Is Capital Punishment "Humane"?
Many oppose capital punishment. One argument against it is that it's not "humane." Here, “humane” means “compassionate." In this article, I make the argument that capital punishment is the most reasonable social response to murder. First, I ask whether “humaneness” is a reasonable standard to judge society's response to murder. But, second, even if we grant that humaneness is a reasonable standard to judge society’s response to murder, I maintain that capital punishment is the most humane response we can offer to murderers.
Is "Humaneness" a Reasonable Standard to Judge Society's Response to Murder?
First, if by “humane” we mean “compassionate”, then asking whether capital punishment is “humane” is misapplied when we’re discussing the social penalty for murder. It seems more fitting to ask, "What should be the appropriate response of society to murder" and not "Is capital punishment 'humane'"? Society might not be able to be 'humane' given the circumstances. The police officer may dispense with the most "humane" response when shooting an assailant that is putting others at risk, but shooting the assailant may be the most appropriate response given the situation the officer faces and is humane if we consider the broader society the assailant is harming.
Social responses to the murderer may not necessarily be “humane” if we mean by humane “compassionate." So, the criterion of humaneness would be more aptly applied, not in society’s penalty against the murderer, but in how society treats criminals if it must respond to them with force. When the officer uses force against an assailant, he does not just leave him in the street to bleed out and die alone. If the assailant lives, he seeks to get him medical assistance. He takes care of him until the EMTs arrive. The police contact the relatives of the assailant and exercise understanding in dealing with them. Most people would consider these actions "humane" if the officer had to use force against the assailant.
So, social responses may not be initially “humane” if we mean by "humane" “compassionate.” However, the social response to murder is appropriately a forceful one, and how murderers are treated after society has decided the appropriate punishment is where the criterion of “humanness” properly belongs.
In the case of capital punishment, a murderer can be treated humanely, even if he is being put to death. The state can give him a compassionate means of ending his life, usually a much more compassionate end than the one he gave his victim. Furthermore, the murderer can be treated with dignity: not dragged or paraded through a mob, begging for his life in a public forum. Furthermore, a humane death would be one where he does not physically suffer, like in the use of lethal injection.
So, I don’t think that using “humaneness” (i.e. compassion) is an appropriate criterion when judging society’s response to murder. The most appropriate response to murder will likely be force. But society can still uphold the principle of humanity in how it treats murderers when it decides that they should die for their crimes. Society can extend to the murderer compassion in the face of death, with more compassion than he gave his victims.
Let's Assume "Humaneness" is an Appropriate Criterion to Judge Society's Response to Murder...
So, first, I don’t think “humaneness” is relevant as a standard to judge society's response to murder. The social action of force against a murderer is appropriate. But perhaps you still say that capital punishment is the most humane response to murder.
First, we have to ask what our response to murder should be? What are our options? We can’t release the murderer. That's not a humane response to the family of his victims or to the rest of society. Those that berate the death penalty for its lack of “humanness” often only consider the humane treatment of the assailant without considering the humane treatment of society at large. Why should the application of “humaneness” only apply to the assailant and not to the whole of society?
Second, some may respond that the most humane treatment is to place the offender in prison for the rest of his life. But, prison is not a humane solution. How is it humane to put a person in a cage and take away his freedom? It does nothing to uphold the principles of humanity to treat a man like an animal. And what of the ongoing fear for him to stay in prison with the potential for brutality, such as beatings and forced sodomy? And how is it humane to the public that will now be called upon to feed, clothe, and medicate a man who had such a low regard for the life of others? Also if we imprison Jeffrey Dahmer, how is that an act of humanity to the other prisoners, many of whom are not as dangerous? How is placing such a person in prison a humane act if we consider the humane treatment of the other prisoners?
My conclusion is that, even if “humaneness” is an appropriate criterion to judge society's response to murder, capital punishment is still the most humane social response to murder when we consider the whole of society and the range of available solutions.
Is the Death Penalty Ever Moral?
© 2013 William R Bowen Jr