I read Debra Chua’s The Death Penalty: Pragmatic and Moral Considerations published on September 12th with some disappointment. While I acknowledge her desire to further understand the role and significance of retributivist arguments in the moral justification of our judicial system, and applaud her suggestion of the removal of the mandatory clause of the death penalty, favouring an approach that would take important mitigating factors into account, I see her current reasons for support of the death penalty as misguided.
Ms. Chua contends that the lack of statistical evidence to establish a negative causal relationship between crime rate and capital punishment “does not necessarily count against the argument for deterrence”. However, I ask, should the burden of proof not be on those who claim the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring potential criminals, rather than on those who call for its abolishment? To give an analogy, if a scientist were to claim that eating large amounts of cheese were effective in curing cancer, would it not be his or her onus to provide evidence for this claim? While other scientists could effectively try to disprove it, the scientist who made the claim is first expected to demonstrate the truth of his or her statement. In the same way, it has been and always will be the burden of proponents of the death penalty to prove the method’s effectiveness; that it has been used for so many years across so many states in spite of the fact that, in Ms. Chua’s words, “there has been no empirical study, in Singapore or elsewhere, which conclusively demonstrates the causal link between the use of capital punishment and falling crime rates”, makes the necessity of such evidence even more apparent.
In making the deterrence argument for capital punishment from “a more common sense approach”, Ms. Chua suggests that the “finality and irrevocability” of death is definitely more likely to dissuade would-be criminals than the lack of freedom in lifetime imprisonment. Indeed, this may be the case. Yet she fails to see that it is exactly these attributes of death that should prevent us from considering capital punishment at all. Like hers, my argument also appeals to common sense. Most, if not all of us, would agree that humans are fallible—we make mistakes. No matter how hard we try, slip-ups still occur. And often we are told that this is okay, because we can try again. But when an individual is sentenced to death, and when the sentence has been carried out, there is no trying again. He or she is dead. No re-trial, no apologies, no compensation to loved ones can amount to the innocent life that was lost. And to what end? The supposed deterrence of potential criminals has yet to be proven. Even one mistake is one too many! While incarceration (especially for extended periods of time) is also difficult to compensate for, only death itself forecloses any meaningful attempt at reconciliation with the victim.
In sum, Ms. Chua states that her reasons for support of the continued use of the death penalty are pragmatic. Then I must question if supporting a form of punishment that has no conclusive proof of increased deterrence (or any at all) and which puts (even a small number of) innocent lives at risk is indeed the most practical and rational choice, especially when alternatives are clearly present.
Year 3, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences