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THW abolish the death penalty in the United States

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adminadmin (PRO)
I'd like to thank my opponent for setting up this debate. I'm blatantly going to copy my case from my previous debate on the topic.

At the outset, this side of the house would like to emphasize that this is not a model debate, but rather one that focuses on the merits and demerits of the death penalty. As such any "ban" could be imagined as a moral realization, rather than an imposition of some agency other than the governments themselves. To put it another way, the debate is about whether and why the death penalty could be banned, not how such a ban would be enforced.

We feel that the death penalty is unjust in nations rich and poor, anywhere in the globe. My opponent has offered the USA as a particular context, but I doubt this will be terribly relevant.

By the death penalty, we mean any system of punishment, legal or extralegal, that results, or is likely to result, in the death of the person being subjected to the punishment. We would specifically apply the death penalty in this debate, to states vested with the authority to investigate and decide crimes, especially when the death penalty is being applied in response to those crimes, as the most likely point of clash in this debate. For example, when a state executes a murderer, it is enacting a death penalty. My position in this debate is that the death penalty should never be employed.

Role of the State (background stuff)
The most obvious question to ask in this scenario is, why do states exist in the first place?

We note that states are man-made social constructs. No divine being came down from the clouds and ordained the borders of the land we today call "India" or "Poland". Rather, these nations were created by people for human ends. Therefore the most obvious role of the state must be to serve the people. This involves aspects such as keeping people safe, and keeping people happy. Even when a state was founded with the worst of intentions, we feel this aspect holds true. ISIL, for instance, has a clear objective in the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, but this objective is being ostensibly done according to the will of Islam, which the leaders of that movement feel would be in the best interests of people.

For a more objective standard on what services the people demand of the society which society creates, we feel a useful model can be found in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Developed as a simple model for describing what kinds of things people require (and backed by clinical psychological practice), it begins with the most basic human needs, and develops towards the most advanced. The two most basic kinds of needs are safety and physiology, according to this well-established model. In general, we find that states generally provide these things for their citizens quite well under the status quo. States ensure the safety and general well-being of people by laws designed to disincentive antisocial behaviour, and by established judicial processes that ensure that these needs are being satisfied through the laws that have been passed.

When a crime has been committed, it can generally be thought of as a violation of the attempts of a state to enforce a positive society. It is also generally agreed that the punishment ought to be befitting of a crime - that is, punishments should not be made arbitrarily. These essential principles are even found in the first formal declaration of the principle of common law, hailing right back to the original version of the Magna Carta. Again, Maslow's hierarchy provides a useful framework for this, but in reverse. Less serious crimes warrant the removal of less important human needs. There can be no question, for instance, that a serious criminal should not be self-actualizing, and not hold self-esteem, because we want to send a message that these things are wrong.

It should be noted that this, like all models, is imperfect, and therefore is only useful for a generalized description of human nature. The point is largely illustrative - the state ensures lower-order needs by selectively removing higher-order needs. This is more or less how judicial systems are supposed to work, in a good state. We feel this is reinforced by the fact the most important aspect of any state is its people, so understanding psychology is fundamental to understanding this debate. Other competing models, such as fundamental human needs, follow roughly the same schema.
This trading of what we might call human needs can also be conceived of as a trading of what is known in legal theory as "rights." We have a "right" to life, for example, which we generally consider to be among the most important rights because it correlates to a physiological need, namely, survival. We also have a right to, say, free movement, although this right correlates to a less important human need, and thusly should be removed by states more readily in response to crimes. Conversely, murder is a worse crime than false imprisonment, because the deprivation of the right to life is a more fundamental human need than the right to free movement.

Human Rights
The idea that the state has an inherent obligation to remove rights in response to people removing the rights of others, is a function of what is generally known as a social contract. In this theory, society has mutually given up their "right" to kill each other, in order to better ensure the right to life. The penalty for refusing the surrender of this "right" to kill, is the seizure by the state of other rights. In more recent times, however, it has become evident that there are certain rights we simply cannot contract out of.

Most people would agree that something like a death pact - where multiple parties agree to kill each other - is morally abhorrent. That's because we consider that human life has a certain amount of value - an inherent dignity that suicide does not account for. A death pact fulfils all the classical requirements of a contract, but it is not generally legal because to execute it would involve committing the crime of murder. However, the same is not true of all rights. If you're travelling on a train, you cannot simply leave the train while it is in motion, but must wait for a station. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be false imprisonment - however, you hold a ticket, which is a form of contract that you agree to be imprisoned on the train until it reaches its destination. Free movement being not so fundamental a right, it is much easier to contract out of.

The notion of human rights is such that there are some rights so fundamental that a person can never contract out of, regardless of circumstance. For example, if no individual in society can justifiably agree to having themselves killed, then that society as a whole must have a right to life. The individuals in that society cannot agree to have their right removed, and therefore, it follows that any agreement reached by the members of that society (for example to form a state) must be done with reference to inviolable human rights. People receive these rights because they are human - there is no qualifier for a human right.

A state that does not respect a right that is inviolable, cannot as a matter of principle, be known as a legitimate state. For when a state loses the sanction of its people, and it no longer respects that which makes states in the first place, then that state has no moral authority to exist at all. The only question is whether the right to life, should be taken as a human right or not.

First of all, we find that this question has already been thought about for a long time, and has already a wide basis of support. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, holds the right to life among its top priorities. The principle can be traced legally back to the precedent set by the Poljica Statute of 1444, and the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, which famously classified the right to life as inalienable. Outside of legal theory, we find the right to life to be a valid ethical question as well, with philosophers such as Albert Camus and more recently Peter Singer raising valid objections to the point. This is to say, it is undoubtable that if any human rights exist at all, they certainly encompass the right to life. Indeed, it is this fundamental respect for life that makes a crime like murder so abhorrent in the first place. Nations around the world overwhelming support banning the death penalty, with the United Nations voting 99-52 in 2007 in favor of a ban on the death penalty on these grounds.
Green = voted in favor of abolishing death penalty, yellow = abstained, red = voted against abolishing death penalty

Public opinion is perhaps even more important. Our society is what forms our states - therefore by rights, our public should have some degree of self-determination. Overwhelmingly across USA, there is broad support for the abolition of the death penalty.
Even if it were not for this support, however, the fundamentality of the right to life may be deduced, because it is the most basic of human needs on which all other needs are premised, including the right to contract. Without a right to life, one would have no way to belong to a society in the first place - therefore, should society agree that given a certain crime the death penalty should be imposed on members of that society, that society could never justifiably convict anybody, because those criminals would then entirely cease to be a part of society. There is no philosophical justification for the death penalty, and many problems - it is simply retributive and vindictive.

