Promoting human rights in developing countries while sustainably ending the death penalty

Richard Parncutt 

February 2017, revised October 2018

Information on my withdrawn 2012 text on the death penalty and climate denial: English Deutsch

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Comparing gigantic crimes and tragedies

Every year,
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 be a 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 penalty. 

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.

General 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 of 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 paradoxically that death-penalty supporters should favor the release of all criminals currently on death row in all countries. But those same death-penalty 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 every country.

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 toward 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 majority interests.

The approach of Amnesty International

I first became aware of Amnesty International's position on the death penalty in December 1989 when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed by a military tribunal following a short show trial. Most people responded as the media did, expressing relief that this cruel dictator was finally dead.

Amnesty 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 universally 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.

Since 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 Haider 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 challenge

Eliminating 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 killing.

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 blacks are 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 sake. Another is to find clear, direct ways to convince people that the death penalty is never justified, which is the main aim of this statement.

Talking to death-penalty supporters

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 support it.

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 fashion.

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 is not warranted for crimes that involve "only" a few  deaths or even no deaths at all, because such crimes are obviously much less serious than the "most serious crimes" -- the ones they think the death penalty will prevent.This simple realisation could stop most executions.

The
International 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.

I presented a similar argument elsewhere, a few years ago, and was completely misunderstood. My aim was to shock -- to wake people up to the urgency of defending 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 right to 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 example.

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 they 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.

That 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 to find a 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.

Just 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 of punishment

Another 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 as possible 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".

1. Proportionality

Every child knows that the size or a punishment should be proportional to the size of the crime. That's how 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 disagree 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 penalties.

That raises an interesting question. What are the "worst crimes", in fact? Even death-penalty advocates will agree that every human life has 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.

But the 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 absurd? Clearly, 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 applying 
risk assessment 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 scenario: R = Li p(Li). More generally, the risk is a sum of such products: R = ∑Li p(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 payable 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.

Toward 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 with a 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 condom ban 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 Catholic 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 argued elsewhere 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.


2. Equality and human rights

A second 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 too. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN adopted in 1948, goes into detail about how different people can and should 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, liberty 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 by comparison to their crimes. Anyway, people were still traumatized by the horrors of war. They were relieved that they had survived, and preoccupied 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 with good 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 avoid hypocrisy.

I will call this the hypocrisy principle. A positive label would be preferable, and integrity and consistency are candidates; but those words are also used in a more general way.

To avoid hypocrisy, the state should obey its own laws.
The 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.

4. 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 crimes.

The 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.

5. Error management

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 process 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 instance.

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.

Implications

Summarizing so far, I have presented five quasi-universal legal principles: proportionality, equality,
(avoidance of) hypocrisy, (the role of) premeditation, and error management. The death penalty is inconsistent with each one of them.
The aim of punishment

There is another basic issue in legal philosophy lurking here. What is the 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 the future. If we apply that principle consistently, the crime rate should gradually and sustainably approach zero. We might call this the sustainability principle.

Many 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). But even 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 people is not such a society.

Non-violence in ethics and religion

All 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 this 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 knows what these words actually mean. Jihad refers primarily to the duty 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 God, 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 identical (more), 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). The overwhelming tendency in (monotheistic and other) religions and their rituals is to promote a peace-loving attitude. The origin of this ancient wisdom is evidently the simple realisation that the best way to sustainably reduce violence is to stop participating in it.


Hopefully Steven Pinker is right that the human tendency toward violence is gradually subsiding. The trouble is, global catastrophes enabled by modern technology (nuclear war, climate change, genetically modified disease) may overtake us before the death penalty finally disappears from the planet.

Effective altruism 

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 possible.

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 altruism.

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.)

Further information

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.


Apart from the excerpts from emails, the opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at parncutt@gmx.at.
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