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Crime and punishment

9 September 2013

This is not a post on Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s famous novel Crime and Punishment. Rather, it is a post on capital punishment, its moral implications and social consequences. As such, it might be slightly controversial and easily offended readers might do well in skipping this post.

There. Warning over. (Side note: I haven’t done a post where I had to put a warning or disclaimer at the top for a while now. Am I losing my sting?)


The current legal systems by nation.

The current legal systems by nation.

There are only four types of legal systems in use in the world today. The most common is Civil law, which is based on abstracted laws and rules legislated by a governmental body. This is the legal systems used throughout Europe (except for the UK) and most of South and Central America, Asia and Africa.

The second most common system is Common law, based on the old legal system of the British Empire and famous from all the British and American films and television shows. It is essentially a precedential system, where judges develop the laws in court, creating precedents that will act as guidelines for subsequent cases of a similar nature.

Common law is not the most common after all.

Common law is not the most common after all.

Then we have religious law, now only represented by the Islamic Sharia, where laws are based on rules found in religious scriptures. It is mainly practiced in the Middle east and parts of Northern Africa.

Finally – and now all but extinct – we have the Customary law systems, where old customs are essentially viewed as laws in court. In practice, if things have always been done a certain way, it becomes the law and people are required to continue doing them that way. Today only Mongolia and Sri Lanka practice Customary law.


I’ve talked about fairness before, both in The fairness syndrome and The moral code. I concluded that there seem to be a hardwired sense of fairness in us humans, where we expect people to behave decently and if they don’t, we become outraged. This fairness sense is the basis of all legal systems, both current and ancient. We want our societies to be fair, and for everyone to be treated fairly. However, the way in which we realise this fairness has varied over the ages and across borders.

"Yeah, like I'd eat YOU."

“Yeah, like I’d eat YOU.”

In the beginning we had the old ‘Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’-system. If someone knocked out one of your teeth, you had the right to knock that persons tooth out in return. Or stab out their eye, had they somehow managed to cause you to lose an eye. It’s a very direct and basic system and it’s still in use today. In fact, in the Korowai people in Papua New Guinea, you are allowed by the village elders to take revenge on a murderer by killing him/her yourself. And then you’re allowed to eat him/her, to regain some of the energy lost when the murderer killed the victim. But this is a dying practice (no pun intended) and most societies now delegate the punishment to a legal institution of some sort.

Death penalty

This brings me to the core subject of this post: capital punishment. Just like the old ‘Eye for an eye’-system is declining, so is the practice of sentencing people to their death. Currently, out of 206 countries, only 57 actively practice the death penalty. Of those, most are developing countries, and there’s an obvious trend towards abolishment in countries where the economy is advancing. The only post-industrial countries still practicing death penalties are Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and United States.

Getting rid of enemies of the state is not really about justice.

Getting rid of enemies of the state is not really about justice.

So the number of countries using the death penalty is steadily decreasing. And this raises a question: why has so many countries abolished the death penalty? Is it for moral reasons? A sense of becoming a more enlightened society? Or is there something more practical behind the decision?

An argument in favour of the death penalty is that the presence of capital punishment will act as a deterrent and stop people from committing heinous crimes. In reality, that doesn’t seem to be the case. With the typical practicality of the human mind, criminals (like all humans) tend to suppress uncomfortable facts and rationalise that it ‘could never happen to them, anyway’.

No, I can't see much of a correlation either...

No, I can’t see much of a correlation either…

The statistics seem to validate this view. As seen in the graph to the right, there is no obvious correlation between the use of capital punishment and the percentage of homicides committed per year. For instance, most European countries have the same low-level of homicides as Saudi Arabia, even though none of the European countries practice capital punishment and Saudi Arabia does. And on the other side of the Atlantic, United States does practice capital punishment but still have the same amount of homicides per year as Argentina, that has abolished it.

So, perhaps the reason almost every single developed country has abolished the death penalty is because it just doesn’t work as a deterrent?


But there’s also the moral side of capital punishment to consider. In recent years, more and more elaborate methods of absolving the executioners have been invented. The (in)famous lethal injection machine of United States uses a control computer with a randomising function and a mix of lethal and non-lethal syringes in order to allow the two operators to stay ignorant of who did actually order the machine to perform the execution.

Lethal injection machine - a philosophical folly.

Lethal injection machine – a philosophical folly.

From a philosophical point of view it’s a bit of a folly, since each operator is required to press the button and therefore is essential for the execution to take place. That way, however much they would like to avoid it, they are both equally responsible for taking the prisoner’s life.

But the phenomenon does highlight a conflict of interest. Even though a state wishes to be able to enforce the death penalty, it doesn’t want to force anyone to have to carry out the sentence. This is a symptom of trying to escape responsibility of performing the executions. It’s similar to the notion of people not wanting to know how the meat they’re having for dinner has been produced. And just like suppressing the thoughts of slaughter houses filled with petrified cows and pigs is the first step towards vegetarianism, trying to avoid the guilt associated with executions is the first step towards abolishing the death penalty all together.

