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RFD for Death Penalty Debate

whiteflame
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9/13/2015 7:51:06 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
This is my RFD for the following debate: http://www.debate.org...

Overview:

This debate is relatively straightforward with all of the usual arguments taking center stage. While this certainly isn't unexpected, it is somewhat disappointing that the debate didn't take any innovative turns. It's not that the arguments are faulty or poor, but rather that every argument is analyzed through the usual lens, resulting in what I view as a rather skewed debate. I'll point out as I go through the arguments were I feel each side could have enhanced their arguments by looking at a given issue in a different light, but I figured I should make this clear from the outset.

The other thing I need to mention (though I'll explore this more in the conclusion) is that I'm essentially given three separate mechanisms to weigh the debate, yet none of them are compared. We have lives lost, money lost, and justice. How, if at all, should I compare outcomes on any of these three points? Con starts to answer that question in the final round, saying that lives outweigh money, but the issue comes up nowhere else and leaves it entirely up to me to decide whether I should favor justice or lives lost. I know the two issues are intertwined, but as you'll see, favoring one could have left the door open for a very different result.

So, I'll go through the arguments one at a time in the order they were presented.

1. Wrongful Death of Innocents

The argument goes as expected: not everyone on death row is guilty, most of those who are actually innocent are "acquitted, pardoned, or charages were dismissed", but several people over the course of the last 42 years have been executed wrongfully. There's some strain over the percentage of actual innocent deaths between the two debaters, but this takes up far too much of the debate over this issue. Pro compares the number of wrongful deaths to the number of death sentences, whereas Con compares to the number of felonies committed, and while I'm buying Pro's number better, I'm just not seeing much meaning to 4.1%. My impression was that most of these are exonerated, something Con probably should have focused on in his rebuttal, since those exonerations are more likely under the death penalty than they are for people languishing in prison with the sentence of LWOP.

But since that never gets argued, I'm buying that the DP produces miscarriages of justice, and has resulted in the wrongful execution of at least ten people. I also buy that this could lead to further wrongful executions, though I don't get enough analysis to show that the 200 Pro cites as being innocent right now meet the same threshold. The potential exists, though, and Con doesn't give much of a response to this number, so I'm buying it. Much of Con's response boils down to deterrence outweighing, and I'll get to that shortly.

There are a number of points that, I think, were missing from this argument. First, Con could have argued that the issues that led to those wrongful deaths are behind us, since many of them can be and often are exonerated by things like DNA evidence that are more commonly in use today.

Second, Pro really should have rammed home an idea he only started to explore in R4: that "it is not a matter of accidental death, but intentionally taking a life." This doesn't get explored much, but it should have been. Con's giving me a basic number calculation and telling me that more lives saved = better. This is the only time Pro starts to challenge that view, but it's half-hearted and too late to get any serious traction. There is a difference between deaths produced by individuals unrelated to the case who are acting based on a nebulous effect of deterrence and the government actively killing people using legal mechanisms, and I would have liked to have seen more on this, though that would have required that Pro focus far more on justice than on the number of lives lost, which really was the focus of much of the argumentation in this debate. I'll get into that more on the justice points from Con, but I just wanted to note that this issue could well have changed the focus of the debate and swung a very important argument in Pro's favor.

2. High Cost

I'm not going to spend much time here, mainly because a) Con pointed out that other issues outweigh cost, b) it's a bit of a mess to go through with no clear victor, c) it's (again) highly dependent on the outcome of deterrence, and therefore really doesn't matter much in this debate (because if Con's winning deterrence, then he's winning on the lives calculation), and d) the cost issue is never actually weighed as having any substantial impact on society beyond draining funds from unknown sources (i.e. no discussion at all of the possible use of this money to improve, say, police forces.

I'm buying Pro's argument that, excluding any plea bargaining, but with plea bargaining factored in, there's at least some uncertainty as to whether there's any substantive financial benefit. Anything that is coming through just doesn't appear that potent. Pro's right that plea bargaining will affect the effectiveness of Con's justice impact, but he never explores that in much detail. What plea bargain outcomes look like and how they function against Con's case required more space than Pro gave it, and the impact of the contradiction, in particular, needed to be explored. Without that, it seems the worst Con is doing by mentioning plea bargaining is mitigating his justice impact to some degree, but that doesn't really harm his case.

3. Deterrence

This argument focuses on a basic question of whether those who would commit crimes worthy of a DP conviction are deterred by the knowledge of the plausible sentence. Pro really isn't providing a solid response to RCT, which he only argues isn't true in all cases. So individuals are likely to behave rationally, at least to a degree. Presumably, if we believe they will act at all rationally, that rationality must, at least for some, be sufficient to prevent actions that could lead to their demise.

So, since we've already established that the logical end of this argument is true, the only question is whether or not the logic plays out in the form of empirical evidence. On this end, the debate comes down to who I should believe: economists, or criminologists. I might be inclined to believe the latter considering that it has a more inherent connection to the question at hand, but Con spends more time and better logic examining both how economists are the better source to look to and explaining why the economists believe as they do rather than just providing their thoughts as justification. Pro's best response appears in R4, where he starts to argue that there are big assumptions inherent to how the economists ran their studies, but it comes up so late and is so thinly covered that Con is able to dismiss them quickly with directed and sourced responses.

