25 December 2006

Debating the Death Penalty

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 20, 2006

In the United States, murderers are rarely executed. In 2003, 14,493 persons were murdered while only 65 murderers were executed. In thinking about whether to abolish the death penalty, we should begin by distinguishing the two main justifications of punishment. On a retributivist account, criminals should be punished because justice demands it. On a consequence-based account, criminals should be punished because doing so makes the world a better place.

Retributivists usually assert that punishment should be proportional to the crime. On this theory, then, murderers and rapists should receive punishments that are roughly as severe as the harm they caused. For example, few think that murderers or rapists should be given probation or a sentence of only a few months in prison. The idea behind this justification is that persons are morally responsible agents and as a result they can and sometimes do forfeit their right against punishment, whether it takes the form of a fine, incarceration, or execution.

One problem with retributivism is that it also supports torture. Consider persons who commit a rape-murder or multiple murders. Retributivists claim that we should punish them in a way that is as severe as the harm they caused, or at least get as close as possible to doing so. On retributivist grounds, executing these bad boys isn't enough, we should torture them first. This doesn't require high tech solutions; we could use many of ingenious means that despots have used over the years, including bone breaking and other forms of mutilation, dog rape, and electrical shocks to private parts.

Some retributivists, such as 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, claim that torture is unjust because it fails to respect the murderer's dignity. His idea was probably that torture removes, albeit temporarily, the murderer's ability to lead a self-shaping life by removing his rationality (ability to reason) and free will (ability to act on his reasoning). However, execution does the same thing. You can just see retributivists saying, courtesy of Homer Simpson, "D'oh." A few retributivists think that torture is an excellent idea precisely because murderers forfeit their rights. However, most people don't think that that we respect a prisoner if we repeatedly shock him when he is cowering in his own urine and feces.

In addition, we don't normally think that we have a duty to give persons what they deserve. For example, we think that employers may hire the best person for a job even if he isn't the most deserving. For example, a NFL team doesn't wrong anyone when it replaces a hard-working veteran who plays through pain with a flashy trash-talking rookie. Desert is also irrelevant to a range of state policies, including education, inheritance, and welfare.

On the second account, punishment is justified because it makes the world a better place. The way usually it does this is to make persons' lives go better and one of the best ways to measure this is to look at the costs and benefits of various options. On this cost-benefit analysis the death penalty is probably a loser. The costs of the death penalty are substantial in large part due to pricey trials and subsequent appeals. In 1992, the Dallas Morning News estimated that it costs Texas $2.3 million per death penalty case, which is about three times the cost of lifetime imprisonment in the highest security cell. In 1988, the Miami Herald estimated that the death penalty costs Florida $3.2 million per execution. In 1993, Philip Cook and Donna Slawson estimated that each execution costs North Carolina $2.16 million more than a life imprisonment. These are costs that only a school board could love.

The benefits aren't as clear. One purported benefit is deterrence. The problem is that the studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty are mixed and controversial.

A second purported benefit is the psychological benefit to citizens. However, this benefit is probably not weighty enough. The likelihood of being murdered is very low. For example, in 2003 only about 1 in 20,000 persons in the U.S. was murdered. When a murder does occur, the chance of a murderer being executed is also low. In 2003, there was roughly 1 execution for every 223 murders. The average taxpayer would probably not to pay too much to ensure that if murdered, his murderer will have a 1 in 223 chance of being executed rather than a 0 in 223 chance. Also, the aggregate costs of the death penalty are significant. In 2000, the Palm Beach Post found that the state of Florida spends $51 million per year for the death penalty above and beyond what's needed for life imprisonment (note this figure is higher than the Miami Herald's estimate). Between 1977 and 2004, Texas executed 336 persons. If the cost were $2.3 million per execution, that's $773 million. It’s hard to believe that even when we put a thumb on the scale for psychological benefits, the benefits outweigh these costs. Until the death-penalty process is streamlined, it's probably too expensive.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 20, 2006

Not all killings are the same. Accidental killings, or those due to negligence, aren't in the same moral category as murders. And even among murders--intentional, morally wrong killings--there are differences. Some murders are the result of a drunken fight or a domestic quarrel which got out of hand. Others are pre-planned, what we call "cold-blooded." We might reserve the death penalty for these latter murders. Killing another human being is obviously a very serious matter. Why, then, do so many societies decide to employ the executioner?

