Two Executions

This post is a follow-up on the “Pro Choice and Pro Life” posting of Herb Silverberg. Herb’s thoughtful reflections have added to SO’s offerings, and I am surprised that they have not drawn more comments.

Yesterday there were two executions, one in Texas and one in Georgia.
In Texas, Lawrence Brewer was executed. In 1997, Brewer and two associates kidnapped a man named James Byrd, who had been walking down a country road not far from Jasper, Texas. They beat Byrd savagely, urinated on him, and dragged him to death behind a pickup truck–just because they did not like the color of his skin. After murdering Byrd, who was decapitated when he was slammed into a culvert, Brewer and his pals ditched the mangled body in an African-American cemetery and went to town where they dined on barbecue. At no point afterwards did Brewer express any remorse or regrets or take any responsibility for his crime. Before murdering Byrd, Brewer had been a small-time hoodlum who picked up extra cash by burglarizing the homes of relatives. He made no statement at his execution.
In Georgia, Troy Davis was executed for the murder of a Savannah police officer in 1989. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. He was convicted on the basis of the testimony of nine eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted. Some added that they had testified against Davis because the police had pressured them to do so. Since his conviction, Davis never wavered in his insistence that he was not guilty. Pope Benedict XVI, Jimmy Carter, and many international leaders and protesters urged that the execution be delayed and that the evidence of Davis’s innocence be considered. Georgia proceeded with the execution (Having grown up in Georgia and having lived much of my adult life there, allow me to note that Georgia’s current governor, Nathan Deal, is a moron even by the low standard set by other Georgia governors).
These two cases place the dilemmas surrounding the death penalty in a stark light. On the one hand, I think that our most basic sense of decency is so outraged by the behavior of someone like Lawrence Brewer that it is hard to imagine any penalty short of death that would be commensurate with his crime. Moral reasoning just does not seem possible unless it includes desert as a fundamental category. That is, it seems basic to any sort of moral judgment that we acknowledge that what we do merits reward or punishment depending upon whether it is good or bad, and that degrees of reward or punishment should be commensurate with the degrees of good or bad behavior.
I know that many thoughtful and good people like Herb are opposed in principle to the death penalty. As they see it, the death penalty is not justice, but state-sponsored vengeance. Herb points out that the U.S. keeps some very unsavory company when we consider the countries that have the death penalty (e.g., China, Iran, Saudi Arabia) as opposed to the ones that have outlawed capital punishment. Though I genuinely respect the views of death penalty abolitionists like Herb, I disagree–at least in principle. The reason is that I think that Kant was right about punishment and that Mill was wrong.
John Stuart Mill, being a true utilitarian, held that the infliction of pain, per se, is always bad, and is justified only when the infliction of pain in a given case leads to a greater good overall. Thus, the pain of the punishment inflicted on criminals, per se, is bad, but is justified if necessary to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. The utilitarian view, therefore, is expressed by the old saying that we hang horse thieves not for stealing horses, but so that horses will not be stolen. That is, the punishment of criminals is justified, not in terms of retribution (which is bad) but in terms of the greater good to society that follows from a system of judicial punishments. Kant, however, made the devastating observation that we are simply using the criminal, treating him as a mere means to an end, if we punish him because we want to deter others, and not simply because he deserves punishment. By using the criminal to teach a lesson to others, we deprive him of his inherent dignity, and violate our duty to treat all rational creatures as ends in themselves rather than as means only.
I think Kant is right on this point. The only way to have a society in which persons are regarded as having the inherent worth and dignity that we each feel that WE are due, is to consider persons as rational agents. Part of what it means to regard someone as a rational agent is to hold him responsible for his actions. To hold someone responsible for his actions is to give him what he deserves–good things when he chooses to good things and bad things when he chooses to do bad things. To punish anyone for ANY reason other than that he deserves it, is to treat him as less than a rational agent. Hence, retribution is the rationale for punishment most consistent with human dignity.
Now, admittedly, considering someone like Lawrence Brewer to be a rational agent seems implausible in the extreme. He was a born loser–a dumb, malignant punk with little education and probably a room-temperature I.Q. He may have been a clinical psychopath. If we say with Kant that we must regard ALL humans as rational agents, then, logically, we have to include the Lawrence Brewers of the world in that “all.” So, really, the idea that all are rational agents is a fiction, yet it is a necessary fiction that we must maintain if we want a society that is livable for the rest of us.
One result of a commitment to viewing all (adult) humans as rational agents is that we will be outraged by the punishment of an innocent person even more than we will be satisfied by the punishment of a Lawrence Brewer. We will insist on being certain that those punished actually deserve it.