The goal of justice
There can be no question that the abrogation of rights in response to wrongs is a tool of states to ensure public safety. However, criminologists have long been aware that this does not inherently prevent crime. The root causes that drove that criminal to offend in the first place may still exist. A classic example would be a robber, whose crime was to steal a loaf of bread to provide for his family. Since his crime was motivated by a lower-order need, courts would generally see this as a mitigating factor. Somebody who stole jewels because they wanted to self-actualize by walking around looking super shiny, well, that probably would not be taken as being as good a justification.

The fact of the matter is, not just is this notion of justice insufficient, it is also perverted. Gandhi noted "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" - or to put it in this context, by murdering murderers, you only make more murders. Two wrongs don't make a right, even in this case. Indeed we feel that the goal of justice ought to be primarily rehabilitative, and not retributive. Since you can't reliably resurrect people from the dead (unless the court has at least a level 15 necromancer handy), courts cannot find a person worthy of the death penalty of rehabilitative grounds. In defence of this claim I'd like to advance a number of arguments.

First, we consider retributive punishment to be lacking in a working principle. We find no natural right to enact retributive justice on others, and indeed we find much of human progress has been towards enabling a society more conductive to this. Second, retributive justice has other flaws that I demonstrate throughout my case. But most crucially, rehabilitative justice does the least harm, since at least that way you have a good chance of getting at least one well-adjusted member of society in the end, rather than a bunch of dead corpses. This is no surprise - much like murder is only destructive, so too is state-sponsored murder only destructive. Fourth, we find that retributive justice is a better precedent for cases where the law is in violation of public conscience. If, say, some dictator (let's call him "Adolf") decided to invade some nation (let's call it "Poland") and made it a crime to be a citizen of that nation, then that law is clearly abhorrent. However, if the punishment is rehabilitative (Germanification) then that is less abhorrent than a retributive outcome (death by firing squad).

Finally, however, we contest that rehabilitation just simply works better. First, we find that the practical evidence demonstrates that rehabilitation has a much lower rate of re-offending than retributive crimes. Setting a precedent for retributive justice in the case of the death penalty, may therefore be harmful when trying criminals for other crimes, in that it encourages a mindset of retribution among jurors as opposed to more rehabilitative measures.
We further note that in most cases, such retribution is more expensive.
Rehabilitation is simply a better value. It should be encouraged at all levels of judicial procedure. Sentencing a person to life in prison keeps society effectively equally safe as the death penalty, but provides a pathway for that offender to turn their lives around. Further, rehabilitative justice provides ex-criminals in the community, who are vital to educating others on how to avoid a life of crime. Figures such as Malcolm X are commonly perceived as "reformed" former criminals who went on to do great things.

Closely connected to the preceding argument, we don't believe the death penalty is befitting of any crime because people's culpability must be taken as relative to the needs they are fulfilling. Stealing a loaf of bread to feed the family, again, means reduced culpability. Since all crime is ultimately committed relative to the need for life, culpability must be limited to that context. Put another way, criminals operate under a certain social order - indeed, this is how they are usually caught. Police look for motives to draw a list of suspects. If people acted arbitrarily, then the police would have a much harder job! Since the social order imposes on them, at the bear minimum, the need to survive, their instinct of self-preservation can never be held as culpable for a crime.

There is also another issue. We find that in general, individuals become criminals because they are driven to that end by one or more of their human needs that they are attempting to fulfill in the context of the society they live. Murdering somebody is, of course, generally bad... but in the case of something like war, or abortion, or euthanasia, or even enacting the death penalty itself, culpability is reduced because we are acting on some other human need, as opposed to somebody who kills for no clear reason. So too is it possible that we create the social conditions for murders and other terrible crimes to occur. This is not to say that the worst of criminals should be let off the hook! Only that their culpability is inherently also mitigated by social and environmental factors, while the death penalty punishes the offender alone. It is worth noting that the death penalty is very unique in this regard. Even a long jail sentence has an attached social cost of paying for the offender's cell.

Increasingly, a body of evidence appears to support these conclusions. First, philosophically, it appears clear that minds are not born bad (outside of, occasionally, impaired cognitive function), simply because even really bad people can be influenced to be good. As Aristotle observed: "...mind is in a sense potentially whatever is thinkable, though actually it is nothing until it has thought". To that end, people cannot help the way they are, and are merely the sum of what chemicals happen to be in their brain at a given time. This is further supported by scientific evidence - being under the influence of certain drugs, for instance, causes one to be more predisposed to certain kinds of crime. It is now not generally believed that people are born programmed for anything more than human needs. Further, research shows that people actually decide on actions before they become consciously aware of them, ruling out the notion of moral culpability ie "he is a bad person". Finally, psychology has reached much the same conclusion. One of the most common models of criminal development is this:
Miscarriage of Justice
This argument has been partially copied from one of my previous essays on this topic.

When I commit a crime, the only people who really know what happened (usually) are myself, and possibly the victim (if alive). The police can only guess based on clues. It isn't surprising that they often get it wrong. Usually, the whole truth is never revealed. The problem is that with any other punishment you can correct mistakes the police make. That's called due process - you need to be able to pursue your claim of innocence after conviction, as evidence becomes available. You can't do that if you're dead. So, what if the evidence is only available after you've been executed? Take the USA for an example. Since 1973, over 150 people in over 25 states have been released from death row after they were found innocent. This proves the police get it wrong. Dozens more appear to have been executed innocently. We can never know how many were really executed innocently with any certainty, because despite their best efforts, the police can not yet time-travel.

