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.