The Last Word on Capital Punishment

Written by A.C. Grayling on 16 June 2001.

Those who are in favour of the death penalty have more affinity with assassins than those who are not – Remy de Gourmont

It a mistake to think that opponents of the death penalty are invariably sentimentalists, motivated by tenderness to those convicted of deliberate murder. They might, quite rightly, often be motivated by compassion for others branded as criminals, who in more rational, more just, or kinder dispensations would not be criminals at all – for example, soliciting prostitutes and drug addicts. They might also understand, although (a different thing) neither condone nor forgive, murder committed in the unmeditated grip of passion. Such attitudes are prompted by sympathy for the difficulties that can divert a life into making a hell for itself and others – or just for the frailties of the human spirit, so numerous and sometimes so final that they seem to be its destiny.

But it does not follow that opposition to capital punishment arises from sympathy for people who commit deliberate murder. Far from it. Deliberate murderers are contemptible scum, who kill not only their victims but a part of each member of their victims' families. They rob their victims of their futures, their relationships, their possibilities, throwing away whole worlds of existence in the split-second it takes to fire a gun or detonate a bomb. And they condemn the victims' families to a life sentence of consequences, staining their lives with a brutal mark they can never forget, even if they somehow come to assimilate the scarcely comprehensible truth that they have undergone a gratuitous, violent, horrifying loss of someone they loved and whose life was integral to their own. No accumulation of years effaces such a thing, and absolutely nothing excuses it.

In light of this, you would think that relatives of murder victims would be the first to cry revenge, and wish to see murderers put down like vermin and thrown into a hole. The thought of mass killers, bombers, murderers of children, makes the gorge rise in the throat, inviting revulsion and contempt. But even from this point of view, capital punishment is not the answer. There are many reasons why, but one is paramount. It has nothing to do with respect for the murderer, or his rights, or the supposed sanctity of his dangerous life. Rather, it has everything to do with respect for ourselves, and the kind of society we should strive to have. The point is simple: we should refuse to lower ourselves to a level anywhere near the murderer's own.

If the argument for capital punishment is the Biblical one of an eye for an eye, then execution is no revenge. If a murderer lives as long as his victim's family, and suffers from life imprisonment in some way analogous to their lifelong sentence of loss, then a millionth part of revenge is served. But to kill a murderer not only pushes us in his moral direction, it merely shortens his suffering. When he is the calculating murderer of dozens or hundreds – a bomber of crowded buildings or airplanes – releasing him from prison by death cannot compensate a billionth part for what he has done. Even for the vengeful, therefore, execution is no satisfaction, and yet stains us in perpetrating it.

The capital punishment debate is complex because so many other considerations impinge. Why keep a murderer alive at society's expense? ask its supporters. What about rehabilitation and possible miscarriages of justice? respond opponents. How can some simultaneously be pro-execution and anti-abortion, others the reverse? Are there any differences between abortion, killing in war, and judicial executions? The claim above says that whatever answers we give these questions, none defend capital punishment.