Should the Government Decide Life or Death?

St Andrews debates.

Among the many topics discussed at 7 November’s Port and Policy night, hosted by the St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association (STUACA), was the death penalty.

Assumed among almost all participants was the conceit that there are some crimes so heinous, so abhorrent to modern society, that the perpetrators deserve to die. Given examples of this were rape, mass murder, genocide, torture – and so forth. The discussion then moved on to matters of cost and effect: whether it was more cost effective to put someone to death humanely or to house them in prison for life.

For the record, court cases involving the death penalty end up costing American taxpayers significantly more than those where the death penalty is off the table, and many U.S. states have encountered serious problems and delays securing the materials needed to carry out executions.

But leaving such practicalities aside, it is necessary to question the philosophical underpinnings of the death penalty. Surely no reasonable person would argue that there are no crimes which do not merit death as a punishment. Nazis and other such monsters certainly do; the only question is whether the state – the government – should have the right to kill them.

Photo: The Atlantic

I would argue that it is a mistake to give the ultimate power to the government, as some American states have done. By advocating in favor of the death penalty, you are saying that there are some circumstances under which the government has the right to kill a fellow citizen. This is worlds apart from a policeman being under direct threat and killing an armed and dangerous assailant. The people on death row are already disarmed and imprisoned and pose no threat to any other person. Their deaths are intentional and avoidable.

“If the government wants you to die, you die,” said an anonymous student from Hong Kong familiar with Chinese politics. “They’ll throw you in a court as a show — an unfair trial that’s meant to give the illusion of a fair trial.” Such are the dangers of a government which, even in principle, has the right to kill. The world today is trending ever closer toward such totalitarian forms of government — in China, Russia, and the Middle East. We shouldn’t be so complacent as to think the Western world is exempt from this trend.

Yes, some people have committed such heinous crimes that they do deserve to die. But it is not our place to give that ultimate power over to the state.

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