A quick note. I felt it was interesting that Con's argument seemed to support an increased number of DP convictions, since they apparently reduce lives lost. Pro would have been wise to push the issue on this, since Con's basically stating that he prefers any outcome were fewer people are likely to murder other people over any other system. Under his mentality, why shouldn't we massively increase the number of DP convictions? Shouldn't that decrease the number of murders by an even larger amount? I think this was an opportunity for Pro to challenge the mentality that all that matters is the numbers of lives lost, since it would have forced Con to either defend that increase in DP convictions or explain why it is that we don't always prefer a deterrent effect as an outcome. Either way, it offers more opportunities for Pro to attack Con's case and puts Con on the defensive.
whiteflame
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9/13/2015 7:51:36 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
4. Recidivism

This is probably the most straightforward and simple of the arguments made. If a person is dead, they won't be able to continue to committing crimes. If they're alive, they have that potential. Pro establishes that recidivism occurs and that living convicts are far more likely to engage in further crimes. Con's response that this is a perverse way to prevent future crimes presents an interesting thought process, but little else, as he doesn't examine how that thought process is itself problematic.

That's not to say that he doesn't go anywhere reasonable with it. He does talk about the importance of rehabvilitation. It would have been useful for Pro to present a dichotomy between rehabilitation and retribution, but more importantly, for him to examine rehabilitation as a sepecific alternative insteado f just presenting it as another possibility. Yes, we recognize what rehabilitation is and how it works in general, but we're talking about specific policies here, and not a generalized idea of what an unknown policy may uphold.

Where Pro spends most of his time is on mitigation, and in that he only does a partial job. He points to the fact that being on death row doesn't mean instantaneous death, which means they will still be capable of causing further crimes for a certain period of time. Nonetheless, the point stands from Con that recidivism goes down by comparison, since other jailing systems allow more opportunity for escape followed by murders outside of prison and in-prison murders. Most of his responses seem to be challenging life WITH possibility of parole, but Pro doesn't point that out, nor does he differentiate his stance from that perception. So I'm buying that some murder cases will turn into opportunities for these individual to get out of prison early, to escape prison (though that's not really well supported or clearly common) and more time to commit crimes in prison, leading to more deaths.

5. Justice

I feel like this got second billing to the rest of the debate. Very little of the debate is focused on this section in particular, and though it gets mentioned throughout the rest of the debate, the focus always seems to be elsewhere, making this appear to take a back seat. While this is a problem for both debaters, it's a bigger problem for Con, whose arguments are made substantially weaker by a lack of focus on just outcomes.

To start, Con's argument focuses on honoring individuals as rational beings, something that Pro never really rebuts. Admittedly, I'm not quite sure what to do with this point, since I have no idea why or how much I should care about how important this is. It seems predicated on the assumption that individuals are due expected punishments as a result of their actions, and therefore that they would be personally devalued as rational beings if they aren't punished. It honestly seems a little odd to me, since these people will be killed and therefore be reduced to a completely non-human state, and that's somehow supposed to make them feel like they're being treated as ends and not as tools, but I don't get that argument from Pro. So I'm buying that individuals who are a few steps away from death will feel devalued, even if I'm having trouble understanding why that matters.

Pro's rebuttals read as counter-contentions. He argues that racial discrimination results in unjust outcomes for many individuals by destroying fairness in the trial process. Pro doesn't give this much response, arguing that it's a correlative outcome and not a causative one. While I buy that, I don't think that the argument is reliant on causation. Pro's argument relies on unjust outcomes being produced through the usage of the DP, and I think he shows that the DP is used much more commonly with blacks. What the actual harm to justice that's resulting from the overusage of this outcome versus others is unclear, and probably could have been better elucidated by Pro, but it is clear that the outcome is disproportionate. So Con is winning this point.

The problem becomes that there's no way for me to weigh one against the other. I don't know how to measure the loss of value or humanity brought on by not seeking the punishments incurred by their actions, but it seems like an egregious harm. Meanwhile, the lack of fairness in convictions is more measurable since we know just how many people are affected and to what degree, but the harm is far more difficult to discern, since it's difficult to know just how many of these people actually have their sentences carried out and how long others are imprisoned for. Harmful as that is, it doesn't seem to cause the same level of harm as a basic loss of humanity.

Conclusion:

So, as I mentioned in the overview, there are three issues that get explored in this debate: lives lost, justice, and costs. Aside from a late decision by Con to point to costs as lower than lives, there's really nothing else to go on for weighing these issues. If I'm most concerned with justice, the decision becomes uncertain. Even if I'm buying deterrence and recidivism, the injustice of those losses of life isn't particularly clear, since they're not direct actions of the court.