About Keith Parsons
  • Keith Parsons

    OOOPS! Sorry, Herb! "Silverman" not "Silverberg!" I really am terrible with names except for people who lived 2500 years ago.

  • shreddakj

    ^ Can't tell if you're trolling or not. You can edit the post after the fact if you're not trolling.

    Nice post though Keith, I'm personally more aligned with Herb's position but it certainly gives me something to think about.

  • Keith Parsons


    Thanks for the comment. Really, all you can do in this medium is maybe get people to think. Big issues have to be addressed at length. A 500 page book would not be enough for a thorough treatment of the main issues surrounding the death penalty.

    Maybe I should clarify that my support of the death penalty is qualified by the fact that I know that in reality the old saying holds: "Capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment." Even if there is a philosophical justification for imposing the death penalty, it may be that our current system is so corrupt that there is no just way to apply the punishment.

    At the least, I agree with Al Sharpton that there needs to be more than eyewitness testimony if we are going to condemn someone to death. In my class "Science and Pseudoscience" we cover in detail how easily eyewitness testimony goes wrong.

  • Nathaniel

    Without drawing it out too much, I'm going to say that I disagree with you for several reasons.

    Firstly, two wrongs do not make a right. I deny the concept of "paying for the crime" because it implies that I can purchase an assault for my time, or rape/murder for my life. This is obviously absurd.

    Also, the purpose of the law is the prevention of future harms, not the punishment of past harms. We cannot change the past, all we can rationally do is prevent future harms.

    Furthermore, even Kant would argue that an action performed with the intent to harm is an immoral one. An action which is intended to cause harm beyond what is necessary and sufficient to prevent future harm contains the intent to cause harm and is therefore immoral. The action itself is a means to an end, the person upon who the actions are visited isn't necessarily treated as a means to an end. They're more like a fact than a means or an end.

    There are also practical reasons to be against the death penalty. The first is that innocent people will be murdered because no system is perfect. Secondly, we learn nothing from dead people. If our intent is to prevent future harm, then we would do best to learn the social, economical and/or psychological factors which contributed to the committing of the crime so that we can attempt to mitigate such factors in the future.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    You write: “Moral reasoning just does not seem possible unless it includes desert as a fundamental category.

    I agree, but think that “desert” in the moral context refers to the natural consequence of doing the right or the wrong thing, and not to an externally applied reward or punishment. I would like to suggest that that natural consequence is this: Doing good makes one’s character better and thus sanctifies one; doing evil makes one’s character worse and thus debases one. In turn both states affect the quality of one’s experience of life. The desert then is intrinsic. (I know that “sanctifies” has lots of religious overtones, but could not find another verb.)

  • Keith Parsons


    I think I would agree with you on the practical arguments against the death penalty. Leonard Pitts had a column in this morning's paper that began by listing persons convicted and sentenced to death or long terms of imprisonment who were later exonerated. As I note, those who, like me, think that those who do terrible things deserve punishment are a fortiori horrified at the idea of the execution of an innocent person.

    I think, at the very least, there must be a much higher burden of proof. Eyewitness testitmony is notoriously fallible and the scientific evidence is only as good as the people who do it. Here in Houston, there was a huge flap about the astonishing ineptitude of the HPD's crime lab. Further, despite Gov. Rick Perry's strenuous efforts to keep the truth from coming out, Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man because bogus science had misidentified him as an arsonist who had started a fatal fire. Independent investigation by real arson experts showed that the findings that convicted the man were the product of arrogant ignorance.