Even if one person is innocently killed, that's too many. Any other punishment it would be alright to have innocents, but when the state kills not a killer but an innocent person, even just one, then they create guilt and multiply it upon themselves, for with the death penalty, there is no possibility of reparation for wrongs. You can't give a family a payout and expect that to replace a life, in any way. If I came to your house tomorrow, set up a sham court and convicted you to die before killing you, you would expect me to be punished. But if you replace me with the police, you would expect me to be applauded, so long as some other killers are also killed. Killing killers gives people no right to execute innocents. Since you cannot 100% prevent innocent executions, innocents will be executed cruelly and unusually for the crime of doing nothing wrong.

It is a well-known fact that in nations such as the USA, much of the probability of whether you will be convicted depends on how much the judge likes you. Judges sometimes discriminate very actively and don't always look at the facts. In the case of death penalty, where a person's life is at stake, this can have disastrous consequences. It isn't just about ethnicity. Poor people can't afford good lawyers, and so are disproportionately represented. Men are executed far more often than women. That's not fair. If we are to accept discrimination as a given - and we must, because we cannot ignore the reality of it - then we need to err on the side of caution because innocents will be convicted and killers will walk free.

This is further complicated by the procedural mess that typically accompanies the judicial right to due process when a person's very life is at stake, and the difficulty on educating a fair jury on the legal intricacies of a death penalty hearing. As Justice Cormac Carney said in an oft-quoted passage: "Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose."

Even as the number of death row inmates increases, so too does the exoneration rate, in countries with the death penalty. This indicates more miscarriages of justice are taking place, and that the system has not improved despite a long period of research on how to improve it.
The resolution is affirmed.

Return To Top | Posted:
2015-09-15 22:14:46
| Speak Round
TejreticsTejretics (CON)
Capital punishment deters homicides

Rational choice theory -- also termed rational action theory -- is an economic theory that suggests that humans are, inherently, rational actors. This means that all humans perform a subconscious cost-benefit analysis prior to making choices [1]. It is a framework for understanding and modeling human social and economic behavior. It has been studied by economists and criminologists to see if criminals act as rationally as standard social humans. The theory has its beginnings in 1968 with the work of Gary Becker. He claimed that criminals are rational. They, like law abiding citizens, respond to costs and benefits. He argues that crime also occurs due to rationality--a cost-benefit analysis by criminals themselves [2].

Economist John R. Lott explains, “[C]riminals as a group tend to behave rationally--when crime becomes more difficult, less crime is committed.” [3] Thus, if criminals act rationally, if crime has greater costs than benefits, they likely won’t commit it. Even irrational actors can be deterred. Juveniles, who were once considered undeterrable, have actually been found to respond to arrest rates. For example, with a rise in teenage unemployment rates, they commit more thefts or other crimes. When violent crime arrests increase, juvenile violent crime rates drop [4]. People who are mentally ill respond to the price of cigarettes [5].

When it comes to the death penalty, deterrence is at work. Economists have started to spearhead death penalty research, and are increasingly taking part in the debate, since deterrence is primarily a socioeconomic factor. Economist Naci Mocan says, “Science does draw a conclusion. There is no question about it. The conclusion is [the death penalty has] a deterrent effect.” [6] There are multiple studies in favor of the death penalty’s deterrent effect.

A study by Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul Rubin, and Joanna Shepard found deterrence as well [10]. It is ahmong the most reliable studies in the literature, as it uses county data, instead of state data. County data is better because it is easier to control for local demographic changes, differences in arrest and conviction rates, poverty, and pretty much everything that affects murder rates. So county data should be prefered. County data, as it is a larger pool of data points, makes the conclusions more robust. The study finds that each execution deters 18 homicides. A similar estimate was calculated by John Lott, who calculated that each execution deters 15 homicides [11].

Joanna Shepard, an economist at Clemson University, uses state data from 1977 to 1999. According to her study, each death row sentence deterred, on average, 4.5 murders; each execution deterred 3 murders; one murder is deterred for every 2.75 years reduction in time spent on death row [7]. FCC economist Paul Zimmerman published two studies using state-level data, one with data from 1978 to 1997 [8], and one with data extended till 2000 [9], both finding deterrence. Other researchers agree [12][13][14][15][16].

There is a fairly strong consensus in econometric literature that the DP deters homicides. 17 studies show a deterrent effect of the death penalty, while only 5 dissent [17]. Of those five dissenting, Katz, Levitt and Shustorovich (2003) actually shows a deterrent effect [18], where the DP deters homicide rates. The reason no deterrence was found was because the study focused on the relation between the death penalty and overall crime rates, but the DP won’t deter non-homicide crimes significantly since it does not apply to assault, burglary, etc. Donohue and Wolfers published a dissenting study that is flawed since it assumes that executions happen the same year a sentence occurred [19], which is flawed since the average wait is 15 years.

Another highly reliable study is that by economists Naci Mocan and Kaj Gittings. The study analyzes a trend showing correlation between the introduction of the death penalty in various U.S. states and drop in homicide rates. It found such a correlation in Kansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey [20]. 


Murray Rothbard, a libertarian economist, argues “it seems indisputable that some murders would be deterred by the death penalty. Sometimes the liberal argument comes perilously close to maintaining that no punishment deters any crime — a manifestly absurd view that could easily be tested by removing all legal penalties for nonpayment of income tax and seeing if there is any reduction in the taxes paid.” [21]

Thus, the death penalty deters crime.

Preventing the repetition of murders

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that recidivism rates for homicide in the United States are quite high. 12.5% of those whose greatest offense was homicide were re-arrested in 6 months, and, over 5 years, 51.2% had been arrested again. Of those whose greatest offense was homicide, the rate was 0.9% [22]. In 2009, 8.6% of those on death row had a prior homicide conviction. Over 5% of those on death row committed their capital crime while in custody or during an escape [23]. While these numbers might seem small, they are--considering the population--quite large. In New York alone, 230 murders and rapists have been released [24]. This means a huge number of repetition, and the worst criminals--those who have committed 2 homicides--have repeated their homicides again, with 51.2% of them repeating.