Unfortunately for Pro, no one ever makes justice a big issue in this debate. It always seems to sit in the background of the debate, and the only reason it matters is as a means for determining yet another impact of the loss of life, though it always seems secondary. I could easily see it becoming much more important, especially considering that the debate is about what is clearly an issue of justice for the convicted and for society. But that needed to be clear in order for these impacts to be pushed to the forefront.

Loss of life has a much more direct impact calculus, and its far clearer. For that, all we have to do is look to loss of innocent life, deterrence and recidivism. The weight of the former is clearly lesser than that of deterrence and recidivism, and if the focus is solely on numbers of lost lives, then Con comes out ahead. With this being the most substantial issue, the debate goes to Con.
tejretics
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9/14/2015 7:57:05 AM
Posted: 1 year ago
Thanks a lot for the feedback, Whiteflame. I intentionally pushed justice aside so that (1) less focus on justice means I can get more focus on deterrence, which is a point I felt I was winning, and (2) the justice turn was easily Pro's strongest offense, so if I kind of shifted justice aside, so would Pro, so the justice turn would gradually crumble and the focus of the debate goes elsewhere, into some of the stronger points I made.

One small bit of confusion: I did give a lot to weigh under the impacts of the underview. I did show that deterrence outweighs justice, since, under a utilitarian framework, deterrence *is* justice (see "Justice," point c, Round 4 -- and some earlier round as well). The utilitarian framework means, regardless of what Pro wins under justice, deterrence outweighs justice exactly because it upholds it. So, however short and subtle, I did provide a weighing mechanism to deterrence vs. justice. And the deterrence vs. costs weighing mechanism was directly under the "costs" rebuttal, re: a single homicide costs $17 million, so deterrence can actually be a strong costs *turn,* allowing a closer weighing mechanism, plus my round 4 underview. Please address this.

Anyway, that's a wonderful RFD, and I'm always happy to gain your feedback!
"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe." - Frederick Douglass
whiteflame
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9/14/2015 2:30:00 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
One small bit of confusion: I did give a lot to weigh under the impacts of the underview. I did show that deterrence outweighs justice, since, under a utilitarian framework, deterrence *is* justice (see "Justice," point c, Round 4 -- and some earlier round as well). The utilitarian framework means, regardless of what Pro wins under justice, deterrence outweighs justice exactly because it upholds it. So, however short and subtle, I did provide a weighing mechanism to deterrence vs. justice. And the deterrence vs. costs weighing mechanism was directly under the "costs" rebuttal, re: a single homicide costs $17 million, so deterrence can actually be a strong costs *turn,* allowing a closer weighing mechanism, plus my round 4 underview. Please address this.

If the underview was meant to focus partially on utility as the chief outcome, then it didn't come across very well. What did come across was that if you were winning other points, particularly deterrence, it could factor heavily into other points, including justice. I don't view that as a weighing mechanism between deterrence and justice, just as a means for weighing deterrence under justice. The same was true about the costs rebuttal. You never really downplayed justice as an impact that I could see, it just got less focus as the debate went on. So if I had decided to focus on the justice impact, the effect of deterrence on justice would have played an important role that I didn't explore in my RFD because I didn't view it as necessary. All the same, it would have placed you in a more uncertain position, and I think you left the door at least partially open to the interpretation that justice matters most.
tejretics
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9/14/2015 2:34:20 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 9/14/2015 2:30:00 PM, whiteflame wrote:
One small bit of confusion: I did give a lot to weigh under the impacts of the underview. I did show that deterrence outweighs justice, since, under a utilitarian framework, deterrence *is* justice (see "Justice," point c, Round 4 -- and some earlier round as well). The utilitarian framework means, regardless of what Pro wins under justice, deterrence outweighs justice exactly because it upholds it. So, however short and subtle, I did provide a weighing mechanism to deterrence vs. justice. And the deterrence vs. costs weighing mechanism was directly under the "costs" rebuttal, re: a single homicide costs $17 million, so deterrence can actually be a strong costs *turn,* allowing a closer weighing mechanism, plus my round 4 underview. Please address this.

If the underview was meant to focus partially on utility as the chief outcome, then it didn't come across very well.

No, I was referring to point C of "justice," that shows that utility upholds justice, so deterrence outweighs justice.

What did come across was that if you were winning other points, particularly deterrence, it could factor heavily into other points, including justice. I don't view that as a weighing mechanism between deterrence and justice, just as a means for weighing deterrence under justice.

Correct, but that also means one can weigh deterrence as having greater impact than justice simply because, in addition to saving life, it also upholds some strong level of justice, adding to its impact.

The same was true about the costs rebuttal. You never really downplayed justice as an impact that I could see, it just got less focus as the debate went on. So if I had decided to focus on the justice impact, the effect of deterrence on justice would have played an important role that I didn't explore in my RFD because I didn't view it as necessary. All the same, it would have placed you in a more uncertain position, and I think you left the door at least partially open to the interpretation that justice matters most.

I will try to improve that. I should craft a utilitarian framework for epistemology, to uphold some Machiavellian principle that holds that pragmatism outweighs morality, and go on from there. Thanks for the feedback!
"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe." - Frederick Douglass