The Faceoff: Is there ever a time to kill?

"Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man is his blood shed."- Genesis 9:16

Aaron Davis, Opinion Editor

Capital punishment, like politics and religion, is one of those taboo subjects, best not discussed in easy company for fear of offending people.

Please be offended, then: The death penalty is a viable judicial practice in the United States.

One of the many arguments bandied about by supporters of capital punishment is its usefulness as a deterrent factor. It should be obvious to everyone that this is in fact not the case, for various reasons (the actual rarity of executions is a big one). This argument, however, is also often used by the opposition: If the death penalty doesn't serve as a deterrent, why keep it around?

Certainly there is the idea of justice, or perhaps Justice with a capital "J," in that those who commit violent crimes should meet violent ends. Gone are the days when we willy-nilly kill people for horse thievery (those damn horse thieves!) or for supporting the political opposition (the Reign of Terror was a terrifying time, certainly).

These days, if someone finally gets a needle in their arm, he's sat on death row for a while, usually through multiple appeals, and his guilt has, according to the Constitution, been proven beyond "the shadow of a doubt." Every care is made to ensure that those who die are, in fact, guilty. In the United States, the only civil crime that carries capital punishment is aggravated murder. To explain, those who are executed have been proven by the state to have committed the ultimate violent crime - the taking of another person's life in a premeditated fashion.

Another argument, along those lines, is simple prevention. While the death penalty may not have a significant deterrent effect, it undeniably has a strong preventative effect: dead people cannot commit crimes (though in some instances they've voted and held public office). Curiously, there has never, in the history of all jurisprudence in the U.S., been a single instance of aggravated murder by someone who was, at the time, deceased. Removing the violent criminals from society in a most permanent way seems extremely efficient.

On the topic of efficiency: it could be cheaper to execute a violent criminal than keep him in prison for life. It's extremely expensive to keep a person alive; ask your parents, they'll tell you I'm right. It could be much cheaper to execute them.

I say "could be" because, well, it isn't in America. We have an endless appeals process and, on average, the condemned spend 12 years on death row. Basically, if we could streamline the process (without making it easier to go free), say, by allowing two appeals (after what amounts to three trials, the decision should be final), then it would in fact be cheaper to execute than incarcerate.

Finally, I appeal to the American democracy: polls perennially show the American majority supporting the death penalty. Therefore, because the people make the rules here (right?), and the will of the people is that capital punishment continue to exist, it must stand. Right or wrong, it's the law.

"I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide."-George Orwell, "A Hanging"

Jesse Goldberg, News Editor

There are two ways to argue against the death penalty: the moral and the practical. There is no moral justification for the death penalty, and practical justifications used by proponents of capital punishment are usually inaccurate or misguided.

Considering only the act of killing itself, the intrinsic value of consciousness entails the disvalue of non-consciousness, and therefore the immorality of killing.

Once consciousness emerges, it wants to preserve itself, we say, by instinct. Only in extreme circumstances does a consciousness willfully desire to cease. In a peculiar, but significant way, consciousness necessitates its own positive value, and so eliminating consciousness decreases moral value. Therefore, should other viable options present themselves, we ought not to kill.

Consider the act of capital punishment itself and its alleged justifications, and it will still be clear that there is no reason to kill criminals when there are other options available.

On the practical side, effects of killing criminals which are often cited as reasons to have the death penalty include the deterrent factor, financial prudence and unequivocally eliminating a threat to society. None of these actually justify the death penalty in the way in which they are believed to.

Multiple studies and surveys of criminology professionals have suggested that the death penalty is not a significant deterrent for people who may potentially consider committing a violent crime.

While it costs a lot of money to keep someone alive in a prison, it actually costs more, in many cases, to kill that person when the appeals process is factored in. For example, according to a study on the California justice system, "The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate … [or] $63.3 million annually."

Some argue that we must kill murderers to "keep them off the streets" for good. While killing to prevent further killing could be justified, when you have the viable option of keeping a convicted murderer locked up for life, you must take the small risk that he may escape in order to preserve his intrinsically valuable consciousness. Only when an immediate or inescapable threat exists - like a gunman on the loose in an unarmed village - is killing to prevent further killing justified.

Back to the moral argument, if we want to cultivate and express proper virtue, it could be argued that in order to manifest compassion and demonstrate strength of character that trumps an act as vile as murder, we ought not to kill.