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Friday, June 23, 2006

The Moral Relevance of Witnesses to Executions

The NYT has an article on death penalty protocols, reporting that "the current method of lethal injection could easily be changed to make suffering less likely.  Even the doctor who devised the technique 30 years ago says that if he had it to do over again, he would recommend a different method."  Although this may be old hat to all you death penalty scholars and activists out there, I did find this somewhat odd:

At the core of the issue is a debate about which matters more, the comfort of prisoners or that of the people who watch them die. A major obstacle to change is that alternative methods of lethal injection, though they might be easier on inmates, would almost certainly be harder on witnesses and executioners.

With a different approach, death would take longer and might involve jerking movements that the prisoner would not feel but that would be unpleasant for others to watch.

"Policy makers have historically considered the needs of witnesses in devising protocols" for execution, said Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Massachusetts who has testified about the drugs used in lethal injection.

Just what is the moral relevance of the comfort of those who watch executions?  Obviously, to many of us, the whole procedure fails to accord with the standards of morality.  But even granting that executing people conforms with moral requirements, I fail to see how the witnesses' discomfort (who are witnesses voluntarily) at seeing bodily twitching can have any moral relevance that could justify infliction of unneccessary pain.  In any case, these people who seek out the witnessing of revenge can surely tolerate a little twitching.

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 23, 2006 at 01:04 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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The comfort of witnesses has moral relevance. If the penalty is not cruel and unusual because deterrence is a valid penological goal, then it is moral for government to make the condemned man suffer as much as possible before death. Suffering or torture may in fact be morally required (for the sake of effectiveness at preventing more murders) but in any case suffering, indeed even torture, should certainly be allowed.

However, executions should not be by torture (all agreed on this axiom?). See USConstit 8am. So deterrence is either not a valid goal or can only inform the process so far. Is a little pain good? How much? Is society's idea of how much is too much diminishing to the point where the answer is "any"? At that point deterrence is no longer a legitimate goal under contemporary standards of human decency (in fact it's never a legit goal if you value people as such but we'll stick w/ the unjust precedent here).

Let's see about retribution as a goal. Again, the more suffering the better, right? If the DP is allowed b/c retribution is ok, then there may be a moral requirement to get the most bang for the buck, thus a requirement to torture or at least disregard suffering at death (see articles quoting families of victims re the lethal injection debate).

My point is that if people are bothered by a little twitching, we should stop tinkering with the machinery. Maybe we’re not brutes that enjoy killing, and maybe we should stop doing it. Unfortunately the Supreme Court has kept this issue out of the civil rights area (for example, they wouldn’t even hardly mention the issue of race in the rape cases) and leaves it up to the vagaries of public opinion (with the added vagaries and corruption caused by looking to the “objective” evidence of trends among elected officials).

Killing killers is killing us.

Posted by: Polvo Rojo | Jun 23, 2006 7:41:36 PM

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