The Oft-Forgotten Argument for the Death Penalty: What is the Value of Vengeance?

What is the value of vengeance? In Romania, a man has become a national hero after killing two men–a judge and a politician–who allegedly raped his daughter. Authorities had been completely incompetent in investigating the crime. He is currently on the run.

First off, I’m a death penalty agnostic. I think the question is horribly difficult and, if any philosophical progress is to be made, we must separate the issue into two distinct questions: 1) Is it conceivably possible that someone can deserve to die? 2) If yes, is it okay for the state to decide this and to carry out the decision? The latter question focuses not only on the relationship between a state and its citizens, but also on the reliability of the procedures set up by the justice system. As Furman v. Georgia‘s tangled-web of a plurality decision shows (every justice wrote an opinion), there is room for healthy debate on either of these vexing questions.

Nevertheless, I often find myself stepping in and conceptually defending the pro-death penalty side. Many people who disagree with the death penalty argue from the implicit position that nobody deserves to die. They point out that killing the perpetrator will not help anything, that the death penalty does not deter crime, that it is a racist policy, that it is a classist policy, that it is categorically wrong for the state to kill…etc. All fine points, certainly. However, I continually feel that the only really good argument for the death penalty, retribution, is usually elided over.

Justice is often represented by a scale. For justice to reign we must have balance between causes and effects. A wrong requires a right, people should not be allowed to gain from their wrongdoings, balance must be restored. Occasionally, with situations like the one in Romania, we are reminded of the sense of justice, balance, and, well, vengeance that permeates our moral psychology.

As such, I think many of the anti-death penalty arguments are quite compelling. It is racist. It is classist. It does not deter significantly (still some debate on this, though). However, perhaps, just perhaps, they deserve it. Despite lofty ideals about criminal punishment and social ordering, the purposes of the criminal law, and the sociology of crime, at the end of the day, we mostly punish criminals because we think they deserve it. The balance is outta whack.

Many people feel that such motivations are beyond those that an enlightened people should have. Drunk on theories of social causation, they hope for a Star Trek-like future where crime is understood, not punished, and our problems are solved with science and social policy. One wonders how magnanimous they would feel if their loved one was raped or murdered and the authorities were inept or corrupt.

One of the major developments in the history of law has been the prohibition on self-help. In tribal legal systems the law was enforced by posse, blood feud, trial by battle, etc. Interposing the state between the victim and the perpetrator helped solve the problem of vigilantism. Giving up your ability to exact justice, however, means that the state must do a reasonably good job of acting in your stead.

Our desire for vengeance may be base and animalistic, but it is undeniable. Social engineers can wish for a different, more enlightened mankind all they want, but they must work with this animalistic horde that believes in the righteousness of punishment for its own sake.

All of these considerations, however, only make the death penalty question more difficult, and increase my agnosticism.

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