Over at the Amnesty International USA blog, Brian Evans notes that “This May, a Gallup poll showed that only 58% of respondents find the death penalty morally acceptable, a 7% drop from last year and the lowest number since the morality question was first asked in 2001.”
This is good news, I suppose, but I’m going to approach it with a bit more qualified enthusiasm than Evans does. There are three reasons:
- 58% is still 58%, even if you put “only” in front of it. It’s down 7% from last year and that’s nice to see. But it’s not 49%. 49% would really be something. Maybe next year;
- Even if the number of Americans who found the death penalty to be morally acceptable was less than a majority, I’m not sure I’d be all that excited because the death penalty needs to be abolished legislatively on a state-by-state basis. We’d need to see these numbers broken down by state and we’d need to exclude people from those states without the death penalty;
- I’m not sure that having a majority who find the death penalty morally unacceptable is some sort of silver bullet because a majority doesn’t make something morally right.
I want to explain this last one a bit more.
I’m guessing we could conduct a poll in some European countries and the results would show that a majority wanted the death penalty as a sentencing option. If they could, they’d line up and vote for it. That’s all well and good for that majority … but they just can’t have what they want. And, even if they could, it wouldn’t suddenly be morally right because they voted for it. In Europe, it’s been decided that the death penalty is a violation of human rights and, as a result, it’s been taken off the table for any countries that are part of the European Union. You can’t always get what you want … especially if what you want is to violate the human rights of your fellow citizens.
Evans goes on to ask, “Is the drop in belief in the morality of the death penalty related to a growing belief that the innocent can be executed?”
The answer is almost certainly “no.” Or at least it ought to be “no.” People who have recently discovered that innocent people might be executed aren’t necessarily questioning the morality of the death penalty; they might very well believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to poison people to death … so long as it’s the right people. Whether or not we’ve got the right guy on the gurney isn’t a morality question, at least not necessarily; it’s a question of process.
The same can be said of the problem of racism, which is the next issue that Evans addresses. The system is undeniably racist — though plenty of people still deny it — but recognizing that problem doesn’t mean that one will find the death penalty morally wrong. It just might lead one to campaign for a death penalty that’s not so racist.
The morality question is the one to which Evans turns at the end of his post, the one that centers on whether or not it’s acceptable for the government to strap a perfectly healthy human being to a gurney and fill his veins with poison in revenge for something he did to someone else. But he says the least about it, only noting that “When you’re doing something as severe as killing a person, you’d better have a good reason.”
The problems of racism and of innocent people on death row aren’t likely to move the dial in polling because the morality issue is far more difficult and requires people to really confront the dark corner of themselves where their desire for vengeance lurks. Virtually everyone can agree that race shouldn’t be a major determining factor in sentencing and that we shouldn’t be killing innocent people. Far more challenging — and far more important — is how to convince people that we shouldn’t be killing anyone. To repeat, Evans simply says that people had better have a really good reason for wanting to kill murderers. But the 58% who find the death penalty morally acceptable will tell you that you’ve just given the reason yourself: they’re murderers.
The challenge is to convince people that we don’t ought not to kill even those who we feel deserve to die, that we can take the moral high ground and choose not to imitate their worst act with one of our one. Or, barring that, we should follow the Europeans and just take the decision away from ourselves because we don’t have it in us to do what’s morally right.