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Abolishing the Death Penalty

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 7/21/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,689 times Debate No: 59319
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (2)
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This is going to be kind of sloppy.

The death penalty should be abolished.

For this, I will be loosely working with Peter Singer's interpretation of utilitarianism, in which equal consideration of interests plays a large role. A vastly simplified example is this: Suppose you have two men, one is in severe pain while the other is in moderate pain but you only have two pills. Equal consideration of interests would demand that we give the two pills to the man in severe pain if only because he requires more to be in pain that is comparable to the man in moderate pain. Equal treatment is not necessarily the same treatment.

Morality in the most general of senses exists to promote mankind's flourishing and within this general framework justice's role would be to redress behaviors and acts that run counter to the purpose of morality.

Rights are not lost or even surrendered. Killing another human being is wrong; save for in the circumstance where immediate, potentially lethal means are necessary to prevent death or grievous injury.

Theories of natural rights, such as those discussed by Locke propose that murderer's lose their right to life. I disagree on the grounds that rights, which appear to be found on utilitarian principle, can only ever be in question if the cost preserving a right results in a more grievous violation of rights.

The idea of crime incurring debt that can only be repaid with life is frighteningly similar to the concept of ownership.

As a nation, we have killed innocent men and women. Without the death penalty this miscarriage of justice would be wholly avoidable.

The cost of executions is phenomenal compared to imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

In 2012 the National Academy of Sciences found that studies regarding the effectiveness of the death penalty in reducing murder rates could not be used to inform decisions. There is no viable numerical evidence supporting either side.


1. Morality

My opponent uses utilitarianism as the main case for death penalty abolishment. Utilitarianism is a theory that holds actions which do more harm then good are good, the action which reduces suffering the most is the best option [1.]. In fact, I actually agree with this statement, and am shocked that my opponent argues that the death penalty isn't morally good in this theory. Essentially, my opponent argues that executing the murderer would actually increase overall anguish--that equal punishment isn't fair--therefore, the death penalty is unjust. This is virtually the same as most anti-death penalty arguments when it comes to morality. The death penalty is barbaric, and makes the executioner just as bad as the murderer. If a murderer kills one person, executing him merely doubles the amount of death people. But this is incorrect. In fact, one excellent paper looks into these claims. The argument--that the death penalty deters crime--nullifies my opponents argument. Indeed, if the death penalty saves more lives than it takes away, it will reduce the overall amount of suffering and make the death penalty a moral good [2.].

I, to an extent, agree with my opponents equal treatment analysis. Rapists should not be raped, mass murderers cannot be executed multiple times. However, the fact remains: punishments should remain proportional to the crime inflicted. A robber, for example, should not be punished the same way as a murderer. Obviously the murderer deserves a worse punishment. What is the worst punishment? Death. As a little kid, when you realize people die, did you ever roll around in bed, worried you would die that night? Scared of death? What was after death--if anything? The fact is, people fear death. It is unknown, we fear the unknown--and our basic instincts tell us that we should avoid death, so that we can continue reproducing. The fact is, although many people say "prison is worse", I suspect if in a courtroom where death was a certianty or life in a jail was probable, they would choose jail every time. Using this basic logic, Edward Fesser argues that, at some point, death penalty would be the most morally just punishment. Even assuming one murder isn't enough to warrant death, the fact is--at some point--the death penalty would be a desirable punishment in order to instill a sense of justice [3.].

2. Cost

The cost argument is totally false. In fact, I have written extensivley on the subject. In one article, I summarized both recent and old research. What I found was that the research arguing the death penalty costed more only considered a few factors--and often times didn't even use death penalty cost data. When this is accounted for, although the upfront costs of the DP (trial) are high, in the long run the DP and prison options costed about the same, and in some cases less. In fact, when factors such as plea bargians, geriatric care, and others are accounted for, the death penalty is far cheaper than life in prison. [4.].

In fact, Virginia has a very swift (6 years) and efficient (65% sentenced to death get executed) death penalty policy. The DP in Virginia is cheaper than life in prison. Further, most studies claiming a high death penalty cost are flawed in many respects [5.].

