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  • What are the moral costs of the death penalty?

What are the moral costs of the death penalty?

In several upcoming issues, we will focus on Bryan Stevenson's important book, Just Mercy.  (Stevenson will be speaking in the Mountainlair Ballrooms at 7:30pm on Monday, November 7th.)  We begin this series with Dr. Jessica Wolfendale, a professor in WVU's Philosophy Department.  She asks us to think carefully about some big questions connected to Just Mercy. Are modern methods of execution painless and humane, as purported, or are they cruel and violent?  What is the moral cost of creating institutions and training executioners to kill other human beings? Please respond to Dr. Wolfendale's ideas or pose your own ideas and questions in the blog.  (If you don't have a Disqus account, you can post as "Guest.")  You can follow us on Facebook:
Jessica Wolfendale
Dr. Jessica Wolfendale, WVU Philosophy Department

Bryan Stevenson's  Just Mercy reveals an aspect of the death penalty that is often neglected in discussions about the ethics of capital punishment: what does it really mean to put someone to death? Once we look closely at our modern execution process, we see that our choice of execution methods and our approach to executions reveals the impossibility of reconciling the use of the death penalty with a commitment to humane values and a rejection of cruelty. Until the early 20th Century, executions in most countries were public and often involved methods we now consider to be brutal and barbaric, such as beheading and hangings. Today, executions in the US are hidden and secret, witnessed only by a select few. Modern execution methods purport to be more humane than previous methods, and we would be horrified at the suggestion that we should use a method such as the guillotine, for example, even though the guillotine is arguably one of the the most efficient and painless method of execution available. We would reject such a method as violent and barbaric. 

Yet our modern execution methods, such as lethal injection, point to a deep seated unease with the reality of the death penalty; the reality of intentionally killing people who are no longer a threat to us. Lethal injection, for example, aims to make an execution appear almost like a peaceful death. But our attempts to make executions appear humane, to make the death of the condemned person seem peaceful, is not really motivated by a desire to reduce the suffering of the condemned. It is an attempt to mask the reality of the death penalty. The death penalty is the violent taking of a human life against a person’s will. And our attempts at creating peaceful and humane executions do not thereby make the death penalty a more humane punishment. Instead, these attempts make us complicit with the myth that it is possible to uphold humane values and at the same time kill people who are not a threat to us. Even if we think some people deserve to die – and that is a question we ought to be very hesitant about answering too readily - we have to ask ourselves what the cost is of creating institutions and training  people to administer the death that we think they deserve.

To learn more, please watch the video of Dr. Wolfendale's presentation: