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Is Capital Punishment "Humane"?

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 27 years.

Is capital punishment "humane"?

Is capital punishment "humane"?


Many oppose capital punishment. One argument against it is that it's not "humane." Here, “humane” means “compassionate." In this article, I make the argument that capital punishment is the most reasonable social response to murder. First, I ask whether “humaneness” is a reasonable standard to judge society's response to murder. But, second, even if we grant that humaneness is a reasonable standard to judge society’s response to murder, I maintain that capital punishment is the most humane response we can offer to murderers.

"To be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ought to have known better, is to be treated as a human person made in God's image." ~ C. S. Lewis

"To be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ought to have known better, is to be treated as a human person made in God's image." ~ C. S. Lewis

Is "Humaneness" a Reasonable Standard to Judge Society's Response to Murder?

First, if by “humane” we mean “compassionate”, then asking whether capital punishment is “humane” is misapplied when we’re discussing the social penalty for murder. It seems more fitting to ask, "What should be the appropriate response of society to murder" and not "Is capital punishment 'humane'"? Society might not be able to be 'humane' given the circumstances. The police officer may dispense with the most "humane" response when shooting an assailant that is putting others at risk, but shooting the assailant may be the most appropriate response given the situation the officer faces and is humane if we consider the broader society the assailant is harming.

Social responses to the murderer may not necessarily be “humane” if we mean by humane “compassionate." So, the criterion of humaneness would be more aptly applied, not in society’s penalty against the murderer, but in how society treats criminals if it must respond to them with force. When the officer uses force against an assailant, he does not just leave him in the street to bleed out and die alone. If the assailant lives, he seeks to get him medical assistance. He takes care of him until the EMTs arrive. The police contact the relatives of the assailant and exercise understanding in dealing with them. Most people would consider these actions "humane" if the officer had to use force against the assailant.

So, social responses may not be initially “humane” if we mean by "humane" “compassionate.” However, the social response to murder is appropriately a forceful one, and how murderers are treated after society has decided the appropriate punishment is where the criterion of “humanness” properly belongs.

In the case of capital punishment, a murderer can be treated humanely, even if he is being put to death. The state can give him a compassionate means of ending his life, usually a much more compassionate end than the one he gave his victim. Furthermore, the murderer can be treated with dignity: not dragged or paraded through a mob, begging for his life in a public forum. Furthermore, a humane death would be one where he does not physically suffer, like in the use of lethal injection.

So, I don’t think that using “humaneness” (i.e. compassion) is an appropriate criterion when judging society’s response to murder. The most appropriate response to murder will likely be force. But society can still uphold the principle of humanity in how it treats murderers when it decides that they should die for their crimes. Society can extend to the murderer compassion in the face of death, with more compassion than he gave his victims.

Was it "humane" for the state to spare Jeffrey Dahmer's life and not execute him?

Was it "humane" for the state to spare Jeffrey Dahmer's life and not execute him?

Let's Assume "Humaneness" is an Appropriate Criterion to Judge Society's Response to Murder...

So, first, I don’t think “humaneness” is relevant as a standard to judge society's response to murder. The social action of force against a murderer is appropriate. But perhaps you still say that capital punishment is the most humane response to murder.

First, we have to ask what our response to murder should be? What are our options? We can’t release the murderer. That's not a humane response to the family of his victims or to the rest of society. Those that berate the death penalty for its lack of “humanness” often only consider the humane treatment of the assailant without considering the humane treatment of society at large. Why should the application of “humaneness” only apply to the assailant and not to the whole of society?

Second, some may respond that the most humane treatment is to place the offender in prison for the rest of his life. But, prison is not a humane solution. How is it humane to put a person in a cage and take away his freedom? It does nothing to uphold the principles of humanity to treat a man like an animal. And what of the ongoing fear for him to stay in prison with the potential for brutality, such as beatings and forced sodomy? And how is it humane to the public that will now be called upon to feed, clothe, and medicate a man who had such a low regard for the life of others? Also if we imprison Jeffrey Dahmer, how is that an act of humanity to the other prisoners, many of whom are not as dangerous? How is placing such a person in prison a humane act if we consider the humane treatment of the other prisoners?

My conclusion is that, even if “humaneness” is an appropriate criterion to judge society's response to murder, capital punishment is still the most humane social response to murder when we consider the whole of society and the range of available solutions.

Is the Death Penalty Ever Moral?

© 2013 William R Bowen Jr


Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on March 27, 2013:

No question in the death vs incarceration battle, death is the more fearsome for most people; I would inclined to die than face life in prison, but that is just me.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on March 27, 2013:

ME, The question here is whether or not a person in the heat of passion can suddenly be sobered by the realization that he might die if he pulls the trigger. Whatever deterrent that thought might have on a potential murderer; we have to agree that the fear of death would be a greater deterrent than the fear of incarceration. There is no greater, abiding fear like the fear of death; nothing compares to it. So, if the fear of death is not much of a deterrent, then the fear of imprisonment is even less.