One analysis, using multiple data sources as well as assuming many different variables has found that DP costs much less than life in prison. In one assumption, the DP costs 1.88 million, and life in prison costs 3.01 million. At a nigher estimate, you get 5.5 million for prison, and about 1.9 for the death penalty. If these numbers are anywhere near correct, the death penalty costs far less--and at worst the same--as an equivalent sentence to life in prison [6.].

These studies dont even take into account the cost of murder to a society. Therefore, assuming the death penalty deters lives, the death penalty would save a lot more than I am even arguing. If this was the case, the cost argument is destroyed.

3. Innocence

The innocence argument is not very convincing when the facts are looked into. Anti DP groups have argued 34 people have been exonerated using DNA evidence (higher numbers are often tainted as they do not account for actual innocence, whereas DNA does). OF these, 18 have been executed... An error rate of .3 percent... or, 99.7% success rate. And the rate is likely even lower as this data is from pre-1989. Since then, DNA techniques have been used in more and more trials and has become more accurate. If someone thinks its better to let 10 people go then to have 1 falsely executed, good. The current system is doing much better than that right now. And again, this ignores the fact that the death penalty saves lives [7.].

Thus, the amount of innocent being executed is trivial. It is very small, and the amount of lives saved far exceeds the innocent lives lost.

4. Deterrence

My opponent cites the NAS pannel on the issue, which claims there is no good evidence that the DP deters lives, but also states there is no evidence that it doesn't. The pannel did not say that the DP doesn't deter, rather, they said there should be more research. However, this report was extremely biassed and flawed. For example, there are actually 18 peer-reviewed studies which show that the death penalty deters crime and saves lives. However, the NAS pannel ONLY looked at 10 of these. There is NO explanation as to why these studies were excluded. They seem to have arbitrarily removed them in order to push a public agenda. Indeed, if you add 8 studies--almost doubling the amount of research they included--it would have been scientific malpractice to say there is no evidence for deterrence (but, it is worse to exclude them). Had they missed one or two studies, ok, fine. But 8?! Ignoring 8 studies that refute their conclusion is very telling about the pannels reliability. When it comes to non-peer reviwed studies, they ignored 1 (out of 2) that showed that the death penalty was a strong deterrent. Economist John Lott further destroys this shameful summary of the research, arguing "Most disappointingly, the NRC report does not discuss the serious problems with most of the studies that find no clear effect. The few studies that fail to find any deterrence from the death penalty have done some odd things. For instance, they measure the execution rate in strange ways. Take an approach first used by Lawrence Katz, Steven Levitt, and Ellen Shustorovish and later by John Donohue and Justin Wolfers. They do not look at the percent of murders that result in execution, but instead at the number of executions per prisoner. [emphasis original]" [8.]. Also, the author of the NAS reports are all DP opponents...

Indeed, even a pro-death penalty think tank has done a better job counting the death penalty research articles, including all 18 deterrent studies, and 5 showing no effect (they miss 1 in the no effect section, however, that study found a weak deterrent effect, so the mess up is reasonable) [9.].

The fact is, the vast majority of the research demonstrates a strong deterrent effect, and the studies showing no relationship with crime are weak, at best. To argue no relationship is not real is blindness to the economic research. The fact is, people respond to incentives, and it is indisputable that the DP deters *some* crime [10.].


The DP deters crime, and saves lives. Does not threaten innocents, is not costly, and is morally correct.

*longest links shrunk to fit argument
Debate Round No. 1


Death is truly the most primal fear we can have as living creatures. It is the single most "valuable" thing we possess, it is arguably the only thing we know; however, if you accept the premise that killing another human being is wrong, if we can avoid killing someone, or in this case executing them without incurring a comparable or greater moral cost we should. Edward Fesser made his argument on one premise: Humans are rational creatures. To an extent this is true, rationality is a trait, while not unique in humans, that plays a large role in society, but we are not wholly rational beings. Rationality helps us make decisions but is not the sole factor or even the dominant one in many circumstances.

Death has likely been the penalty for murder for a large part of human history but murders still happen. The murder rate has been declining since the early/mid 1990's.

What is interesting is if you look at the murder rate per state, regionally etc:

You cannot accurately guess which states have a higher rate of murder. (My grievance is with the states that have the death penalty and have not executed anyone, that is not clearly explained or differentiated because that would be interesting to examine by itself). They sort the lists in a myriad of ways but in theory the states with the most executions should have the lower murder rates but this does not appear to be the case.

