I doubt you’re going to find a single atheist consensus on this topic, given that it’s been practiced and debated in all societies over the centuries, religious or otherwise. The question is older than theism or atheism.
Personally, I think there’s a wide, unbridgeable gap between theory and practice, which makes it untenable. In theory, capital punishment for capital crimes should serves as a deterrent to future criminals. In practice, however, it can’t be done perfectly – by which I mean that you can’t have 100% certainty of the person’s guilt.
It can’t compensate for the crime itself: a capital crime, almost by definition, is one with far-reaching and permanent, irredeemable outcomes. So deterrence, in my view, would be the sole reason to consider a policy of capital punishment. How do we know if that would work?
For starters, I do wish people would stop using the system in the USA to argue against capital punishment, by saying it’s not a deterrent. The system in the USA is so corrupt and flawed that it renders any data on deterrence and recurrence invalid. People are sentenced to “death” on the basis of inadequate evidence, and put on “Death Row” where they may spend many years. They have been sentenced to “death”, but can not be executed because there are doubts about the case, and repeated lengthy appeals processes to go through.
The result is that any deterrence effect has been lost, and “Death Row” is the name of a gangster rap record label. A death sentence in the USA has become the ultimate form of street cred. It’s clearly not working as a deterrent in the USA, but that’s not a sure argument against capital punishment everywhere. What about e.g. Singapore, where the death sentence is rarely handed down, but almost always carried out fairly quickly (weeks) when it is?
To truly gauge the deterrence effect (or lack thereof) would require further study, but that in itself could be inhumane. People are not lab rats to be randomly divided in to active and control groups, just to measure something intangible. So I don’t see any future for capital punishment, at least not as long as we place value on a human life.
Posted: January 5th 2012
See all questions answered by brian thomson