An example of this is seen in Kenneth McDuff, who was placed in death row for three murders. The sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment, and was later released. Following his release, he killed 9 more people, and was then executed for this [25][26][27]. McDuff “was convicted of murdering sixteen-year-old Edna Sullivan; her boyfriend, seventeen-year-old Robert Brand; and Robert’s cousin, fifteen-year-old Mark Dunnam, who was visiting from California. They were all strangers whom McDuff abducted after noticing Sullivan; she was repeatedly raped before having her neck broken with a broomstick. McDuff was given three death sentences and subsequently convicted of having offered a bribe to a member of the parole board. He was freed in 1989. He was given a new death sentence and executed for a murder committed after his release and is suspected to have been responsible for many other killings.” [26]Lee Andrew Taylor is another example--he was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing two people--he then killed another inmate in prison [28][29].

Thus, capital punishment can save lives by preventing the deaths of multiple more people, and reducing repetition.

The death penalty is just

The death penalty offers a final touch of justice -- upholding justice and retribution by means of punishment. As Edward Feser argues, “[T]he aims of punishment are threefold: retribution, or inflicting on a wrongdoer a harm he has come to deserve because of his offense; correction, or chastising the wrongdoer for the sake of getting him to change his ways; and deterrence, discouraging others from committing the same offense.” [30]

First, I need to provide an epistemological framework for morality. When we argue about what ‘justice’ is, and what makes things ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ we require a clear answer to this question: what is moral? Which actions can be branded as ‘moral’ and as ‘immoral’? The answer lies in respecting the rights and preferences of people. When it comes to social species such as humans, morality is respecting the dignity and autonomy of a rational actor, and respecting the idea that choices have consequences. G.W.F. Hegel observes that autonomy is what separates humans from other objects, such as chairs and tables, or of non-human species, who rely -- primarily -- on instincts, rather than choices. The axiom remains: all choices have consequences. Each criminal *knows* the consequence of each choice he makes, so retribution should be awarded for each crime, since that is the purpose of punishment [31].

Martin Perlmutter argues that “in punishment, the offender is honored as a rational being, since the punishment is looked on as his right.” [32] When I freely choose to do something, I simultaneously acquiesce to any predictable consequences that might arise therefrom. Consider a situation in a school, where students have been warned not to write on the chalkboard--if they do, they are informed that they shall be punished with a 5-minute time out. If a student does write on the chalkboard, it is reasonable they are given that five-minute time out. Similarly, the criminal who commits a horrendous crime, e.g. genocide, ethnic cleansing, or mass-murders, acquiesces to the consequence automatically--a reasonable consequence that results in deterrence and retribution. The death penalty is merely the form of punishment that is proportionate to certain crimes. Edward Feser argues, “[W]hat a wrongdoer deserves as punishment is a harm proportionate to his offense. … [T]he gravity of the punishment should reflect the gravity of the wrongdoing. Hence those guilty of large thefts should be punished more severely than those guilty of small ones, those guilty of inflicting serious bodily injury should be punished more severely than those merely guilty of theft, and so forth. … If wrongdoers do deserve punishment, and if punishment ought to be scaled to the gravity of the crime (harsher punishments for graver crimes), then it would be absurd to deny that there is a level of criminality for which capital punishment is appropriate” [30].

The desire to seek retribution has evolutionary origins. According to a study, the concept of seeking revenge has an evolutionary purpose. Science has found that the brain takes pleasure in revenge [33].  Psychologist Michael McClough argues that there is an evolutionary cause for revenge, and it merely is to have a sense of finality. According to him, the biological benefits of retribution outweigh the harms [34]. Other researchers agree [35][36][37].

Thus, the United States should not abolish the death penalty. 



3. John R. Lott. More Guns, Less Crime, 20.








11. John R. Lott. Freedomnomics, 135.









20. Naci Mocan and Kaj Gittings, “The Impact of Incentives on Human Behavior: Can We Make It Disappear? The Case of the Death Penalty,” (Chapter 11 in The Economics of Crime edited by Rafael Di Tella, Sebastian Edwards, and Ernesto Schargrodsky, pp. 379-418, University of Chicago Press: 2010) 394-397.












32. Martin Perlmutter. “Desert and Capital Punishment.” Morality and Moral Controversies: Readings in Moral, Social, and Political Philosophy. 1981. 139-146.




36. Susan Jacoby. Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (New York: Harper, 1983).



Return To Top | Posted:
2015-09-17 06:48:20
| Speak Round
adminadmin (PRO)
I thank my opponent for his case, and would like to invite him to use the wonderful world of hotlinking (you can actually do that on edeb8) to make it significantly easier to follow his citations.

I have taken the BOP in this debate
Con has advocated a substantive case without any reference to my case whatsoever. He has failed to put forward the single, smallest rebuttal in favor of his counter-contention.

In the rules of this debate, con stipulated that the burden of proof was shared. Therefore, either side had the right to make a positive claim for the resolution to be judged against, which I did in the very beginning of my case in the previous round. I demonstrated a substantive case for the abolition of the death penalty. In taking the burden of proof, I equally placed a burden of rejoinder on my opponent - by failing to issue any response to my case, my opponent has failed this burden.

Suppose the debate ends right here and now. Both my opponent and I have substantive cases standing, however, since I'm the one that took on the burden to prove the resolution, all that matters is that my substantive case stands. As there has been no clash, no balance can even be evaluated. With this in mind, at the present time, I could literally concede my opponent's entire case, and still win this debate.

My opponent, understandably, has quite a fair number of positive claims already to respond to. In this round, I'll briefly do the same for his. I remind everybody that my case is and remains the most important part of this debate.

Crime Deterrence
I think it's important that we frame this issue as one of crime in general and not homicide in particular. Capital punishment can possibly be used for a variety of crimes, and although the culture now is to reserve it for homicide, this has not always been the case historically. It would be futile to create a precedent for a system of punishment based upon a single criminal profile, that we know is socially dependant, when society itself - both criminal justice and criminals - change over time.

To begin my analysis of this point, I'd like to disprove rational choice theory.

