The Humanist Case against Capital Punishment

September 24, 2011

Humanism cannot support the death penalty.

Humanism stands for a social ethics of equality, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and government that defend their citizens.

Death penalty supporters appeal to these principles, too. But they narrowly interpret them to justify government killings, and they coldly apply them to the weakest among us. The pro-death side behaves as if some people’s value is higher than others, the rights of the victim outweigh the rights of the accused, the desire for retribution should dictate just punishment, and that the government needn’t defend everyone equally.

The pro-death camp will admit that trials can deliver wrong verdicts. There’s no way to ignore how many defendants get poor legal counsel, and how death-row inmates can be proven innocent on fresh evidence. Yet pro-deathers prefer a criminal system that kills all the murderous guilty along with some innocents over a criminal system that might let a single guilty murderer escape death. The rights of the victims far outweigh the rights of the accused, in their estimation. The blood of the victim on the ground cries out for retribution -- any retribution available -- and the government’s overriding duty becomes the delivery of that retribution.

Dominated by that vengeful spirit, the criminal justice system encourages prosecutors to chase a conviction of whoever they can, rather than the truly guilty; it distracts jurors from the lofty standard of reasonable doubt; and it lets supervisory courts forget their supreme duty of justice for all. In that heated atmosphere of swift vengeance, the criminal “justice” system mostly executes the poor, the disadvantaged, and racial minorities. Evidently, the pro-death camp is satisfied with a system that can’t value some lives as much as others.

Pro-deathers should broaden their principles. Governments exist not merely to deliver criminal justice, but to protect and defend the lives and rights of everyone. When a government executes an innocent person, it violates the ultimate justification for its own existence. The death penalty permits the government to mutate into a loathsome tyrant over its own people, rather than its protector. Other punishment options, especially the life sentence without parole, are sufficient to protect the population and signal disapproval of murder.

Pro-deathers should look inside to ponder this drive to vengeance toward other human beings. The pro-death argument exalts death-retribution as an exemplary valuing of human life. Humanism replies that the rational way to respect human life is to stop killing people. The pro-death side fears weakness in the face of violence against society. Humanism replies that the true strength of a society lies in its commitment to social justice. Pro-deathers are quick to judge who should die and who should live, as if they were a god. Would they want to be on the receiving end of an all-too-human system passing judgment on them?

Humanism stands for valuing the lives of all, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and governments that defend all of their people. These grounds alone are sufficient for abolishing the death penalty. Humanism also stands for elevating human dignity and pursuing the nobler virtues of common humanity. Even if some perfected criminal system could execute only the truly guilty, such murderous machinery is still unworthy of us. Any institution that still encourages vengeance and retribution over equal social justice and protection of everyone is a decrepit perversion of civilization.

Humanism looks forward to a time when society consistently respects humane virtues. But a day of execution is day of sadness and shame. May we have mercy on us all.



#1 Pau (Guest) on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 3:46am

Retribution, understood as vengeance, is not a part of my humanistic vocavulary. I may be able to get retribution for some stolen goods, but I can not get retribution for murder or physical harm.
I agree with the priciple that a role of the government should be the protection of the rights of its citizens, but the death penalty has yet to prove its efficacy in this respect, and if to this we add the errors of justice (one is too many) and the irreversibility of this penalty, isreason enough to reject its aplication.

#2 Herb Van Fleet (Guest) on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 11:18am

I tend to agree with you that , notwithstanding all the hyperbole, as a general rule the death penalty should be off the table (pun intended.) But all rules have an exception. When the evidence is so overwhelming, so beyond a reasonable doubt, as to be a moral certainty, and where the crimes committed are so heinous and so cruel, then I believe capital punishment is in order. Recent cases that meet the these tests include Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh, and Ed Gein (inspiration for “Silence of the Lambs.”) No person whose acts so shock human conscienceness should be allowed to spend the rest of his life with the relative comforts of three hots and a cot. But, again, the crimes that meet these strict conditions are extremely rare. And so too would be the related executions. The execution of Troy Davis in Georgia on September 21st would not have occurred under the standards I propose

That said, where the Humanist movement could help, in my opinion, is in the general area of criminal law. The law in general has become more about process and less about justice. Technicalities have let the guilty run free and the innocent receive lethal injections. There needs to be a more common sense approach and an effort to find means for mitigating the nuanced and essentially frivolous arguments from either side in an effort to keep the baby from being thrown out with the bathwater. That would truly be a contribution worthy of the Humanist philosophy.

