How Ethically Logical Are Death Penalty Advocates?


Active Member
Sep 16, 2010
:) So here’s a far-out and heady hypothetical proposition, a provocative and introspective thought experiment to test the depth of belief that death penalty supporters have in the moral math of “a life for a life”. A slightly grim gedankenexperiment to make them question whether or not they have the moral courage of their professed conviction that anyone who needlessly causes the death of an innocent person forfeits his/her own right to go on living.

Imagine that a lunatic-fringe faction of seriously strict-constructionist believers in Deuteronomy 19:21 ( נפש בנפש “life for life” ) has come to power. They are absolutists who rigidly adhere to a verbatim reading of Deuteronomy so we’ll call them VDs for short. The VDs devise a disconcertingly clever way of applying their literal understanding of the “life for life” principle so as to make the implementation of the death penalty more just.

Here, in a nutshell, is the ethical dilemma of the VDs and anyone who’s pro capital punishment. One of the inherent moral defects of the death penalty is of course that it’s an irreversible punishment imposed by fallible human beings, a permanent payback dealt out by systems of jurisprudence, judges, and juries who are very much subject to human error. In other words, it’s a foregone conclusion that wrongly convicted individuals will now and then be executed, the innocent will occasionally be unjustly deprived of their lives. And when this happens and we belatedly discover that we’ve visited society’s irrevocable retribution on a not-guilty victim of a miscarriage of justice there’s really nothing we can do to make it right. We can’t release someone who’s been given a lethal injection from his grave. There’s no way to compensate the dead. Even if we catch and kill the guilty party the blood stain of an innocent still remains indelible on our society’s moral fiber.

And furthermore we have no real excuse, because we all know full well going in that when we place capital punishment on the books we’re courting the risk that we might one day, as a society, put to death someone who’s done nothing to deserve it. So how do death penalty advocates atone for the sin of killing the innocent? Of course most don’t think they need to atone, they simply rationalize that the real perpetrator of the crime that a falsely convicted defendant was snuffed by the system for is the one who’s responsible for the system’s tragic transgression against the sanctity of innocent life. That is, death penalty advocates pull a somewhat slippery move and pin all the blame on the “bad guy” without flinching in their self-righteous good feeling about their staunch support of a punishment that sometimes ends the lives of decent human beings.

But it’s society, and more specifically all the members of society who favor the death penalty who really bear responsibility for the unfortunate consequences of the punishment they’ve chosen to espouse and embrace. Criminals and murderers don’t actually compel us to endorse the gallows, the chair, or nowadays the needle, if we do so it’s our own choice. And so the question once again puts itself, when our choice costs an innocent life how do we redeem ourselves? The rub here is that the resolution is patently obvious for true believers in the logic of a life for a life. If they have the cojones to be consistent, that is.

Well, in our imaginary scenario the VDs who’ve won the Whitehouse and a majority in every legislature in the country have the mettle to practice the retributive principle they preach, and so they propose the following. The implementation of the death penalty is to be suspended for the time being, and the only way that it can be reinstated is if there’s a national referendum and the majority of the electorate votes for it. But there’s a considerably disturbing catch, this will be the only election in US history in which the practice of the secret ballot is waived, the name of everyone who votes in favor of capital punishment will go into a computer database.

This is to facilitate the lottery that will be held whenever it’s proven beyond a reasonable doubt that an innocent, law-abiding citizen has been executed. The lottery that will give capital punishment supporters the remission of their sin of casting a vote that ultimately caused the death of an unfairly condemned person.

Everyone who votes for capital punishment will be assuming the risk of killing an innocent, and so everyone who votes yea on capital punishment will also assume the risk of his name one day coming up in a lottery to choose a scapegoat, one individual who will shoulder the collective culpability of everyone whose vote made it possible for the system to legally rob an honest man or woman of his/her precious life on this earth. The unlucky winner of this atonement lottery will balance the equation by being put to death in the same manner as the innocent victim of his vote. The principle of a life for a life will be taken to its logical conclusion. The sacrifice of one capital punishment supporter for one wrongly executed prisoner will once again level the scales of justice and provide absolution to all death penalty proponents.

For capital punishment advocates the nub of the question here is of course how much, really, do you believe in your righteous rationale and rhetoric of “a life for a life”? Would you be willing to put your own life where your revengeful stance is? This is the crucial question since death penalty boosters really only have two planks in their platform, the deterrence argument and the argument that a life for a life is poetically just. And the deterrence argument is refuted by plenty of statistical evidence, which leaves them with only the “justice” plank to stand on. So, if you’re pro capital punishment this little thought experiment is designed to make you ask yourself just how deep and sincere is your conviction that a life for a life is justice, and how much is it perhaps just a convenient moralistic justification for your punitive and pitiless desire to see a cruel comeuppance inflicted on criminals?

If as soon as you realized where I was going with the above thought experiment your mind automatically began rationalizing and sophistically squirming its way out of the ethical bind I was attempting to put it in, well, perhaps you should examine how honestly committed you are to the core ethical logic of your advocacy of capital punishment. Perhaps all your Old-Testament ethical logic and lofty talk of justice is just a lot of sanctimonious smoke, perhaps hiding out behind it is just an ethically unenlightened hardness, harshness, vindictiveness, and viciousness?

Yep, maybe being a “civilized” citizen of an “advanced” society and a good, pro-life Christian, Jew, or Confucianist is not all that compatible with being a death penalty enthusiast?...

If you’d like to explore this and related topics with me in greater depth please feel welcome to visit my new website, The Total Revolution Just copy & paste the address below. Thanks.



Well-Known Member
Jun 8, 2008
={CaLiCo}= HQ
Your entire argument is based on the Nirvana Fallacy. Using the same fallacy, anyone could argue against any type of punishment meted out by the criminal justice system.

If you’d like to explore this and related topics with me in greater depth please feel welcome to visit my new website

We post here at the HOP. You're welcome to stick around and learn why fallacious arguments are invalid.