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Having said that, I’m unwilling to concede that the fear of death lacks a deterrent effect. Even in the state of Texas, you are much more likely not to be executed if you commit a murder. So, there is little basis to the claim that the death penalty lacks deterrence. The penalty would need a fairly consistent application to make any claim as to its lack of deterrence. Now, once on death row, your fate is more certain in Texas than most other places, but the murderer is not likely to end up there in the first place. Capital punishment is so miserably implemented in the US that it’s a wonder that it’s a deterrent at all. Yet, some recent research reports that it still has a deterrent effect.

Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on March 26, 2013:

I have to wonder how many murderers in the State of Texas, where being on death row is a near death sentence, compared to other states, actually considered whether or not they would end up there before pulling the trigger, or even taking a gun to the crime they are about to commit. Wouldn't you agree that most murders are between people who know each other and it is in a moment of passion? Not a likely time to debate with oneself over the likelihood of the act leading to your own death.

As to statistics, consider this, of the top 25 states in terms of murder per 100,000 (Texax ranks 23rd) only four, NM (3rd), MI (5t,h), NJ (24th), and WV (25th), don't have death penalties. Of the lowest 25, 11 don't have death penalties. That was in 2011. While the mix of states changed a little bit between the top and bottom 25, from 1997, the number of states without death penalties in each category remained constant. Go figure.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on March 26, 2013:

ME, first of all, there is no way I can discuss the death penalty and the declining birthrate of Europe in the same breath. I would not even know where to start.

On the matter of deterrence, the evidence is mixed. It’s a wonder that there’s any evidence of deterrence, given the miserable application of the death penalty. Yet there are recent studies (several in fact) that support deterrence. As for whether or not a competent application of the death penalty for murder would provide a deterrent effect, this strikes me as Human Nature 101: the fear of death is like no other fear, not corporal punishment, certainly not incarceration. If a man knew he would almost certainly be executed and executed soon for murder, it would be a deterrent. Where is the rationale in believing that the fear of death is a deterrent in every other activity except the perpetration of violent crime?

Third, the comment that the current death penalty regime is a crap shoot does not support the facts. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there is no evidence that any innocent citizen has been put to death by the death penalty. If you mean by “scrutinized” that Canadian and European justice should be judged, I agree. they are judged and found wanting. Finally it seems a leap that bigots, who we normally assume are backwater and ignorant would even know what the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments are.

Finally, thanks again for your comments and reflections on this topic.

Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on March 25, 2013:

Bibowen, I don't think the death penalty, or the lack thereof, has any effect on the murder rate, but in any case, that wasn't what I was referring to regarding extinction. I was thinking more in terms of wars and nuclear holocausts. We can keep murdering each other till hell freezes over and it will never catch up to the birth rate; but we have had global conflagarations throughout history that have actually shrunk the population appreciably and altered the birth rate for awhile (of course you have things like the plague that killed 30% or so of Europe, wasn't it?)

By "fairness" I mean killing the right person. As it stands now, it is still a crap shoot if the person on death row actually did the crime he or she is going to die for. As to the other kind of "fairness", I think I would withhold judgement about America's degree of fairness until Canadian and European justice systems have been scrutinized; you have to keep in mind, America is still a very bigoted country where a large segment still begrudges the 13 - 15th and 19th Amendments.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on March 25, 2013:

ME, Thank you for these thoughtful reflections. I would like to respond to several of your comments:

As for the issue about going into extinction, each day about 35 people are murdered in the US (that's just the number of murders that we have proved). I would suggest that if there were a "swift-and-certain" death penalty, that number would fall through the floor. Far from extinction, I believe a more certain use of the death penalty would result in a significant drop in the number of murders.

As for "appropriate" I don't know how much more appropriate we can be than we are currently. No nation has even come close to (at least in recent times) being preoccupied with the humane death of murderers who gave little (if any) thought to the suffering of their victims.

If by "fairness" you mean that everyone was treated the same, then it isn't fair. But I would submit that that standard is unreasonable. It can't be sustained with any crime, regardless of the penalty. But I say that if the person got his day in court, if he was represented by counsel, if there was concern to keep out tainted evidence, if he had a jury of his peers, and ample appeal, then he was treated "fairly," even if he was treated differently than someone else in another county or state.

Again, thank you for these reflective remarks and best wishes.

Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on March 25, 2013:

I currently oppose the death penalty, not because it is immoral (it is not) or inhumane (it doesn't have to be), but because humans apparently have an inability to apply it fairly or appropriately.

State sanctioned killing is a fact of life for all societies be it secular or religious (with a few minor exceptions). To do so as an idividual or as a group is part of who we are and to not kill one another takes an act of will power on the part of the individual or group. If you can, point to any point in history to invalidate my assertion.

Clearly, it is in societies best interest not to slaughter each other on a regular basis, we would soon become extinct; that isn't to say of course that humanity hasn't tried to accomplish just that on occasion.

But, to scale this back to your great hub, Bibowen, you make excellent points for sure.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on March 20, 2013:

Thank you for these encouraging comments. Best Wishes.

Angela Blair from Central Texas on March 20, 2013:

Good Hub -- well thought out. I, personally, favor the death penalty for murdering another human being and always have. Best/Sis

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