    Still, I have to ask about cases like Adolf Eichmann, who was abducted by Israeli agents and taken to Israel for trial for his role as the facilitator of Hitler's "Final Solution." There is no doubt at all that he administered policies that led to the murders of, literally, millions of people. I think that Eichmann never expressed remorse for his crimes, and I doubt that his execution will deter future genocides. Yet I submit that to to omit to punish crimes of such staggering magnitude would contradict our most basic understanding of justice. If, on the other hand, someone were to say that he would be happy to live with Eichmann remaining unpunished, I really would literally have nothing to say to that person.

  • Nathaniel


    There's something intuitively satisfying about the death penalty. Some deep seated mentality that goes beyond ideas of desert and into the realm of "I want them to die" that is so strong it is hard to ignore. It seems likely to be due to the finality of death as well as the fact that or moral intuitions were formed in tribal communities which did not include the option for imprisonment.

    I understand wanting criminals dead. Child rapist, for example, stir such a primal ire in me that part of me would be satisfied if they were tortured to death. However, the only thing that would accomplish would be feeding, encouraging and satisfying a rather disgusting part of me (the part that desires the suffering of others). If I became a vigilante who did just this, I think I would lose a significant portion of my humanity. Judging from the reaction of the crowds at recent republican debates (where people are excitedly cheering in support of killing people) I would argue that even having a society kill people may strip that society of a degree of its humanity.

    As an Atheist I also can't help but think that death isn't really that bad of a punishment. The wait for death is indeed a punishment but after they die, that's it, it's over, all their suffering has ended. Still, would it be justice to torture someone endlessly if they killed millions? What could that possibly accomplish? You could be right that there's doubtfully anything we could learn from people like Adolf Eichmann. However, imprisonment is sufficient to prevent them from killing again. On top of that, what punishment could possibly even come close to being satisfying here? We can't un-murder all those people. Nothing, not even death, will ever make that right, okay, or even slightly better.

    Still, I wonder if something could have been learned from people like Adolf Eichmann. Why did he do what he did? What might cause the breakdown of one's humanity? What might contribute to someone following inhumane orders? What forms of reasoning do people use to justify this sort of thing? Not to mention the historical knowledge that might be gleaned from them or their insight into other criminals who they personally knew, but who are dead or even still at large. When I really think about it, it seems like we can learn valuable lessons from getting to know anyone (criminal, monster or otherwise).

    At the very least, having large groups of people whose every detail of their life can be carefully controlled could allow for unprecedented experiments. The effects of certain dietary and/or exercise regimens, for example. Then there's things like genetics and neurophysiology. What genes and/or brain features might contribute to certain traits?

    The possibilities aren't endless, but they are vast. The possibility to learn anything from a dead person is rather limited by comparison.

  • Vadim

    Great post, Keith. Although I agree with Nathaniel on pretty much all points, I do understand your reasoning and constantly find myself torn between both arguments.

    That being said, I think what's missing from all of this, what would probably be a deterrent of future crime, is the responsibility of those around people like Lawrence Brewer for what he became. Nathaniel briefly alluded to this by saying: "If our intent is to prevent future harm, then we would do best to learn the social, economical and/or psychological factors which contributed to the committing of the crime so that we can attempt to mitigate such factors in the future," but I don't think that goes far enough.

    This animal's parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, dare I say church members – all of them have responsibility for what he did. A person just doesn't up and become a psychopath. They need to be answerable to some degree, and maybe then will we start seeing some progress. As far as anyone is concerned, executing him is pretty much irrelevant.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Keith Parsons


    Thanks for your comments and the kudos. In the paper here were pictures of Brewer's parents who had been at the execution (family members are allowed to attend to support the condemned). I couldn't help but wonder what, if anything, they might have done to prevent this whole sorry scenario. I've heard that when it comes to influences on personal behavior, genetics is most important, followed by peers, with parents a distant third. If this is so, then it is depressing to contemplate how little effect parents can have.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    There is an article in Newsweek about this issue, see: