Lawyers are often thought to be hardly better than hired guns, who, in the words of Plato, are paid to "make the weaker argument the stronger" -- like the sophists of old.
What is it
The death penalty: An effective deterrent? A just retribution for horrendous crimes? Or a racist, classist form of state-sanctioned murder? Join John and Ken and their guest, Robert Weisberg, Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, as they discuss the philosophical pros and cons of capital punishment.
John kicks the discussion off by laying out two key questions about the death penalty. The first question is whether the death penalty would be justified in an ideal state where the justice system worked perfectly. The second question is whether in the real world, racism and classism make the death penalty unjust.
Before tackling these questions, guest Robert Weisberg gives us a brief history of the death penalty. Most western European countries abolished the practice between the 1950s and the 1970s while America held onto it. According to Weisberg, this divergence in was not caused by the average European opposing to the death penalty while the average American supported it—intellectuals in both Europe and America opposed the practice but European intellectuals were more influential in the matter. Weisberg attributes this difference to the so-called frontier factors in the American justice system. This resonates with John, who points out that while the second amendment protecting our right to bear arms, the death penalty provides a counterweight to that right.
Ken invites Weisberg to tackle John’s initial question about the death penalty, he asks Weisberg whether the death penalty would be justified in an ideal state. Weisberg wants to be evasive about this philosophical issue because he is uncomfortable with categorical views about the death penalty. Ken pushes Weisberg to take a philosophical stand on the practice, but Weisberg won’t make an argument for or against the death penalty on a categorical level.
John tries a different tack. He invites Ken and Weisberg to pretend they are about to build society from the ground up. None of them know what role they will be playing in this new society, none know whether he will be a criminal or an upright citizen. Surely his new society would need some forms of punishment to avenge crime victims. So would they want the death penalty in this society—knowing full well that the penalty might be applied to them.
Weisberg doesn’t take John’s bait. He responds to John’s scenario simply by noting that not everyone considers retributive positions to be vengeance positions. Kant, for example, would not consider the death penalty to be vengeful, instead he would argue that we have a moral imperative to punish simply because it is necessary to our humanity to do so.
Ken asks what we get out of the death penalty. John responds that we get revenge—in a state of nature we would be able to kill people who murdered our loved ones, so in society the government takes on that duty. Ken reworks his question and asks what about our American psychology desires the death penalty. Weisberg concludes that Americans enjoy believing that they live in a world where moral clarity is possible and violence is met by violence justly.
- Roving Philosophical Report (Seek 4:53) Zoe Corneli speaks with a man falsely convicted of murder, imprisoned for twenty years and then exonerated with DNA evidence.