#3 erasmus on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 2:45pm

State Sanctioned murder is never Humanist, and against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a the primary humanist document of the entire world. 

Here are campaigns in every US State actively working against the barbarism of the death penalty, courtesy of Amnesty.

#4 Herb Van Fleet (Guest) on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 3:47pm

erasmus, in re the Universal Delcaration of Human Rights, please see “Hunger is not Bread—The Myth of Universal Human Rights,” parts 1 through 5, on my blog at

#5 Herb Van Fleet (Guest) on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 3:49pm

#6 claude A on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 10:22pm

I cannot help but feel you miss so much of the point of being a victim.  I could not imagine Osama Bin Laden or Adolf Hitler given a chance to defend themselves in court, spewing even more horror. I still will support the Death penalty.

#7 Pau (Guest) on Monday September 26, 2011 at 3:43am

I agree that are certain crimes that create a deep repulsion and it is difficult to accept that a person that has committed such an act, be allowed to continue living, at our expense, in the comforts of our prison system. But the repulsion is an act of mine, not the criminal’s, and I should not let such repulsion alter my values. in apersons mind
I also understand how in some cases, there may be no doubt, in a persons mind about the identity of the perpetrator. But, does that constitutes a matter of guilt?. Besides the point that we do not know if we really have freedom to act, we do know that there are many factors in an individuals experience, or in its neuronal make up,which affect its later behaviour.
Guilt is a concept that I abhor, it always always presuposes a judging character. Judging character which is better than others.have to
But also believe that the role of governments should be to protect the secure an safe living of its citizens, and that means to avoid the supposed harmful subjects to act freely. Is the dead penalty the only means that governments have to exert thier function?

#8 Guest (Guest) on Tuesday September 27, 2011 at 4:59pm

The other half of the death penalty is those who are charged with carrying it out. In “Utopia”, Moore argues that butchering meat should only be done by convicted criminals, due to the mental effects it has on those doing the butchering. How much more is that effect on people who administer lethal injection? The multi-shot method that they use is really just ineffectual sophistry, and doesn’t change that the person knows they have participated in state-sanctioned murder.
Regardless of whether or not the person convicted is guilty of the most heinous crime or innocent of everything, the state should not be in charge of murder. If providing three meals and a cot is the price of removing them from society, so be it.

#9 Rich Orman (Guest) on Tuesday September 27, 2011 at 5:26pm

“Dominated by that vengeful spirit, the criminal justice system encourages prosecutors to chase a conviction of whoever they can, rather than the truly guilty.”

What a bunch of sanctimonious bullshit. I think that your version of the criminal justice system and prosecutors must be based on the “progressive” movies, TV shows, periodicals, and books you have read.  You obviously have little, if any, first hand experience with the criminal justice system or with prosecutors.  I am a career prosecutor, and I have even prosecuted death penalty cases, and I can tell you that vengeance does not enter into the spirits of any prosecutors I have ever worked with, and certainly isn’t what drives me.  Every prosecutor I have ever worked with has been a sober minded professional attempting to administer justice, and it is our job to protect the innocent as much as it is to have the guilty convicted.  You are, in fact, so wrong on this issue, that I would doubt any other factual assertion you would ever make on any subject because you obviously are willing to make blanket factual assertions that have no basis in fact. 

“it distracts jurors from the lofty standard of reasonable doubt.”

Wrong.  Just plain wrong.  The standard of reasonable doubt permeates trials in the US justice system.  Every jury, everywhere, is given an instruction on reasonable doubt, and defense attorneys will discuss it at great length with jurors (although I myself have doubts about whether that is a good defense tactic, it is done with great regularity).  If you look at appellate decisions from any state in the US, you will see that they are filled courts overturning convictions because the concept of reasonable doubt was given short shrift. You really don’t know what you are talking about.

