As of late, a growing number of posts condemning capital punishment have filled my Instagram feed – every few stories, there’s an infographic or a call for action, accompanied by photos and artistic renditions of prisoners awaiting execution. And after doing some research, I’ve discovered that perhaps my peers are correct. There are strong arguments for the abolishment of capital punishment within the United States, supported by evidence both conceptual and factual. If our nation hopes to become a more humane, more modern, and more effective country, then it is in our best interest to abolish capital punishment.
Moral arguments against capital punishment can be traced to the fifth century BC. Greek philosopher Protagoras (490-420 BC) opposed capital punishment on the grounds that damage could not be undone by any action, including killing the criminal. A more modern example of ethical arguments against the death penalty stems from French philosopher Albert Camus’s 1956 book “Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.” Camus argued that the terror of awaiting execution was a punishment cruel enough to invalidate such a method of justice. Organizations focused on ethics and human rights such as the ACLU and Amnesty International have made the abolishment of capital punishment a top priority. It is also worth noting that the death penalty is susceptible to the influences of racism and classism, just like any other facet of the judicial system. Beyond unjust incarceration and police brutality, people of color also account for a disproportionate 43% of executions since 1976. Of the prisoners currently on death row, 55% are people of color. Such a litany of moral arguments alone make a compelling case for the abolishment of capital punishment.
Beyond objecting to capital punishment on purely ethical grounds, research supports the notion that the death penalty is an ineffective approach to justice. Though opposition to capital punishment is not a new phenomenon in America, research and statistical anlysis in the 1960’s began to emerge, providing opposition an empirical platform as well. Renowned philosophy professor Hugo Adam Bedau penned The Death Penalty in America in 1964, examining past instances of death penalty usage and the costly nature of judicial error. Criminologist and sociology professor William J. Chambliss published the findings of several studies in 1966, revealing severe punishment did little to deter crime. Economist Samuel Cameron used an econometric approach to expose the flaws in capital punishment in his 1994 research paper, and a more recent 2009 study revealed that 88.2% of crimonologists believe the death penalty does not deter murder. Such a resounding consensus among scientists is only matched by expert recognition of global warming. Scientific unity of that level is telling enough – on a factual basis, capital punishment has little to stand upon.
I’ve examined ethical reasoning and dense statistics during my research. But in the end, perhaps the most effective argument against capital punishment is the fact we are all humans. Execution trivializes the value of life, reducing it to currency in which the wronged are repaid. What makes us human is our ability to empathize; execution chips away at our empathy, and therefore it chips away at our very humanity. Execution does not have a single victim. When a prisoner dies, a part of us dies as well. Regardless of what crimes we have commited, we are all undeniably human.