The future

As mentioned, there is a global trend towards abolishment of the death penalty. More and more countries join the ranks of post-industrial nations and in the process, most of them leave capital punishment behind. And for good reasons. Capital punishment has no place in a modern society; it doesn’t work as a deterrent and is just a brutal and archaic form of punishment that’s left over from when we had a much more primitive view on justice.

But being an abolitionist doesn’t make me a pacifist. If someone were to hurt someone I love, I would turn to violence in an instant. But that’s just me allowing my limbic system getting the better of me. I would hope that an enlightened and advanced society would keep itself above such primitive emotions and be guided by a clear state of mind. Courts of law are supposed to be about justice after all, not knee-jerk simian responses to emotional triggers.

So let’s call capital punishment for what it is: revenge, not justice.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 September 2013 01:58

    I’m with you on the violence part – anyone hurts someone I love and I’d be all justicey. Watch and see, anyone who thinks about messing with my people.

    The whole thing’s iffy for me. Probably because I’m Merkan. For the most part, I think it’s a terrible thing, and unneccessary, and should be done away with. But then there are extreme cases. People that have done such horrific things that by them remaining alive, it victimizes their victims all over again. People that you have to wonder, is it worth our tax dollars, keeping them alive in prison? I don’t know that many people meet this criteria…but there are some. And in those cases, I think – maybe? Maybe it’d be ok? Just for them?

    (I’m thinking at the moment about Ariel Castro, who kidnapped and victimized three young girls for years, and they were JUST found recently. He committed suicide in prison – although my dad’s convinced the guards committed the suicide FOR him, if you know what i mean – but in that case, the sheer horror of what he did, for so many years, to those girls…I don’t know. I just don’t know.)

    It’s hypocritical, right? To have split criteria like that? Or is that just human nature? I’m really not sure.


    • 10 September 2013 11:46

      Yes. But that’s not justice though, is it? That’s pure revenge.

      And I don’t know. Does a perpetrator staying alive really victimise the victims? I’m not so sure. I’d rather know that people who’s done something horrible are locked away, having to think about what they’ve done for the rest of their lives. Also, I can’t help quoting J. R. R. Tolkien: “Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.” The quote hints at another problem with the death penalty: it’s irrevocable. Once executed, the prisoner stays dead, even if it would turn out that it was all a mistake and he or she was really innocent.

      In the end I guess it for me is about respecting life. If we as a society can’t show that we respect human lives, how can we expect the members of the society to respect life? It’s a bit of “Do as I say, not what I do”, isn’t it?

      But. As mentioned in the post, if someone would hurt someone I love I would take the most horrid revenge possible. People would tell stories about what I’d done for centuries, scaring children and grown-ups alike. So I fully understand the feelings of rage and anger and hurt. I just think that they are wrong and shouldn’t be used in a court of law.


      • 11 September 2013 01:32

        I’m torn about this. I really am.

        I’m in agreement with you about most of this. I really am. And I agree – there have been so many mistakes in the justice system. So many people put in prison and later found innocent, so it stands to reason the same is true for people on death row.

        I guess I’m more eye-for-an-eye than I’d like to think. Which is a bit worrisome.


        • 11 September 2013 14:19

          Well, I agree with that it’s natural to feel the urge for revenge. I just don’t think it’s good. But as individuals, it’s an understandable reaction. I would hope that a court of law would be less emotional though. In my view, justice should be blind and dispassionate.


    • 10 September 2013 14:51

      *nods* I get a lot of your points even if I don’t agree with them personally. I agree with what Andreas said here: “If we as a society can’t show that we respect human lives, how can we expect the members of the society to respect life? It’s a bit of “Do as I say, not what I do”, isn’t it?” I think that if killing another person is wrong, then it’s always wrong.* I remember getting into a discussion about it when the whole Cleveland kidnappings case was unfolding (I don’t even want to say his name). They usually consider themselves anti-death penalty but found themselves reconsidering it with this. I can see that. It’s hard to say that he deserves to live.

      One important thing to realize is that, if I understand correctly, in the US, it’s actually more expensive to administer the death penalty than it is to give someone a life sentence. I think this has to do with the appeals process. (/criminal lawyer hat off.)

      *I think I need a footnote here about war. Generally, I’m anti-war, but I’m not a pacifist. I understand that sometimes, unfortunately, we need to go to war. I’m not happy about it, I don’t think it’s right, but I can see it as a necessity. I’m speaking very broadly here. I just mean that I’m not going to go so far as to say that all killing should never be done, unfortunately. Sorry, I don’t want to derail this conversation.


      • 10 September 2013 23:14

        I have problems with the gray area. I *always* see the gray area. Nothing’s ever been black and white for me…even when it probably should be.


      • 11 September 2013 14:22

        Yes, perhaps it’s best not going into the whole infected debate of justifying costs for different elements of human care, or lack thereof. It can easily become very utilitarian.


  2. 11 September 2013 14:20

    I agree with emmawolf: seeing the grey in everything is a good thing.


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