reduce the
probability that the crime in question will happen again in
future. If we apply that principle consistently, the crime
gradually and sustainably approach zero. We might call this the
death-penalty supporters believe that the death penalty achieves this
by acting as a deterrent to serious crimes. The trouble is, the
research does not on the whole support this
belief, although the results of some empirical studies are unclear (more).
if the death penalty did work as a deterrent, that would not justify
it, for the other reasons I have presented. In any case, there is a more reliable way to
reduce the probability of
serious crimes from murder to genocide, and that is to work toward a
society in which such crimes
are unthinkable. A society that selectively kills its own
is not such a society.
Non-violence in ethics and
major religions the world over teach variants of "Thou shall
not kill" (more) as an
absolute principle with specific exceptions. The main exceptions are self defense,
war, and execution. The reasons for these exceptions in ancient texts
may be specific to social and cultural context. Traditional
justifications for executions are no longer considered valid, and war
is more problematic than it used to be. But there is still general
agreement, even among pacifists, that killing is justified in clear
cases of self-defense.
Religious scriptures are not perfect, and they are
often ambiguous about the pros and cons of violence, "holy war", "just
war" and so on. But contrary to popular belief, Islam is not worse in
respect. Check out the more bloodthirsty passages in the Old Testament
before criticizing the Quran.
Everyone's talking about jihad and Islam, but hardly anyone
what these words actually mean. Jihad refers primarily to the
of all Muslims to
exert themselves to realise God’s will and lead good
lives. The word has another well-known, shocking meaning, but that is
not the primary
meaning. The word "islam" itself refers to submission or surrender to
the will of
which is the exact opposite of violence. The related word "salam" or
"salaam" additionally refers to peace, well-being, safety (more).
Concepts of Allah, Yayweh and God in the Abrahamic religions are almost
referring to an all-powerful, all-merciful, all-knowing, compassionate, provident
being. In the (omni-) presence of the ultimate judge of
humankind, humility is required - the opposite of violence.
Like other religions, Islam is ultimately based on love (more).
overwhelming tendency in (monotheistic and other) religions and their
rituals is to
promote a peace-loving attitude. The origin of this ancient
evidently the simple
realisation that the best way to sustainably reduce violence is to stop
participating in it.
right that the human tendency toward violence is gradually subsiding.
The trouble is, global catastrophes enabled by modern technology
climate change, genetically modified disease) may overtake us before
the death penalty finally disappears from the planet.
The aim of effective altruism
is to maximize the good that one does for the world. One tries to do as
much good as possible for the largest possible number of people. One
tries to be altruistic in the most efficient way, preventing the
largest amount of suffering or promoting the largest amount of
well-being by applying the same limited resources (such as the time or
money that I personally have available). This can be done by thinking
rationally and logically about a given problem and also by developing
general theories of effective altruism.
The arguments that I have presented above are intended as examples.
Suppose we want to maximize reduction of suffering in the world. One
way to do that is to identify the ultimate causes
of suffering and try to prevent them. Ideally, we should start by
looking for the biggest sources of the biggest amounts of suffering. If
we can succeed in inhibiting these processes with a
reasonable probability, suffering will be reduced as much as
Apart from natural phenomena such as earthquakes or tsunamis, the
biggest sources of suffering today are influential people who
indirectly or unintentionally cause others to suffer. These people
might be corporate CEOs, rich people, or political leaders. Their
decisions can indirectly or unintentionally cause thousands or even
millions of deaths, especially (but not only) in developing countries.
In probability theory, these order-of-magnitude estimates are
called expected values.
Imagine that it were possible to run history repeatedly and see what
happens under different conditions, starting from the global situation
as we see it today. In the film Groundhog Day, Phil
Connors (played by Bill Murray) got stuck in a time loop: he kept
living the same day over and over again. He discovered that he was able
to radically change how that one day turned out by changing his
attitude. The moral or ethical implications are enormous. In politics
we can think about how the world might look in ten years if different
things were to happen in the meantime. What if there was more or
less tax evasion, burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, or
exploitation of developing countries? Significant changes in any of
these areas could enormously change the global annual number of
preventable deaths and amount of preventable suffering. If we could
identify people who are indirectly and unintentionally causing enormous
numbers of human deaths in this way, and are also well informed about
the likely human consequences of their actions, and if we could somehow
stop them from operating (e.g. by putting them in jail), we
could enormously reduce the total amount of suffering in the
world. That would be one way to achieve the main goals of effective
According to Wikipedia, "Criminal Law proscribes conduct perceived as
threatening, harmful, or otherwise endangering to the property, health,
safety, and moral welfare of people." In this way, criminal law has
prevented enormous amounts of suffering in the past, and it continues
to do so in the present. But it has always been hard to identify the
biggest criminals (the ones that cause the most suffering),
because their political power makes it hard to punish them. (I could
not find anything about this point in the literature on effective
altruism, but it is possible that I am looking in the wrong
place. The discussion about criminal justice reform
addresses a different problem, namely the relatively large number of
people in US prisons.)
There is a lot of misleading information in the intenet about the 2012
"Death penalty for global warming deniers?" affair. To find out what actually
happened, follow this link.
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