Human life is a very precious thing. When someone steps so far out of line as to intentionally kill another, outside the context of any war or police context, society declares the value of human life by taking the killer's life as retribution for his crime. Some killers, it seems, just deserve to die--that they should go on living, even in a prison, seems unfitting. This is a fundamental moral intuition which probably most people have, at least at some point, although it can be extinguished by various ethical and religious beliefs. Perhaps the best way to highlight it, is to consider some objections to it.

"Killing the killer won't bring the victim back." What an irrelevant point, as no one ever fantasized that it would.

"Killing the killer makes us just like him." No, it doesn't. Executions and murders both involve killing a human, but they are not morally equivalent. The murderer does so for his own non-rational reasons--hate, lust, jealousy, vengeance, the desire for a thrill. The executioner carefully carries out the will of the government, which is acting with a view towards what is just. He acts as a legitimate instrument of that government, just as a soldier in a just war does.

"Studies show that enacting the death penalty doesn't deter future murderers." Let's grant for sake of argument that it doesn't. This is a relevant objection only if our main or only reason for employing the death penalty is that it prevents future harm. I don't think that that is the main reason why most people are for it. If someone, say, carjacked my wife's car and killed her, I just think he ought to die. I don't care whether it would prevent future murders or not. It'd be nice if it did, but that doesn't affect the fittingness of such a cold-blooded killer being executed by the state for his crime. I say this--that he ought to die--not in the grip of the searing pain of losing a spouse, but in a sober and reasonable state. I'd say the same about any such killing. Indeed, were I to become a cold-blooded killer, I think I would deserve to die.

"But we know that all killing is wrong. People are God's creatures." Sorry, but it is not a reasonable position to hold that all killing of humans is wrong. If some murderous thugs invaded your home, and were going to kill your children, you not only are permitted to use lethal violence, it seems that in some situations you'd be obligated to kill, to protect the innocent. "But I'd shoot 'em in the knee. Or just call 911." Sure, in some cases, that'd be the best policy. But there would be other scenarios where those responses would be impossible or unreasonable, and in some of those, the only reasonable and moral response would be to kill. That shows that it's false that all killing is morally wrong. Thus, no argument against the death penalty should rely on the claim that all killing is morally wrong. As to people being God's creatures, maybe you should read what you (the religious objector) hold to be God's book. According to it, God personally endorsed death penalty policies, at least for ancient Israel. If that's so, then such policies can't be morally wrong (a perfectly good being can't and won't endorse a policy which is morally wrong), although one might object to them on practical grounds.

"OK, I'll let go of the God-talk. I just think it's barbarous for the government to be involved in killing. I don't really want to go back to that ancient eye for an eye stuff." Some death penalty procedures surely are barbarous, but others, to most people, don't seem so. Now the "eye for an eye" comment raises an interesting point. I believe the point of that part of the Mosiac law was to prevent out of proportion penalties--where the aggressor would be punished with something much worse than he inflicted (e.g. a hand cut off for stealing a pear). The idea is that the criminal should lose at most what he took from the victim, not that he should suffer at least that much, or exactly as much. I think The Objectivist is mistaken in holding that if we endorse the death penalty for killers, then we'll also have to torture those killers who torture their victims. The killer should lose his own life. Justice doesn't also demand that the state also inflict on the killer the same sorts of horrors he inflicted on his victim(s).