“In that heated atmosphere of swift vengeance, the criminal “justice” system mostly executes the poor, the disadvantaged, and racial minorities.”

Swift vengeance?  Swift?  Defendants are given the right to pretrial discovery, motions to suppress evidence, trial by jury, motions for new trial, appeals, further appeals to a higher level of court, post-conviction relief in state court, appeals from denials of state post-conviction relief, further appeals to a higher appellate court on the denial of state post-conviction relief, federal habeas corpus proceedings, appeals from those proceedings to circuit courts, further appeals to the U.S. Supreme court, then usually more federal and state practice with then appeals four or five times over, then state clemency boards, and so on and so on and so on.  Only in fantasyland could you call this “swift.”

“Evidently, the pro-death camp is satisfied with a system that can’t value some lives as much as others.”

Guilty as charged.  I, for one, do not value the life of a convicted murderer, as much as I value the life of his or her victim, or our society’s honest citizens.  Why should you, except for some dogmatic belief that you call “Humanism.”  I am a Humanist, but that ain’t my Humanism.

#10 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday September 27, 2011 at 5:57pm

This is an interesting and forceful post, John. That said, although I recognize a blog post is not supposed to be a model of rigorous argument, I believe you’re not being fair to the death penalty proponents by characterizing their advocacy of the death penalty as being based exclusively on vengeance and retribution. I’m sure many of them would maintain they are motivated by a sense of justice. All sides in the debate appeal to “justice.” At the end of the day, the real issues are whether the death penalty serves any legitimate penal purpose and can be fairly administered, not the motivations of those who defend or oppose the death penalty.

Moreover, you appear to adopt an absolutist position, which some might maintain is uncharacteristic of humanist ethics. There are solid, reasonable arguments against the death penalty based on its administration, in particular, the errors that may be committed during judicial proceedings in which guilt or innocence is determined. It’s a defensible position to maintain that the prospect of even one innocent person being put to death is sufficient reason to remove the death penalty as a punishment. But you state that even if we had perfect procedural justice and only the guilty would be punished, the death penalty would be unacceptable because “such murderous machinery is still unworthy of us.” This seems perilously close to a sanctity-of-life position.

Whether the death penalty serves any legitimate purpose is debatable; however, it seems to me arguments against the death penalty are on firmer ground when based on consequentialist considerations.

#11 Gallant Skeptic on Tuesday September 27, 2011 at 10:54pm

While I certainly agree with professor Shook regarding America’s “vengeful” approach towards criminal justice, I think he assumes too quickly that an anti-death penalty position is the only possible humanistic stance.

I certainly consider myself a humanist, but I derive my ethical values from a measure of reducing the suffering of humans or animals. Hence, it seems to me that in many cases death would cause less suffering to a human being than to be incarcerated forever without the possibility of ever being released.

This is assuming, however, that we are talking about a justice system that works for more efficiently than that which exists in the U.S. today.

A truly effective justice system should be rooted in rehabilitation rather than retribution. In such a system, I believe there would be very few offenders that could not be released and reintegrated into society at some point.

#12 Pau (Guest) on Wednesday September 28, 2011 at 1:19am

Rich, “to administer justice”, “I, for one, do not value the life of a convicted murderer, as much as I value the life of his or her victim, or our society’s honest citizens”.
Glad to know you feel to be so close to a god to make such judgements. But then, it goes with the profession.

#13 Ron W (Guest) on Wednesday September 28, 2011 at 7:20pm

I disagree that a humanist cannot support the death penalty.  I fully agree with the position that a society has the right and authority to end a life that if their crimes are severe enough. 

My objection to the death penatly stems from a complete lack in faith in the ability of 12 average American citizens to determine the guilt of an individual. 

The problem lies in a poorly designed justice system, not the concept of capital punishment.

