I recently had an abbreviated conversation on the death penalty. It never really finished and I’ve felt very unsatisfied since. So here are my thoughts.
It is state-sanctioned revenge. An eye for an eye. It has little to do with justice or the safety of society, which is ensured as soon as the dangerous person is removed to a prison.
I absolutely agree that some people are too dangerous to be allowed to live in society and must be separated for everyone else’s sake. That’s fine.
Outside of the view that it isn’t related to “justice”, another obvious reason for not using capital punishment in the United States (I’m unfamiliar with other countries, but assume it’s similar in liberal democracies) is that it costs more to put a person on death row instead of sentencing them to life without parole.
If we are concerned with the costs of life without parole, I see no reason to not allow inmates to work well paying jobs that allows them to pay their own costs, just like normal people in society. The only difference is they won’t be intermixing. Independent prison economies could be run, not much different than other small scale economies. Some employers may even prefer this option as they would most likely score themselves a wage discount by employing felons.
If inmates do not wish to work and refuse to do so, they are welcome to starve to death. However, that is not the only option available. The state could make assisted suicide an option and allow them to decide for themselves.
Furthermore, there is not much in principle from stopping a state from revoking citizenship from a violent criminal who would otherwise be sentenced to life without parole and letting them be on their way outside the country. Obviously, a life outside your home country, without a passport or the privileges of citizenship, is extremely difficult. However, it would simply be one of several options that included the work and assisted suicide options. To my mind, that hardly makes it cruel or unusual and in most cases would not be opted for as it essentially sentences yourself to life as refugee without a camp to call home, most likely ending in death after prolonged suffering.
The central issue for me is that as a full-grown adult, a person is entitled to life so long as they wish to stay alive. They are self-conscious, autonomous, and sentient. These characteristics make the death penalty of an adult fundamentally different from the abortion of a fetus, killing infants in certain circumstances, or pulling the plug on comatose and severely disabled adults who cannot make the decision to “unplug” themselves. Therefore, the death penalty should not be used for both ethical and economic reasons, both of which are utilitarian in their own way, but that in no way precludes killing of others in specific circumstances or endorses the stance that “all life is sacred”.