"But killing people costs so darned much. And the benefits, such as peace of mind for the victims' families or various other members of the public, aren't worth that cost." This sounds like an argument for reforming our current system--keeping it fair while reducing the costs, probably by speeding up the appeals processes. It's hard to put a price on justice, and the better course seems to be to keep the justice, and reduce wasteful factors that run up costs.

10 December 2006

Recreational Sex

The Objectivist
NOT in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 4, 2006

Recreational sex is sex that is outside of marriage or a committed loving relationship. It sometimes is part of a promiscuous stage in which a person has recreational sex with several people in a short period of time. It’s not for everyone, but that’s a matter of taste not morality. This is no different than many other activities, such as golf, eating McDonald’s fries, and sex with the obese.

An act is wrong only when it wrongs someone or causes great harm. One person wrongs a second only if he violates the second person’s right or exploits her. If a couple has recreational sex no one’s right is violated because both participants voluntarily consent. Nor does it involve exploitation. Exploitation occurs when one person uses his superior position to get another person to agree to a terrible deal. For example, if during a winter storm tow truck operators charged $1,000 per tow to desperate and freezing motorists, the operators would exploit the motorists. Nothing like that is true of recreational sex. And ordinarily recreational sex doesn’t cause great harm. In fact, I’ve been told that it’s a lot more fun than reading my columns.

Religious critics of recreational sex often say that God wants people to engage in other recreational activities (e.g., cooking and book clubs) rather than recreational sex. They often invoke the divine command theory. This theory says that some acts are morally obligatory because God commands that we do them; others are wrong because he forbids them. This is silly. If it were true, then God would have no reason for forbidding certain acts (e.g., rape and battery) rather requiring them. If God has an independent reason for forbidding such acts, then it must be because they are wrong independent of what he commands. Hence, God isn’t much help here.

Others claim that such sex is wrong because it’s unnatural. This is usually followed up with the claim that sex is natural only if it’s for the purpose of reproduction in the context of marriage. Now this obviously takes away the fun away from infertile couples or couples in which the wife is already pregnant. This is absurd.

Furthermore, when we ask what makes an act natural, we shouldn’t be surprised if the opponents sweat as much as the ladies in Richard Simmons’s videos. By “natural,” they can’t mean what’s morally right since this is what’s at issue. Nor do they likely mean acts that are statistically common since activities such as anal sex are common (by age 24, one in three American women has had anal sex) and probably not on the natural-sex crowd’s list of favorites. By “natural,” they probably don’t mean under conditions in which human beings evolved since there is a good chance that human evolution took place in the context of polygamy. Opponents of recreational sex likely would reject any view that is opposed to monogamy. The opponents might think that natural acts are ones that are in line with human beings’ purpose, although they then have the daunting task of identifying what that purpose is. If you think that human beings came about via evolution, and you should, they don’t have a purpose.

It’s not even clear why unnatural activities are wrong. It’s not clear to me that doing chemistry experiments, running ultra-marathons (some are 50 or 100 miles long), or performing ballet is natural. We certainly didn’t evolve to do them, nor are they closely tied to our special purpose.

An opponent of recreational sex might claim that it’s wrong because it’s bad for the participants. He might claim that it leads to sexually transmitted diseases or makes participants less eligible for marriage and parenthood. Now it’s not obvious that acts that hinder the agent’s interest are wrong. Tailgating and watching the Bills might also make a person less eligible for marriage in so far as it makes him fat and bitter, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Even if acts that make a person’s life go poorly are wrong, the opponent must provide data in support of the claim that recreational-sex makes lives go poorly. He might try to show that participants who use contraception and are reasonably careful in their choice of partners run a significant chance of getting a STD or not getting a desirable spouse. I doubt he has data in support of these claims. On average, more educated women have had more sex partners and tried more sexual things (e.g., anal sex and active and passive oral sex) than their less educated sisters, yet are more likely to get college-educated husbands. This doesn’t show that recreational sex doesn’t hurt a person’s chance of getting a desirable spouse, but does show that the breezy claim to the contrary needs support.