First of all, rational choice theory is incompatible with what we know about neurology. The above simplified model of what the different parts of your brain are doing shows two distinct "areas" corresponding to types of brain activity. The prefrontal cortex is what controls rational decision making. When you're making a difficult, calculated decision, that's where that is happening. The limbic system is a complex part of the brain primarily associated with what we might call emotional reasoning. It gives us an immediate emotional response to stimuli. Crucially, unlike the prefrontal cortex, which is rather slow, the limbic system is extremely fast and efficient.

Have you ever watched a scary movie, and remember being scared during some particularly scary scenes, but then afterwards when you thought about it rationally, the movie didn't really seem so scary? Or have you perhaps been shopping, saw something shiny, bought it, only to regret that purchase later? Those are examples of times when the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex are in conflict. You limbic system is giving you the immediate response, you make a snap, typically emotional judgement, but your prefrontal cortex eventually says otherwise, when that's finally ready to give an answer.

We therefore have a medical justification for the fact that not all of our choices are rational choices. Sometimes we make decisions that simply cannot be rationalized. And I might add, not always are these decisions wrong either. Sometimes our limbic system's efficiency actually generates a more accurate answer than our prefrontal cortex. Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" chronicles a whole book-full of examples to this point.

Secondly, rational choice theory is incompatible with what we know about psychology. We know, psychologically, that people are different. You may have, at some point, taken a personality quiz - find out what sort of person you are, is the promise. Well, the premise there is that there are several kinds of people. Perhaps the most famous one is the Myers-Briggs test - I'm an INTP, which one are you? There are numerous places on the net that promise to let you know exactly what "type" you are. Perhaps you are one of the lucky 4% or so who shares the same type as me. The point is, though, different people have different personalities. This matters because, given the same situation, we know that people often make very different choices. Some of these will be criminal. Some will not.

To give an example, say you catch your spouse committing adultery. Some people are into open relationships and would barely bat an eye. Some, otherwise rational people, have in their rage at this event committed homicide, sometimes multiple times. Others still have taken this situation on themselves and committed suicide. So as you can see, there are a range of responses. Any kind of "choice" theory needs to account for the fact that different individuals in exactly the same situation will make different choices. Since the costs and benefits of all these alternatives are clearly not equivalent, rational choice theory alone is not sufficient to explain this divergence in behavior.

Bear in mind, this is considering people who are not mentally ill. This is for people who are normal, everyday individuals. People living with mental illness, be it diagnosed or undiagnosed, may be considered as falling outside of the normal spectrum of personality as criminal actors, and as such, provide an even more divergent basis for actioning in choice theory.

We do note some merit to rational theory in its conceptualization of the causes of crime, in that it dissolves responsibility, but we find it somewhat in opposition to more modern approaches to criminological theory that better meet what we now know to be a fact from the other sciences. In particular:
  • Critical criminological theory has highlighted the class-based nature of a society where a small elite establish a law which the masses are expected to follow. It frames crimes such as homicides as acts of defiance against this social order, which people have a varying propensity to do based on the oppression they are suffering as a result of this system and their personality's propensity to act defiantly generally.
  • Positivism, which broadly points out that some people might just be "born criminals." The fact is that some people are naturally violent, for instance, and thus fairly likely to be involved in an assault which might turn into a homicide. Others might be really dumb and not understand the outcomes, particularly the moral implications, of their actions. To that end, some people are literally incapable of making a rational decision to obey the law.
  • Social contract criminological theory has argued that the responsibility for crime is social, not legal. To this end, a criminal act is a socially developed rejection by an individual of the social order. As such, in social contract theory, the decision to make a crime is not individual - it is both the individual and society at large, framed as a disagreement over the terms of the social contract. To be clear, criminals are just standard social humans.
It is not my burden in this debate to show a particular theory of criminology is conclusively correct - in fact, if anything, our limited understanding on the field should err us to the side of caution in not executing people.

We further note that con provides very little justification for this. He premises his whole argument on rational choice theory, but hardly appears prepared to defend it. Simply stating the names of other people who agree with his view, and occasionally quoting them, is a fallacy, not a justification. But let us consider anyway what con did offer to the point. Con argued that people commit less crimes as they become harder to commit. He bought up a number of empirical examples to the point which he claimed supported the theory - examples which, as always, are going to be limited by the impact of confounding variables, or "externalities" as economists like to call them. Even rational choice theorists themselves have agreed that the theory has little predictive power.

The version of the rational choice theory that is predicated on payoffs alone - such as the price of cigarettes - is easy to falsify. Two products at different price points can sell equally well, even if the product is the same. For example, whereas the price of the cheaper product may signal "value" to one consumer, it may appear "cheap" and "poor quality" to another consumer. This is important because the payoff is not identical - the person paying more for otherwise precisely the same product is getting a worse deal, and may even know that, but stick to their product due to brand loyalty, or that perception of quality, or any other marketing gimmick. In a more experimental context, you've probably heard of one or more business leaders who have forgone personal profits to ensure some higher moral purpose, like the well-being of their employees. These are prime examples of rational actors refusing to maximize their payoffs, indicating that theory is a failure.

But doesn't that mean you're maximizing your satisfaction? This utilitarian model of rational choice theory is more popular today, especially in economics, ironically because you cannot measure it. There's no way of proving definitively exactly how much pleasure somebody derives in paying 50c less for cigarettes, so it becomes something of a cop-out answer - "they must be doing that because of the marginal pleasure of the cost savings!" (as opposed to the cost savings themselves) - when in fact the answer may be more complex. Juveniles responding to arrest rates is an example of this model in action. The important implication is an ethical one - our determinants of good and bad are individual to ourselves. A utilitarian ethic would argue, for instance, it is moral to kill somebody if their burden on you is greater than their benefit to you.

The problem is simple: literally nobody actually does that. Just today the tax department annoyed me, but I'm not going to go around cutting their heads off. In fact every day we find numerous cases of things we think we would enjoy, but we keep ourselves from doing, or conversely things we know we hate, but keep doing anyway. Did you know that 60% of young women have experienced abuse in their relationships? So many of them are allowed to continue, and many of them are never reported to anyone. There's nothing pleasurable about being abused. And for sure, some of the crazier ones attack their husbands, and many (eventually) leave their husbands. That's rational choice theory at work. But for every second a woman remains in one of those relationships, the theory is a failure. People don't always simply seek to maximize their own pleasure. Basically, utilitarianism is non-intuitive. Humans have a propensity to hold other moral considerations, including but not limited to those I mentioned in my first round, such as human rights, which have no basis in a utilitarian ethic.

