Ross Douthat has a strange article in the NYT this weekend. He seems to be arguing that the death penalty is good (or plays a worthwhile function) because it reminds us to be vigilant about who is put in to prison. He argues as follows:
If capital punishment disappears in the United States, it won’t be because voters and politicians no longer want to execute the guilty. It will be because they’re afraid of executing the innocent.
This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.
This argument interests me, because it is generally raised as a weakness of Utilitarianism. One of the objections that is supposed to show that Utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory is that by Utilitarian reasoning, it would be fine to execute the innocent if this lead to the “greater good” (for example by dissuading crime in general).
In Douthat’s argument Execution is playing a kind of Utilitarian role. It is considered ok to kill some prisoners, because it reminds us to care about the standards of evidence invoked against other prisoners. This seems like terrible reasoning to me.
He then writes:
Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received.
OK, I agree that we want a judicial system that we can trust. But I don’t think the costs of that system is that many innocent peple should be put to death.