Let’s assume, arguendo, that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. (I stated here and here that this is far from obvious). It’s important for proponents of capital punishment that this effect exists, because other justifications for capital punishment are no longer widely accepted (e.g. justifications like, for example, those based on the conviction that murderers somehow deserve to be killed).
My point here is that, even if we assume that deterrence works and reduces the overall number of killings (and we shouldn’t assume this), it doesn’t justify capital punishment. I will argue this on the basis of one of my previous posts and on elements of this paper.
The expression “deterrence works” means that there are fewer overall killings in a society with capital punishment than there would have been without capital punishment. In other words, capital punishment deters more killings than it inflicts. The taking of a life by the state reduces the number of lives taken overall. This is what is called a “lesser evil argument”. Proponents of this kind of justification of capital punishment do not believe that executions are a good thing, or a moral thing to do. Executions take people’s lives, and are evil, but they are a lesser evil than not engaging in executions, because failing to execute would mean failing to deter more murders than the murders we commit by executing killers. If an execution saves more than one life (and there are studies claiming that every execution saves around 18 lives), than it is morally required. It may be immoral and evil, but less so than the failure to execute because it leads to a net gain in terms of numbers of lives saved compared to the failure to execute.
This lesser evil argument is what is called a consequentialist moral argument. Consequentialism is opposed to deontology. The latter states that some acts are intrinsically wrong and can’t be justified by the value of their beneficial consequences. Consequentialism, as the name suggests, claims that beneficial ends justify the means. Of course, neither position is ever defended as an absolute. No one, I guess, believes that a more beneficial overall outcome always justifies certain acts. I think it’s hard to find someone who accepts that it’s moral to kill someone if his or her organs can save the lives of two others. Saving two lives at the cost of one is an overall gain, but it seems that sacrificing someone in this manner just isn’t something you can do to a person. On the other hand, absolute deontologists are also a rare species. At some point, negative consequences have to be taken into account and to hell with the principle then.
The deterrence effect is said to justify capital punishment because of consequentialism: the overall result or consequences of capital punishment are better than the alternative, namely failing to inflict capital punishment. Whereas a deontologist would reject capital punishment regardless of the beneficial consequences, a consequentionalist will not. He will admit that executions are no better than private murders, and just as evil, but still acceptable and even morally necessary if it can be shown that they deter more murders than they inflict.
The problem with this argument isn’t so much that it’s based on dubious deterrence statistics, but that it supposes that state murder is the same as private murder, and that a lesser number of the former is acceptable and necessary if they make it possible to deter a higher number of the latter. Of course, state murder is worse than private murder, and, as a result, the consequentialist calculus of the lesser evil argument is corrupted. If a state murder is worse than a private murder, it’s no longer obvious that capital punishment is a lesser evil.
Why is state murder worse than private murder? As I stated in a previous post, capital punishment is the instrumentalization and dehumanization of people. Private murder of course also instrumentalizes and dehumanizes the victims because these victims are used for some kind of gain, but state murder pushes this instrumentalization to the extreme and makes it the norm of behavior, rather than a criminal exception. Individual criminals are used as instruments to advance the collective interest. They are sacrificed for the greater good and a resource for the benefit of others (namely the intended future victims of future murderers). And this is even made worse if we consider that the lesser evil argument seems to justify the execution of innocent people, as long as this deters a higher number of private murders.
When the state instrumentalizes people in this way, it sends a clear message that this is a normal way of treating people, with possibly disastrous consequences.