In short, it’s a mistake to count a matter of taste as a matter of morality. Sushi, recreational sex, and opera appeal to some tastes and not others. That’s all there is to it.


The Theist
NOT in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 4, 2006

An infertile or “expecting” married couple can’t engage in “recreational” sex as we’re defining it, for although their sex may in some sense be “recreational,” it also occurs in the context of a committed relationship which is intended to be permanent. In this context, sex is not simply desire-satisfaction. It’s about mutual giving, vulnerability, faithful devotion, the smoothing over of relational tensions, even self-sacrifice. It is, in biblical terms, about two people becoming “one flesh,” in some sense one organic living unit, not two. Such a lover is acting for the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefit of the beloved.

The Objectivist argues that actions are morally wrong only if they cause great harm, violate someone’s rights, or exploit someone. Recreational sex, he argues, doesn’t always involve those. Now when recreational sex leads to the spreading of STDs, to abortions, or to women bearing the heavy burden of single parenthood and children growing up fatherless, then great harm has indeed been done. As to rights violations, casual sex in which one of the indulgers is married to someone else does involve the violation of that person’s spouse’s rights. As to exploitation, in casual sex by definition arguably both participants are using each other, as the great philosopher Kant says, “merely as a means” to the end of pleasure. That is, they’re using them in the way that one would use a tool, without concern for their good.

It may be harmless rutting to you, but to your co-rutter, what you’re now doing may be something which, after settling down into marriage, he or she will permanently regret. Sex is odd this way; our sexual activities are deeply imprinted in our memories, and shape all our future sexual thinking and acting. Further, sex is strongly habit-forming. A habit of casual sex, then, gives rise to an appetite for casual sex, and for sex with a variety of partners. And these things wreak havoc on our ability to get and permanently stay in a marriage, or in any relationship much resembling a marriage.

Why can’t we just sexually behave like bonobos, alley cats, or hippies circa 1968? It seems incompatible with human nature; sexual intimacy has a unique value, and we only want to “spend” it where it counts--that is, in the context of a unique and lasting intimate friendship. When humans are sexually intimate, they feel “bonded” in a unique way--each has “known” the other in a way that most of their acquaintances never will. This is why after a casual “hook-up,” both parties feel embarrassment. (“What was your name, again?”) When the lust has diminished, that bonding just seems out of place, given the lack of relationship.

My purpose in this debate isn’t to shame those who’ve engaged in recreational sex. Nor am I interested in outlawing promiscuity. My aim is only to persuade you that this sort of activity is unfitting--even when it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights or cause great harm. If you believe in God, of course, it is very plausible that God would not want us to treat each other as mere masturbatory tools for our own pleasure. Hence, belief in God tends to strengthen one’s aversion to recreational sex. But I emphasize that all ethically sensitive people, believers or not, find this practice to be unfitting.

Speaking of God, let me address believers and those who’ll admit they don’t know there’s no God. The over-arching purpose for the human race, according to Judaism and Christianity, is that there should be a vast and diverse community of people each of whom loves God and loves her neighbor as herself. Recreational sex is unnatural because it is incompatible with a lifestyle of loving one’s neighbor. Loving someone is defined as acting so as to promote their overall well-being. In casual sex, one doesn’t necessarily mean one’s sexual partner ill. Rather, one just doesn’t care what is good for him or her, beyond their immediate pleasure. The other person is just a body, a mere treat to be greedily consumed. What is “unnatural” is what is not specified by the design plan of the human race, and yes, not all such activities are wrong (e.g. balancing a spoon on the end of one’s nose). The ones that are morally wrong are the ones which tend to prevent us from living up to our natural function, activities which prevent us from being the sort of people we were intended to be. Casual sex leads to a desire for more.

Having a propensity towards engaging in casual sex means that you’re the sort of person who habitually ignores the well-being of others. I suggest that this sort of callousness extends beyond the sexual realm to how we treat people generally. If that’s so, this sort of condition is even more tragic than it first appears.