Mind you, statistics regarding the effectiveness of execution pose several problems:

1) We're not wholly rational, if we were there would be no murders if execution was the penalty.
2) Correlation doesn't prove causation.
3) Vast oversimplification of the phenomenon.
a) There are far more variables than we lend credence to but many of them are probably cultural and on rare occasion biological.
b) Falling murder rates.

Both sides of this debate have provided numbers and I would not make my decision based off of them. My primary concern is that a true test of whether or not the death penalty works would involve having two of the exact same state occupied by the same people, one with the death penalty and one without but we do not have that luxury. Instead of attempting to navigate an ocean of variables we could change one.

Regarding cost, I would like to point out that the death penalty in Kansas would cost them more. Mind you, to ascertain whether or not it is in fact more expensive would be to examine the criteria for a resident in a maximum security prison, and to figure out how many people convicted of murder would remain there for the full sentence.

Discounting that we have executed even one innocent person is abhorrent. We could risk executing no innocent people by simply removing the death penalty, rather than attempting to feed a "sense of justice" which we seem to confuse with blood lust. Personal experience speaking: I've been there, friend dead, and what was on my mind was not justice.



Fesser didn't mention the rationality of human nature, he only argued for proportionality... So any rationality argument I will put under deterrence, since rational choice theory is what this argument rests upon.

If you look at criminal behavior, it is wholly rational. Criminals target the weak. In cases where you arm civilians, there is reduced crime. Even assuming in 1/10 cases the victim wins, in the other 9 the bad guy wins, there is still a strong deterrent effect. Even assuming 1/100 muggers are shot, and 99 are fine, the risk is still extremely high. Most of these victims do not carry enough money to be worth a 1% chance of death. Most murder victims, on balance, are generally not worth dying for--even if the chance of death is fairly small (there are a few cases where people wont act rationally; terrorism for example). But the fact is, based on criminal behavior, it is very easy to see that most criminals act rationally. If the costs of an action are too high, they will opt to commit different crimes or wait until the cost of the crime decreases (they wait until the laws change, for example). As economist David Friedman points out, "[t]he decision to commit a crime, like any other economic decision, can be analyzed as a choice among alternative combinations of costs and benefits." [1.].

In a similar line of logic, Murray Rothbard further elaborates, "it seems indisputable that some murders would be deterred by the death penalty. Sometimes the liberal argument comes perilously close to maintaining that no punishment deters any crime — a manifestly absurd view that could easily be tested by removing all legal penalties for nonpayment of income tax and seeing if there is anyreduction in the taxes paid. (Wanna bet?) Furthermore, the murderer himself is certainly "deterred" from any repetition of his crime — and quite permanently." [2.].

Arguing that murders still happen when the death penalty exists is a terrible argument. This view assumes the death penalty is the only factor when it comes to crime. The death penalty may reduce murder, but it wont eliminate it--the fact is, murder will likely always exist. However, what is interesting to note is that when murder began to decrease, is the same time death penalty usage also began to increase--and eventually peak. The vast majority of recent research obtains their deterence conclusion from researching the period before, during, and after death penalty was banned and then relegalized. They generally find that crime was falling, increased, then fell again. This is in direct support of what deterrence theory supports.

My opponent compares states, however this is a poor argument as well. This assumes the death penalty is the largest factor in crime, when the fact is other factors (arrest rates, conviction rates, poverty, etc.) influence crime much more. Further, it ignores a simple explanation: high crime means more death penalty. States with high crime have a death penalty in order to reduce the crime. The death penalty did, in fact, reduce the crime--but the overall rate still remained above that of other states due to other factors. Economist John Lott has found that generally states without the death penalty had crime lower than those with the death penalty BEFORE they abolished the death penalty--meaning other factors than the death penalty explain the difference [3.]. In fact, when these variables are accounted for, states with the death penalty have much lower murder rates.

Merely having a death penalty may or may not deter crime. States that have a death penalty and do not use it often will not produce a deterrent effect--and can actually find a slight increase in crime. Only in states that use it quickly or often will see strong deterrent effects. Research has confirmed this: this means more death, not less, should be enacted in order to reduce crime [4.].

