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Reconsidering Capital Punishment – The Rationale

ER Jun 15 Debate. Evan Parker

Proposing the case for re-introducing Capital Punishment

How far will we, – or won’t we, go for the sake of a principle? 

Debate held at the Ethical Society, 11 January 2015

[The case against CP’s re-introduction was made by Barbara Smoker

and  printed in the February 2015 Ethical Record]


Discussing Capital Punishment (CP) these days is a highly emotive issue as was evident in a recent “Big Questions” BBC 1 TV programme, prompted by the killings of drug dealers in Indonesia. The large majority (including two Bishops) shouted down the two people who thought it an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes.

My stance on this matter is very much a rational one, which is developing a progressive society which continuously reviews its structures to enhance the quality and experiences of life for its members, and certainly including eliminating premature death occurring as a result of ‘unreasonable’ behaviour of others. An abiding principle is that human life is sacrosanct and the unnecessary killing of anyone should be outlawed.  With our much-valued freedoms, many of us naturally take risks and tragic accidents can happen; that’s the stuff of life (excuse pun) and I am not considering those in this essay.

There are still many aspects of our society which cry out for fundamental reform. Killing is an intrinsic part of how society functions. We are prepared to kill people if we consider our freedoms or lives are under threat; one of the rationale for our engagement in the Afghanistan War was “to make our pavements safer” although there was no direct threat to us, which lead inevitably to many perceived ‘guilty’ and innocent people losing their lives. Even as a householder, we can kill if we feel our life is in great danger by an intruder of mal intent.  A Police Officer can kill if he considers either he or a member of the public is in severe danger (22 people lost their lives in this way in the UK in the last ten years); no judge or jury presiding here and in some cases the person was not threatening to kill. A split second later then we would be prepared today to spend vast sums on keeping the perpetrator alive until his natural death.



The short definition of ‘consequentialism’ taken from the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: “Of all the things a person might do, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences”. Not doing things can also lead to consequences, pointing us towards a more holistic approach when considering life and death in our society. This obliges us to consider­ the consequences of not only our actions but also of our inactions.  We must therefore consider the most serious case where our society for all intents and purposes lets, through inaction, many completely innocent people be killed and consign many to horrendous and often lifelong suffering. A driver recently mowed down a young mother of two, ultimately leading to her death in a traffic-­calmed road just round the corner of my flat in Belsize Park. We have known for around 20 years that these euphemistically called “traffic accidents” can easily be prevented by imposing and effectively policing 20mph speed limits in residential areas (see attachment).

Intriguingly it was Tony Blair who could have introduced this relatively straight forward traffic act when he came into office in 1997, when there was powerful lobbying by various groups for such action. Infamously, he never wanted to confront the motoring public and to remove their “freedom” to drive at speeds up to 40mph in towns. Had he had the political guts to do this he would have saved the lives of 100’s (likely > 500) of innocent people every year since and prevented the horrendous and often lifelong suffering of many 1000’s (see attachment 2). There is no downside to such a traffic act. Contrary to popular belief, average journey times are hardly affected. I estimate we would save around a staggering £1,000,000,000 pa, produce a less polluted environment and create a safe environment for pedestrians and cyclists (14 cyclists were killed and over 400 seriously injured in the London area alone in 2013) and even allow children to play outside. Please note Jim (our CEO), speeding traffic is most likely the main reason why families in towns confine their off-spring to living quarters, not fear of strangers.

So, in the light that our society already condones killing and suffering in certain circumstances, my purpose is to consider if the ultimate sanction of CP has any useful role to play in progressing us towards a better and more moral society. Human beings (and, as recently shown, apes) have an innate sense of what is fair and just, and around 50% of people in our country consider the CP is justified for the most heinous of crimes.

I suspect, however, that everyone in our Ethical Society opposes the reintroduction of CP.  Certainly Barbara Smoker, Chris Purnell and Ray Ward do. The reasons are primarily because mistakes have been made, it is not an effective deterrent and it¹s barbaric, unfitting for a civilised nation Ray says, and a relic of the distant past. The Bishops of Huddersfield and Hulme said it brutalises our society. For you and them it’s a fundamental principle that society should never be party to the deliberate and unnecessary taking of human life.

So obviously it follows that our members in particular, and the good Bishops, have sound ethical credentials and put great store on the right of all humans to life. Thereby I would hope also you and they take some interest/responsibility, in working to help ensure that the life of every member of our larger society is protected against unreasonable action by others. They/their predecessors certainly did in 1965 when you took on 80% of our population who had completed a polling questionnaire indicating support for CP!   With Barbara very much to the fore (I understand) they lobbied successfully to outlaw the death penalty. However, I am not aware of any significant lobbying action from our members on speeding in built-up areas (much too prosaic!), comparable to the 1960s effort to abolish CP, that would save so many more lives, in this case, of innocent people.  But I stand corrected. I wrote to all the leading candidates up for the recent parliamentary selection in my local constituency suggesting a route to nation-wide effective 20mph speed limitations in towns and received only one satisfactory reply, gratifyingly from the person who got elected.

