A couple of weeks ago, three New Hampshire prisoners, one a convicted murderer, escaped from prison. What if the murderer had murdered again? On whose hands would the victim's blood have been?
One of the most common, and surely the most persuasive, arguments against capital punishment is that the state may execute an innocent person. One reason for its effectiveness is that proponents of capital punishment often do not know how to respond to it.
That's a shame. For while the argument is emotionally compelling, it is morally and intellectually shallow.
First of all, there is almost no major social good that does not lead to the death of innocent individuals. Over a million innocent people have been killed and maimed in car accidents. Would this argue for the banning of automobiles? To those whose criterion for acceptable social policy is that not one innocent die, it should.
If it were proven that a strictly enforced 40-miles-per-hour speed limit on our nation's highways would save innocent lives, should we reduce highway limits to 40 miles per hour? Should all roller coasters be shut down because some innocents get killed riding on them?
Anyone whose criterion for abolishing capital punishment is saving innocent lives should be for a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit and for abolishing roller coasters.
But death-penalty abolitionists aren't. And that is why they cannot logically build their case against capital punishment on the argument that an innocent may die. They accept a large number of social policies that kill innocents. Therefore, if abolitionists were intellectually honest, they would have to argue that capital punishment achieves no social good or that it is immoral to kill any murderers, not that it must be abandoned because an innocent may die.
But they do not make those arguments because they know that most Americans do not share their view that killing a murderer is immoral and that all murderers deserve to live. So they make the emotional but intellectually dishonest argument that, sure, some murderers ought be put to death, but we just can't do that because an innocent person may one day die.
The abolitionist argument that an innocent might be killed is false for a second reason. Far more innocent people have already died because we did not execute their murderers. The abolitionist has convinced himself, and a sincere but gullible public, that only a policy of capital punishment threatens innocent lives, while abolition of capital punishment threatens no innocent lives. That is entirely untrue.
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