1) This argument makes no sense. The death penalty does not apply to all murders, therefore, it is impossible to make the murder rate 0. It ignores any other factors related to crime.
2) Says the person who uses cross sectional evidence -_- Regardless, 18 pannel data studies since 1999 all controlling for different factors, different methods, and all having strong support from crime research that criminals are rational, and Becker's 1967 work on crime, there is a pretty strong hint of causation.
3) Oversimplification, lol. You are the one who said the DP alone would make murder 0, and state comparisons are a valid argument... And I am accused of oversimplification. The fact is, there is strong empirical work on the issue which controls for more variables then we could think of. Is that oversimplification, no, it really isn't. It is science [5.].
a) This has been accounted for. Parenting, urbanization, race, etc. The fact is these factors alone DO count for most of the crime--NO ONE denies this. But it is accepted amongst people who work in this area that the death penalty does, in fact, deter some crime. To argue that punishments do not deter crime is illogical--and this has been discussed already.
b) That proves my point. Murder fell fastest in the 1990s, at the same time death penalty usage skyrocketed... And wasn't it my opponent who said the death penalty would make the murder rate 0, so this contradicts here former points...

There are many states that have similar cultures and demographics to other states. These have already been accounted for and used in the research. No surprise, they all show the death penalty reduces crime (though this is weak evidence as it is cross sectional. It is much better to see what happens in a given state as the factors are easier to control for... See the following graphs)

(see page 396 for more. All states show the same trend: legal DP less murder, abolishing DP = more murder);


Kansas uses the death penalty very rarely, has not executed an inmade since 1965, etc. The death penalty in Kansas, therefore, seems to be rare and inefficient, leading to its high costs [6.]. The fact is, in states where death penalty opponents exonerate (often not for innocence reasons) death row inmates, or death row inmates are rarely executed, we can expect to see higher costs. In states, such as Virginia, where a death sentence is fast and likely (65% sentenced get executed), costs are much cheaper. In other words, death penalty opponents artificially make executions cost more by making the system as inefficient as possible. An efficient death penalty system would cost much less than life in prison--sadly, the anti death penalty lobby make this impossible. Further, the Kansas study essentially conceded that the study was flawed, “Actual cost figures for death penalty and non death penalty cases in Kansas don’t exist. (page 10 of the study)” [7.].

Yep, the study didn't even use cost data. Sadly, this is the case for most cost studies. Again, the most accurate studies find that the death penalty costs about the same as LWOP, and an efficient DP system would cost far less [8.].


One innocent person executed is too much? So, as proven the DP is an extremely strong deterrent. Would you ban the DP to prevent another one person from being executed, but sacrifice 10 to murder? If I have the option, I save the 10 innocent people. I end up with 9 innocent people alive, in your situation we have 9 innocents die. And as technology improves, the risk of killing an innocent continues to decrease. (My example right here was bad. With all the executions and the current success rate, it would have been better to say 1 innocent person dying and 1000 saved from murder).
Debate Round No. 2


KageMAP forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3
2 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Posted by Irrelevance 7 years ago
'I'm not doing this because I can't forgive you, I'm doing this because I wouldn't forgive myself for what you do to others' - that person in Saw VI no one remembered, especially not me as I am only able to have watched it illegally.
Posted by near 7 years ago
Life which is the greatest equalizer of this stratified society should the basis for justice. People will tend to avoid doing bad things if they know their life is on the line.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by whiteflame 7 years ago
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Total points awarded:05 
Reasons for voting decision: This debate is finished by the end of Pro's R2 post. Con's arguments simply don't get any direct rebuttal, which is a major problem since he made a lot of warranted assertions about the state of information on this topic that Pro just gives a blanket "it's all uncertain" response to. The best Pro appears to be able to do is present some measure of uncertainty and state that there's a harm in the state killing people, which is never impacted out. So what I've got to go on is the things that are impacted. I get more analysis on morality from Con, so he's winning that, though it doesn't really factor into the debate. His arguments on cost (though I disagree with several of them) showcase a reduction when the death penalty is used. The innocence harm is shown as too small, and based on a straight numbers analysis, it seems to be outweighed by deterrence, which Con is winning to some extent (though some actual numbers on that point would have helped). Con dominates this debate.

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