There's a few other problems with this model. First, most actions have uncertain outcomes. For instance, just because I commit a homicide doesn't mean I'll be caught, and just because I'm caught doesn't mean I'll be convicted, and just because I'm convicted doesn't mean I'll be sentenced to death. It's all quite a complex process for a brain to have to think through. Further, the scope of the logic most ordinary people use is profoundly limited and practical in its nature. We use heuristics, like, "when I go to the supermarket today I'll buy the cheapest cabbage on sale that isn't rotten" - not a complex calculation of price per square centimeter on non-rotten cabbage. As such even when we are making a choice that appears rational, our brains are usually, in fact, simplifying the situation.

All this would be true even if rational choice theory could possibly work as a theory, in accordance with my first argument above. Generally, rational choice theory is a wholly useless model to represent this debate.

More important yet, let's look at the science that is specific to the death penalty. Before I rebut my opponent's evidence, let me explain my position. Here are the facts:
  • In the USA specifically, states that have no death penalty have consistently lower murder rates.
  • States where the death penalty has been abolished, such as North Carolina, have generally seen a trend of decreased murder rates.
  • The scientific consensus is that the question of whether murder is deterred by the death penalty in the USA is inconclusive at best. To quote from one particular meta-analysis on the topic:
"When we acknowledge that there must be instances when capital punishment
helps deter a murder, we must also recognize that at other times it can
encourage what it is meant to prevent. Since neither effect can be measured
directly we are forced back to the statistical studies, which seek to determine
the net effect. Their evidence does not prove that the death penalty is n o
added deterrent to murder, nor could it. It does show, I believe, that any
"deterrent" effect is very small in magnitude, and it might go in either
  • Outside of homicide and the USA in particular, literally every shred of evidence in the world does not support the death penalty having any deterrent effect on any crime.
  • Even if it did have a deterrent effect, we wouldn't consider it morally relevant. To cite the South African supreme court:
"We would be deluding ourselves if we were to believe that the execution of the few persons sentenced to death during this period, and of a comparatively few other people each year from now onwards will provide the solution to the unacceptably high rate of crime. There will always be unstable, desperate, and pathological people for whom the risk of arrest and imprisonment provides no deterrent, but there is nothing to show that a decision to carry out the death sentence would have any impact on the behaviour of such people, or that there will be more of them if imprisonment is the only sanction."
  • We find exactly the same justification is relevant for the United States as well (see previous round quote).
  • To make this very clear: deterrence is at best an amoral justification, and must be read as secondary to common notions of whether the death penalty is right or wrong.

Outside of hard empiricism, we find that the death penalty broadly generates an opposable culture of oppressive violence that does little to engender respect for the law. That has a number of dangerous consequences. For instance, people on death row, having nothing more to live for, are more likely to kill again in prison than if they had some hope of re-integrating back into society. Broadly these conclusions are supported not just by the statistics, but in the field of criminology, with only a small minority of criminologists actually believing that the death penalty has any deterrent effect.

A weaker, but still valid, empirical link may be found in what judges are actually proscribing as a response to crime. If the death penalty was a seriously effective deterrent, we would expect convictions for homicide resulting in the death penalty to increase over time, as these "rational" judges seek to provide a "safer" society with less crime. In fact, the opposite trend may be observed, especially in the last 2-3 decades:

It remains, then, to answer the case for the studies that con has cited showing a strong deterrent effect. Clearly, both cannot be correct. However, every single one of con's sources to this point make clear reference to the fact that the question is not, in fact, statistically settled, and that different models produce different results. The simple fact that so many studies attempting to show a deterrent effect cite so many other recent studies showing otherwise, itself already proves that this is a question that is unsettled at best. It is particularly misleading, therefore, to use a tally like this one my opponent cited, since his other sources contain numerous examples of unfavorable studies that such tables (including that one) always tend to "conveniently" exclude - it is indeed, a drawback of any meta-analysis, even if it were more rigorous, that every bit of research on a broad topic can in most cases not be plausibly included. The fact my opponent felt the need to include a specific rebuttal to certain studies (especially when I haven't touched on this subject at all) further solidifies this point.

We further note that con has just brushed over several studies as broadly agreeing with his position, when in fact this is not the case. For example, this study concludes as its overall finding:
"Our findings suggest that any support for the deterrence hypothesis is sensitive to the inclusion of variables for the effects of guns and other crimes... we find at best, mixed support [for the deterrence hypothesis]"
To put it plainly, the researchers looked at the data and didn't find it supported either hypothesis particularly strongly - it was mixed. This is not a conclusion that the death penalty deters - indeed, it is not a conclusion at all, for it is inconclusive. This meta-analysis likewise does not outright support the conclusion that the death penalty has a deterrent effect, rather showing that different kinds of studies yield many different results. This paper is an example of a slightly different concern - critiquing the evidence of research opposing the death penalty is not, as con strongly implies here, independent evidence for the death penalty having a deterrent effect. Putting aside these less useful studies, we are left with essentially three useful sources in con's arsenal.