So please permit me, in the pursuit of further consolidation of these views, to ask members if you would still maintain your objection to CP if:
1. The problem of uncertain identification of the perpetrator was dealt with?
2.  There was some evidence that fewer people would be murdered with CP in place?
3.  There were other significant gains to be had?

In this spirit I invite you all to consider the following facts:
(i)  imprisoned convicted murderers kill others, either whilst in prison or when released back into society. Twenty-nine people lost their lives in this manner in the UK between 2000 and 2010 –  Rehabilitation had obviously not been very effective for these people and this aspect of imprisonment needs urgent attention.

(ii) In many cases in the modern era with DNA profiling and CCTV evidence, there is no doubt whatsoever as to the identity of the person who deliberately murders another. I emphasise that it is only those people who carry out such a monstrous act in cold blood, that would qualify for the ultimate punishment.

(iii)  Contrary to what many think, including both Barbara (Smoker) and Ray (Ward), there is no very reliable evidence that having capital punishment on the statute books does not deter such monstrous behaviour. There are some that think it does have a strong deterrence effect e.g.   


There has been no definitive or conclusive study or analysis, but it was found that when some states in the USA turned CP on and off during the last half of the 20th century, although hugely variable, the results nearly always showed a positive deterrent, even though the average time before exercising CP in the USA is 12yrs. However more systematic work needs to be done and no firm conclusion can yet be made regarding the deterrent value of CP.

(iv) The least crime-ridden OECD country is Japan, which does have CP on its statute books, which obviously and perversely must thereby be a barbaric nation. Its capital, Tokyo, which I know well, is one of the safest cities on the planet; on my numerous visits I thought my daughter at any age would be completely safe in that city day or night. In contrast our nation has the most dangerous city – Glasgow  – 

This of course does not necessarily imply any correlation between having CP available and a very harmonised society; it’s much more to do with the innate culture embedded in the society – more on this later.
(v) A potential gain from having CP available is that we could save on average around £1,000,000 per person executed if the process were efficient (which is most certainly not the case in the USA). This could be used to further reduce suffering in our world. More poignantly, it could be used to undertake research that might lead to some understanding the neurological/psychological processes that cause a small number of people to undertake cold-blooded murder and take corrective action.


I, absolutely, object to the unnecessary killing of any member of our or indeed of any society. But there is an argument that it is a fallacy to focus on how we might deal with the very small number of proven cold-blooded murderers in our society. A severe case of tunnel vision; ­ CP should not be considered in isolation when considering the ethical integrity of a society. For sure, these murderers are a product of our society and you might say they are obviously mentally impaired (although many are intelligent and declared ‘sane’), and it is our responsibility to treat and correct this impairment. However we do not yet have the understanding as to why they carry out, sometimes repeatedly, such a heinous crime, and my guess is that we are a long way off that. My sympathy is more directed to those who have been damaged by these people, not to those who have deliberately inflicted the damage.


So, where do we go from here? Obviously the most pressing priority should be the pursuit of a much better society, through effective moral, ethical, philosophical education, starting early in schools, ultimately producing individual behaviour more akin to what is on show in Japan today. A revolution in the way we prepare children to enter our society is now possible with the advent of the internet and relevant technology, freeing-up time for this vital aspect of education and the development of critical thinking skills.


CHES’s Intransigence Suspected

As for CP, I suspect intransigence by all members of our Society, and can hear you saying No, No, No. Society is demeaned by the deliberate taking of life, and should be avoided at all costs. This is despite the facts and perspective presented above (I stand corrected if they can be refuted), and contrasts with the thinking of many on the subject. On balance, one could argue there is a rational case for reintroducing CP as an interim measure until we get our society sorted.  The facts reveal that  the execution of proven, cold-blooded murderers may save other lives and is thereby not in conflict with society’s existing ethos on life preservation. After all, killing another is on our statute book, either the individual or the state can undertake killing in certain circumstances if they think it will preserve human life, just as it is reasonable to think that CP may ultimately saves lives. Also it does not cost us anything, in fact it does the opposite -­ it releases money which can be used to do good things. As does the curbing of excessive speeds in residential areas.


My position is that our Ethical Society should always work for the greater good, across all the professions, institutions and all levels of our greater society. I hope that after considering the above rationale in this short essay, may just cause some of you to stop and re-think your position on CP and the right to human life.  But having shown this essay to some of my best friends who are adamantly opposed to CP, I doubt it. Paraphrasing, they go as far as saying that even if it were proven beyond all reasonable doubt that CP was an effective deterrent, they would still not be moved. They are prepared ultimately to sacrifice the deaths of others in support of their vision of an idealised society. This can be judged as being entirely ethical, but nevertheless irrational. The fundamental difference between all the killing addressed above and CP, is that CP is an additional deliberate act and smacks at retribution – that’s what makes it so demeaning. You feel equally devastated for both parties. It’s a tragedy for our society. But our failure to take simple action to avoid death and suffering in the towns where we live, already demeans us big-time.

One’s position on this depends whether the focus is on the process that leads to untimely death or the outcome itself.    Bertram Russell said “…when it comes to the philosophy of moral judgements, I am impelled in two opposite directions and remain perplexed”. This resonates well with the CP debate and with me; it is indeed a paradox.








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