A debate that’s happening right now as a result of the new Turkish prime minister (who some even contend shouldn’t be in charge).
Should the death penalty be legal in Turkey?
As I can’t say I know enough about Turkish politics to say yes or no for Turkey, let me set out my thoughts on the death penalty in England, where I’m from, first, then the idea of the death penalty in general.
For those of you that don’t know: the death penalty has been illegal in England for a long time, and for good reason. The last person deemed to warrant it: Derek Bentley, turned out to be innocent, and the person who perhaps deserved it more out of the two of them: Chris Craig, got off relatively Scott free. And if I’m honest there haven’t really been any crimes I think come even close to warranting it, not in recent times at least.
Just to be clear, I’m not trying to make a case for whether or not the death penalty should be in place, or of its pros or cons, if you want to read through those, there’s a good article on that here. The case I am trying to make is that it isn’t definitively moral, nor are morals definitive, simply that they are descriptions of what we most want to see from society at this time.
Is the death penalty moral?
As I don’t want to mince my words, I think I need to explain what I mean by moral. Morals are the ideas of what is right and wrong, these are usually created by what society wants to look like versus what it looks like right now. Morals are our idea of what is beneficial to that ideal society versus what is detrimental, these are typically formed as part of the legal doctrine. Laws and morals are not absolute, as the goal of society may change, as do the morals that govern society. You might often hear the argument that “we get our morals from insert religious holy book here” that might have been true 1000 years ago, but there are many examples of many holy books pushing certain ideas that seem abhorrent in today’s society. I won’t get into the details of why that is specifically in this piece, but in short it’s down to how the shift in society no longer needs certain aspects to continue to flourish.
Now to look at the death penalty in the context of a society you must consider what the utility of it is. Take this example, you have an isolated tribe of 20 people in the wilderness, you have only food for 18 people, but you try to keep everyone alive, One day out of jealousy and desperation, someone murders another tribe member in order to feed themselves and their family. Given there are so few of you, you want to minimise the risk of anyone else being killed so you can continue to function as a society without the fear of this person killing anyone again. You also don’t want to spend precious resources on someone who killed someone you loved. Exile wouldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t come back because your tribe is the only guaranteed food source for miles, so all you would likely do is make it more likely they would steal or murder again. Making death the safest option.
Fast forward a few generations
You have a stable society, one that produces surplus food, has more shelter than is needed for everyone. In this strong society, you can afford to let these dangerous people live, with the hope they can reform and become productive members of society (jail)
“to measure the health of a society and of individuals according to how many parasites they can tolerate” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
Part of this quote was to demonstrate that only a weak society needs to rid itself of parasites, these can be anything from those who seek to do harm to the society, to those who simply seek to benefit only themselves.
So I guess the question remains, do I think the death penalty is moral? In many of today’s societies I think you’d be pretty hard pressed to argue that it was the right thing to do, unless there were a great enough number of people who posed a great threat to the foundation of society, which, is pretty unlikely if I’m honest. So to answer that, no, and nor do I know of any modern society which actually needs it to retain order and keep the society healthy, it’s usually simply a relic of a time where society wasn’t strong enough to survive without it.