The first are basically 3 researchers - Dezhbakhsh, Rubin & Shepherd - who work off basically one dataset in their research, which is the same one also used by Donohue and Wolfers. So who's right? Entirely aside from this academic mud-slinging, the US department of justice also investigated the same dataset. Their study (unlike most of con's studies, this is more than just an abstract), led by a team of exceptionally vigorous researchers, found there was no way the figures available show a deterrent effect without some kind of bias, when different models to examine the data are averaged. To quote:
"This report shows model-averaged coefficients that fail to support the link between deterrence and capital punishment. These are the synthesis of thousands of potential specifications. Existing research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment comes to differing conclusions based upon one or more underlying assumptions that call into question the ability of any single model to explain the impact of capital punishment laws."
This is a very intuitive conclusion, but one entirely missed by the narrowly-framed dichotomy that con developed in his case - the question isn't "is there, or is there not, a deterrent effect" but rather "can statistical models reliably tell us what effect the death penalty has on the crime rate". More useful, then, are the philosophical rationalizations that underpin criminological thinking - the how and why of when people actually commit crime, rather than a post-facto investigation of numbers on a spreadsheet. Though incidentally, if you want to download and play around with the data yourself, and conduct your own investigation, you can do so here. Speaking personally, I don't see any terribly strong correlations myself. I'd like to in particular highlight one bit of research from Dezhbakhsh & Shepherd - this one - which argued on the basis of a regression based upon the US Supreme Court's moratorium on death penalty sentences for a brief period between the 60s and 70s, their assumption being that this moratorium was the only policy (as opposed to demographic) change that happened in that period. Anyone even passingly familiar with the history of the USA should know that's clearly not true - the period of the moratorium itself was one of great social and political change. Further, the very assumption that variables such as real income are the only valid control variables, presupposes rational choice theory, not proves it.

I was personally significantly more interested in the other study, by Frakes and Harding, which argued that there was a small but significant effect on the murder rate of adopted children (as opposed to naturally born) when there was a greater propensity to sentence such criminals to death. Two problems. First, their main mechanism wasn't because of the fear of capital sentences, but because of the leverage this provided prosecutors to secure noncapital sentences. That's an important distinction, because the same effect could be observed by giving prosecutors that same leverage through other means. Second, how many adopted kids have really been killed in the USA between 1977-2004, which has resulted in a death penalty conviction? Even the authors admit it's virtually none. The sample size here is absurdly low.

As for the last remaining study - which con didn't link but, what the heck, here it is - I'd like to quote this particular passage at the outset:
"...the fear [is] that a scientific paper which identifies a
deterrent effect could be taken as an endorsement or justification of the death penalty. This should not be the case for any scientific research... For example, Katz,
Levitt and Shustorovich (2003) find that the death rate among prisoners (a proxy for
prison conditions) deters crime. This finding obviously does not suggest that the society
should increase the death rate of the prisoners by worsening the prison conditions to
reduce the crime rate."
The study then goes on to quote from another paper:
"Those who accept the death penalty on moral grounds
often seem to accept the claim of deterrence whether or not good
evidence has been provided on its behalf"
Let's look at what actual evidence they offer for rational choice theory:
"If one assumes a priori that
individuals are incapable of calculating the risks as they are defined by [rational choice] theory, then there
is no room to conduct proper empirical research"
In other words, they assume a priori that rational choice theory is correct. They go on to note this as a limitation of economic theory. So what deterrence effect did they actually find? We need to be clear here - what they were actually measuring was the effect of the homicide rate on the number of executions before and after either legalization or delegalization of the death penalty - which OF COURSE is positive, since the number of executions will always be zero when the death penalty is illegal. In fact, I'm surprised this isn't MORE statistically significant. So once again, although at least this one was smart enough to point out there are no implications from their research on either policy or rational choice theory, their evidence is entirely predicated on the assumptions they used in approaching it, essentially committing the same basic error as the Dezhbakhsh & Shepherd study referred to earlier.

Studies, like this one, can take much the same data and twist it to precisely the opposite conclusion. The death penalty debate will never be solved by a statistical equation, and I sincerely doubt my opponent will be swayed by that link in the slightest. It's not even in his interest to click on it, because I haven't quoted it and he wants to confirm his bias. And that's how this debate is working, both now and across America. Maths is being used to support the conclusion, not find the fact (this is not a statement against this study or any other study in particular, just a general observation).

Further to all this, rational choice theory is in many ways incompatible with the position my opponent is defending.

As Levitt, a great sociologist and economist referred to earlier, points out on the Freakonomics website:
"Analyses of data stretching farther back in time, when there were many more executions and thus more opportunities to test the hypothesis, are far less charitable to death penalty advocates. On top of that, as we wrote in Freakonomics, if you do back-of-the-envelope calculations, it becomes clear that no rational criminal should be deterred by the death penalty, since the punishment is too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention. As such, economists who argue that the death penalty works are put in the uncomfortable position of having to argue that criminals are irrationally overreacting when they are deterred by it."
In other words, your chances of actually being killed, even if you are caught, are pretty damn slim, particularly in the United States. As such, to be deterred significantly by the death penalty in any kind of rationalist framework, you're going to have to massively overestimate your chances of being killed - and that's simply not rational. The recent cover story for Time magazine paints this picture clearly - the "to-do list" of the USA when it comes to executions gets longer and longer, which led the author to quite reasonably exclaim that the end was in sight for the death penalty.

A cost-based analysis can yield similar results. For example, California executed 13 people at a cost of $4 billion. With that same amount of money, California could have stopped 466 murders had the money been allocated for that purpose directly. It's an insane cost, and one that makes no sense. Even if executing one person saves 7 or 10 or 13 lives, which has hardly been proven, it would need to save at least 36 lives for each person executed to justify the cost, and no study is even claiming such numbers. And all that is even if the justice system was perfect and never falsely convicted somebody.

It doesn't take a logical genius to figure out that if the USA has a problem with recidivism, and it has instituted the death penalty, then clearly the death penalty is no solution to recidivism. I don't deny that recidivism is a problem in America, but it's a cultural problem of violence, it's not the death penalty. The fact America has the death penalty and recidivism problems proves that the two can't be related.

This point may seem immediately counter-intuitive if you're not terribly familiar with how the US justice system works. Surely sentencing somebody to death means they can't possibly kill again? Well, there's two problems there. First, just because the death penalty is an option for homicide, doesn't necessarily mean that this is what judges will use in their sentencing. Indeed, what kind of a judge you get, what biases that judge may have, and even what they ate for breakfast that morning, can all plausibly be strong determinants of whether you are sent to death row. It's a judicial roulette. Put this into perspective - every year, the United States has tens of thousands of homicides, while only a few dozen people are sent to death row. That's not because of any state-level injunction bias, it's simply that the vast majority of criminals will not be sent to death row just because it is an option for judges - indeed, now more than ever, judges are increasingly reluctant to do so as indicated previously.