#14 gray1 on Wednesday September 28, 2011 at 8:10pm

I see the “death penalty” as an oxymoron.  As carried out in the carefully humane, don’t cause suffering mode identical to which we put our beloved animals to “sleep”, such represents no penalty but rather represents an escape from any true justice.  Right to die advocates would relish such a choice being made available to persons forced to live their remaining lives in interminable pain but in our current wisdom we reserve that luxury to those convicted (correctly or not) of the most heinous of crimes.  How backwards is that?

#15 J.R. (Guest) on Thursday September 29, 2011 at 11:11am

To a few commenters: Really?  Can you support the death penalty and still be able to call yourself a Humanist?  An atheist, definitely, but not a Humanist.

The death penalty is revenge, pure and simple. Calling it justice is a rationalized lie.  Locking people up (although I HATE paying for it and REALLY hate the idea of giving them anything but the basic privileges) is a way to keep criminals from just repeating their crimes. Yes, killing them does the same thing, but who are you to decide?

#16 Gallant Skeptic on Thursday September 29, 2011 at 11:16am

I think in it’s present incarnation it is not humanist because the criminal justice system as it exists now is based on revenge. However, in a fair system that is focused on rehabilitation and reintegration the death penalty could be a humanist tool used only for those most extreme cases with criminals that could never be released as a result of a persistent threat to public safety, perhaps even as an option offered to the prisoner who might see the prospect of spending a lifetime in prison without hope of release as more punitive than death.

#17 Herb Van Fleet (Guest) on Thursday September 29, 2011 at 12:44pm

Case in point—Jared Lee Loughner. On January 8, 2011, in Tucson AZ, this severely deranged, paranoid schizophrenic, shot 20 people, including Rep. Gabby Giffords, wounding 14 and killing 6. He was then indicted on 49 counts by a federal grand jury.

Much has been written about what may have caused Lounger to do what he did; his extremist political views, the influence the media may have had on him, his behavior in school, at home, at work, the fact that he was a conspiracy theorist. etc., etc. But, of course, all of that is irrelevant. Causation Is pitifully unhelpful. The deed can’t be undone.

Enter the legal system. Lounger pled “not guilty” to the 49 counts rendered by the gand jury. By entering that plea, he became a “suspect,” and thereby got all the rights given to a defendant in a criminal case. But, there were at least 14 witnesses to the shooting, including the man who tackled him before he could reload and the woman who got the gun out of his hand. Thus, saying Lounger is a suspected murderer is like saying that Barack Obama is the “suspected” president of the U.S. 

This is an open and shut case. Jared Lee Loughner is undeniably responsible for and guilty of acts that are repulsive to human and social moral values. The legal system needs to get a little common sense, suspend the normal “due process,” and proceed to putting this killer down as soon as possible – the same as you would do with a rabid dog.

Humanists, some of them anyway, get caught up in this fallacious notion that everybody is due respect and equality, that we should all be empathetic and altruistic. But life is not that way. Respect, like self-esteem, is earned, not granted as a right to everyone by some manifesto. At some point ideology has to stop and the cold, hard truth has to be dealt with. Thus, in my view, putting down Jared Lee Loughner would benefit both society and this poor wretched shell of a human being.

#18 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday September 29, 2011 at 1:15pm

@ J.R. (and some others) It seems to me that humanists can disagree about the justifiability of the death penalty. There are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides. I certainly would not tell someone “you can’t be a humanist” merely because s/he supports the death penalty. As much as possible, we should leave creeds and doctrines to the churches.

Yes, humanists value the lives of all as a foundation for our ethics, but to say that this foundational premise implies the death penalty is inherently immoral begs the question whether it is more devaluing of human life to execute a murderer than to allow his/her continued existence to trivialize the enormity of his/her crime and cheapen the lives of those s/he annihilated. To take one example, Eichmann was executed. Was this morally unjustified? Are all humanists required to condemn his execution? Isn’t it at least arguable that a humanist could maintain the death penalty is appropriate in such an instance given the magnitude of the crime? Isn’t it possible that putting Eichmann in prison for 15 years or whatever was left of his miserable life, so he could enjoy three squares a day, TV, and exercise time with car thieves, would have been so utterly incommensurate with the harm he caused that it would have constituted a devaluing of the lives of the millions of people he helped murder?