Secondly, once you're condemned, it doesn't necessarily mean you die that way. Statistically, you're significantly more likely to die of senescence on death row than by execution - even suicide is more common than execution in most of the US among death row inmates. The reasons for this are manifold: first, exoneration. For good reason, the United States has an extremely lengthy appeals process. This has, on occasion, led to courts ordering a halt to executions just hours before they were scheduled to take place. Second, there are procedural issues. Many states have recently found it extremely difficult, for example, to obtain the drugs for a lethal injection - pharmaceutical companies obviously not wanting to sell their products knowing they will be used for questionably moral purposes. This has led to an extremely large backlog of people staring down the end of their lives in a jail cell. People who have been on death row have killed again while in prison, have engaged in prison riots, breakouts, and everything else any ordinary prisoner can do.

To this end, the prevention of the repetition of murders by maintaining the death penalty is entirely unwarranted. There is simply no evidence for such an effect, nor has any analysis to the point been provided, just a whole bunch of irrelevant names and statistics.

My opponent's entire framework of justice is in "respecting the rights and preferences of people." I wonder, then, why he will not respect the rights and preferences of over 90 million ordinary Americans who have publicly voiced their general opposition to the death penalty. Or on the recent United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Summary Executions and on Torture, which reported much the same sentiment around the world.

I've already dealt with much of this material, and shown why it is problematic, in my case. However, I appreciate the opportunity to apply that material to a dissimilar ethical framework.

First of all, my opponent has just made up a theory of ethics and justice. This is far from the only theory that's out there, and hardly normative. We have to recognize, for instance, that most nations would uphold a provision of the UN charter on human rights, even if it were irrational to do so, because of that respect for the law and for the doctrine of precedent. The Hegelian groundwork for this theory is equally open to attack, and indeed, you'll find plenty of material in my analysis so far that does so: for instance, my attacks on the notion of personal culpability for the consequences of choices. More specifically, con's claim that "Each criminal *knows* the consequence of each choice he makes" is totally impossible to prove. I'm not a criminal, and I don't even know the consequences of most of the choices I make. This is why we need risk management in our lives etc - consequences are often nigh-impossible to predict. This is especially true with something like homicide, where the range of possible consequences ranges from not being caught to execution. The Hegelian theory also fails on another level - namely, intellectually or mentally disabled persons, lacking in the capacity to make complex decisions, who morally our society has a duty to protect, and normatively we do, but in Hegelian ethics, lack the incentive for.

It does not follow from this theory that "When I freely choose to do something, I simultaneously acquiesce to any predictable consequences that might arise therefrom." This is an unwarranted bare assertion. Further, it can be falsified. If I marry, does that mean I consent to having kids? No, of course not. The very idea of law is to limit the consequences that one may suffer or impose, by limiting the (legal) choices of others. To acquiesce to ANY consequence one might predict - and frankly, you shouldn't underestimate my ability to predict weird outcomes for choices - would be, almost by definition, extralegal. You can't contract out of the law, so this notion just fails. Even if there were no law, human rights would still exist as an inherent limiting factor - people have the intrinsic value even if they could make no rational decisions, or if there were no legal or moral framework.

For reasons already described, the principle of proportionality simply does not apply to this debate. To reuse a quote that astute readers may recall, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Further, accepting the dignity of autonomy above the dignity of humanity in this context is especially problematic, because by this standard, any law could be judged to be either right or wrong, depending on how people react to it. Something might be disgusting but legal, and the law justifiably broadly protects such actions, particularly in nations such as the United States. My opponent finished by reframing that ethical issue in an evolutionary context. Nowhere have I doubted that the desire for revenge is biological, only that it is irrational, baseless, and cruel. We're human beings who deserve more than that, and as the Salem trials of old are now looked at with scorn, so too will today's capital punishment doubtless be shunned by the generations to come.

Finally, to reiterate, the personal opinions of various writers are not particularly relevant to this debate. I could name-drop people opposed to the death penalty too, but I doubt it would move the debate forward.

The resolution is affirmed.

Return To Top | Posted:
2015-09-19 15:32:13
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Death Penalty as a form of Justice won't validate in my opinion.

Man did not create the life of man so it has no authority to decide what will it do its life.

In the killing there are an oppessor and a oppressed. It is no longer the benefit of the dead innocent but the advantage of the one who punishes.
Posted 2017-12-22 03:31:24
Wow. Too bad Tej. Really enjoyed reading it, though. :)
Posted 2015-09-22 21:46:57
I concede. I need to devote all my attention and time to my ongoing debate with Lannan, so I'm extremely sorry. Further, your arguments were pretty OP. I might have been able to refute them had I not been engaged in a tournament currently, but unfortunately... Anyway, you probably would've won the debate anyway.
Posted 2015-09-19 17:50:37
@tejretics For what? :P Unlimited character counts are AWFUL :P Takes way too long to judge, most of the time. ;)
Posted 2015-09-16 16:41:38
@Skepticalone - Yeah, lol. But my argument is going to be *way* longer, on account of the unlimited character limit.
@ColeTrain - Thanks!
@admin - stats master race
Posted 2015-09-16 08:09:01
@admin I'm a Christian, and even I recognize that argument is inherently flawed.
This will be a good debate. Looking forward to seeing it. :)
Posted 2015-09-14 19:14:17
This seems familiar, T! ;-)
Posted 2015-09-14 01:12:27
At least, knowing you, your rebuttals probably won't be mostly "the Bible says otherwise".
Posted 2015-09-12 20:28:03
@admin - Wow I'll frame rebuttals already XD
Posted 2015-09-11 15:45:20
Lol, you can expect me to re-use the case I recently ran against Krazy before he conceded the debate to me. :D
Posted 2015-09-11 15:38:03
@admin - I hopefully will have prepared my case by then. And I hope I don't forfeit :P Good luck!
Posted 2015-09-11 15:36:21
I'll accept within a day. :)
Posted 2015-09-11 15:32:32

Idk haven't been on Edeb8 much.
Posted 2015-09-11 15:31:41
Any reason why death penalty debates seem to be popular recently? lol.
Posted 2015-09-10 09:53:18
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