I think the justifiability of the death penalty is a closer question than some humanists believe. I am opposed to the death penalty, but on prudential grounds. If we had perfect procedural justice (an equitable justice system, no possibility of human error, no prejudice or bias in judges or jurors), I don’t see why the death penalty would be intrinsically wrong in all cases.

#19 Bev (Guest) on Thursday September 29, 2011 at 5:48pm

The death penalty is societal defense. Anyone convicted of murder (intentional, not accidental killing) across the board (rich/poor, public/police, etc) should receive the death penalty by lethal injection.

#20 Sven Hartley (Guest) on Saturday October 01, 2011 at 5:52am

JR makes the most salient point: The death penalty is revenge, pure and simple.

I wish that HVF comments were sarcasm, but I fear he was deadly serious when he wrote: The legal system needs to proceed to putting [Jared Loughner] down as soon as possible – the same as you would do with a rabid dog.  Excuse me? What right to we have to say who lives and who dies?  Does the fact that other deranged killers, such as Charles Manson, are still in jail serving a life sentence really keep you up at night? 

The fact is that jails should ONLY hold the dangerously criminal, while those convicted of lesser crimes should be put on probation, as is done in most of Europe, where incarceration rates are 1/10 of those in the US.  Unfortunately, as JR said, we have justice system built on revenge.

#21 gray1 on Saturday October 01, 2011 at 7:16am

The principal error as I see it for the revenge/retribution adherents is that a major assumption is being made that death itself is some horrible fate which extracts the ultimate revenge while the simple fact is that the entering of such a state remains the ultimate unknown.  Particularly for a humanist who does not believe in an afterlife, any person executed appears to go from what could be considered a particularly uncomfortable state at minimum into a state of non-existence. 

Logically this would seem to represent a net gain on the punishment scale except for the possible experience of some fear upon approaching implimentation of the “penalty”.  Humanists cannot rationally favor execution on a basis of calling it a penalty if they are being honest while on the other hand a simple atheist or a political system so based might thusly put away any number of inconvenient persons without much regret.  History has shown this to be true.

The religious, most of whom believe in some sort of afterlife, may instead expect those executed to go to either some reward in heaven if such person is actually innocent or has been somehow forgiven by God or else expects the perp to “wake up” in a pretty well defined state of hell if he or she was truly “evil” - right along with all the rest of the “unbelievers” in many schools of thought. 

One can see why the religious might not have personal problems with killing the convicted since in their own mind it is God who makes the ultimate decision as to any penalty.  Such is the power of perceived rationalization.  But with it being written thou shall not kill, vengence is mine, and forgiveness is divine on the one hand and thou shall stone or put to the sword any number of people on the other?  I’m soooo confused.  And then there’s the motto, “Kill them all, let God sort them out”.

#22 Pau (Guest) on Saturday October 01, 2011 at 8:35am

Well put Sven.
But “Logically this would seem to represent a net gain on the punishment scale except for the possible experience of some fear upon approaching implimentation of the “penalty”.”
I don’t think logics enter much into the equation, I think this is rather an emotional issue.
I also believe that most convicts, would rather choose life terms to being put to death.

#23 Jonathan (Guest) on Monday October 03, 2011 at 6:43am

I never thought of the death penalty in terms of revenge or emotion.  It was always about the permanent removal of a dangerous threat to the lives of the innocent individuals in our society.

Providing a person a lifetime of free room and board financed by a country’s citizens seems to be more of a reward for the offender and a punishment for the citizens.

The problem with the article’s premise is that he claims that Humanism stands for “justice for all”, yet does not explain how he would deliver justice for capital crimes that currently are given the death penalty.  What is the author’s alternative that he would consider “just” and in line with Humanist values?

#24 Thomas E Moore (Guest) on Tuesday October 04, 2011 at 2:11pm

Granted that “justice” should not be about retribution or revenge, but rather about deterrence and prevention of future crimes. If a sober estimate of probabilities indicates that a particular individual will continue to kill innocent people, even when imprisoned (other prisoners are people too), then it seems to me the only humane course of action is to terminate that person’s life. Triage is not pleasant, but it is humane.

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