A new Gallup poll finds that American support the death penalty has dropped 64 percent from last year, reaching the lowest level since 1972. About half of Americans have lost confidence that the penalty is being fairly applied, particularly in the wake of news reports of the possible execution of innocents, including Troy Davis.
The demographics of death penalty supporters closely tracks political partisanship. Gallup notes:
Support for the death penalty is highly partisan in nature. Almost three-quarters of Republicans and independents who lean Republican approve, compared with 46% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic. Additionally, men, whites, and those living in the South and Midwest are among those most likely to support the death penalty. Americans younger than age 30 are less likely to support the death penalty than are those who are 30 and older.
What’s missing from the survey data is information that reveals why Americans support the death penalty, what their reasoning is, and how those beliefs are tied to their underlying values and worldview. Without more nuanced and complex data, it is difficult to predict future trends or assess strategies for shifting public opinion over time.
In Ken Wilber’s version of Integral Theory as it has been formulated in recent years, the prime directive of ethics is to insure the health of the entire spiral of development across every stage. As I noticed in a blog post six years ago, this line of reasoning tends to lead in the direction of consequentialism, suggesting that a particular action such as the death penalty is not necessarily wrong in itself, but wrong in relationship to the consequences in society.
Thus, in relationship to the death penalty, the integralist does not have an absolute moral prohibition against the government taking a human life per se. The integralist asks, “How does or does not executing a criminal contribute to the health and welfare of all members of society?” The case for and against the death penalty thus must be made with a calculus attendant to a multi-faceted context which takes into account a spectrum of ethical values held by people across multiple developmental stages.
A case against the death penalty
One of the most influential cases against the death penalty is made by the American Civil Liberties Union. The website is the #1 Google hit for “case against death penalty.” The ACLU writes:
The ACLU’s opposition to capital punishment incorporates the following fundamental concerns:
- The death penalty system in the US is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people,largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, race of the victim and where the crime took place. People of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white.
- The death penalty is a waste of taxpayers money and has no public safety benefit. The vast majority of law enforcement professionals surveyed agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime; a survey of police chiefs nationwide found they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime. They ranked increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy with more jobs higher than the death penalty as the best ways to reduce violence. The FBI has found the states with the death penalty have the highest murder rates.
- Innocent people are too often sentenced to death. Since 1973, over 138 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence. Nationally, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.
The ACLU’s central case is about justice and fairness, conceived as treating people equally under the law and ensuring that no individual is singled out for unfair treatment. It is particularly concerned that the death penalty may result in severe race-based inequalities. It employs rational analysis of factual data to undermine the argument that the death penalty deters crime. It also appeals to the value of wise use and conservation of public funds, arguing that crime deterrence is better achieved through more cost-effective means.
A case for the death penalty
One of the most influential voices for the death penalty is Dudley Sharp, Death Penalty Resources Director for Justice for All, author of the primary document featured on prodeathpenalty.com. The website is the #1 Google hit for “case against death penalty.” He writes:
The death penalty debate in the U.S. is dominated by the fraudulent voice of the anti-death penalty movement. The culture of lies and deceit so dominates that movement that many of the falsehoods are now wrongly accepted as fact, by both advocates and opponents of capital punishment. The following report presents the true facts of the death penalty in America. If you are even casually aware of this public debate, you will note that every category contradicts the well-worn frauds presented by the anti-death penalty movement. The anti-death penalty movement specializes in the abolition of truth.
- Imposition of the death penalty is extraordinarily rare. Since 1967, there has been one execution for every 1600 murders, or 0.06%. There have been approximately 560,000 murders and 358 executions from 1967-1996 FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) & Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
- Approximately 5900 persons have been sentenced to death and 358 executed (from 1973-96). An average of 0.2% of those were executed every year during that time. 56 murderers were executed in 1995, a record number for the modern death penalty. This represented 1.8% of those on death row. The average time on death row for those 56 executed – 11 years, 2 months (“Capital Punishment 1995”, BJS, 1996), an all time record of longevity, breaking the 1994 record of 10 years, 2 months.
- Death penalty opponents (“opponents”) state that “Those who support the death penalty see it as a solution to violent crime.” Opponents, hereby, present one of many fabrications. In reality, executions are seen as the appropriate punishment for certain criminals committing specific crimes. So says the U.S. Supreme Court and so say most death penalty supporters (“advocates”).
- Opponents equate execution and murder, believing that if two acts have the same ending or result, then those two acts are morally equivalent. This is a morally untenable position. Is the legal taking of property to satisfy a debt the same as auto theft? Both result in loss of property. Are kidnaping and legal incarceration the same? Both involve imprisonment against one’s will. Is killing in self defense the same as capital murder? Both end in taking human life. Are rape and making love the same? Both may result in sexual intercourse. How absurd. Opponents’ flawed logic and moral confusion mirror their “factual” arguments – there is, often, an absence of reality…
Like the ACLU, Dudley Sharp cites facts and figures in support of his case, but he is most concerned with establishing the rarity of the death penalty, an interesting point but not one central to assessing the ethics of capital punishment. His tone is also strikingly hostile and defensive, railing against his opponents’ “flawed logic,” their “absence of reality,” their “fabrications,” their “fraudulence,” and a “culture of lies and deceit.”
The key to Sharp’s argument in this brief statement is to say that “executions are seen as the appropriate punishment for certain criminals committing specific crimes.” But here again he is not really arguing; he is stating a definition much as opponents of same-sex marriage argue about the definition of marriage. On his view, executions are simply defined as appropriate punishments in some cases.
An integral case on the death penalty
I couldn’t find any explicit statement by Ken Wilber on the death penalty on Google’s top hits for “‘ken wilber’ ‘death penalty,'” but there was an article in the American Thinker by Ralph Alter implying that Wilber’s view on idiot compassion might suggest a turning away from liberal orthodoxy on the subject. Alter writes:
This focus on what Ken Wilber calls Idiot Compassion enables liberal thinkers to support abortion but reject the death penalty for serial killers or to whine about the disproportion of an Israeli response to decades of terrorist attacks.
That doesn’t seem right to me. “Idiot compassion” (which is a Buddhist term that Wilber did not invent) refers to a particular spiritual context, and its application to political debates doesn’t work. If a critique of liberals’ selective employment of compassion for particular groups is to be made, it isn’t helpful to reduce their complex All Quadrants, All Levels motivations and beliefs to a simple formula that they suffer from “idiot compassion.”
The key to developing an integral position on the death penalty is to make a sound judgment which incorporates the truth and wisdom in all other positions. Looking today only at the views of the ACLU and Dudley Sharp, an integral view would include perspectives which align Sharp’s views with the values of predominant concern at the amber altitude and the ACLU’s with the orange altitude (maybe with a bit of green). Thus, the views are neither absolutely right nor wrong, but relatively full or partial. The ACLU’s view is more comprehensive than Sharp’s, but both views are more partial than is possible and beneficial to take.
Integrating the concerns of the two camps is a matter of (a) respecting Sharp’s concern that decisions must be based on factually true and reliable data and that overly simplistic equations of the death penalty with murder are overblown, and (b) respecting the ACLU’s concerns with justice, social welfare, and factual analysis. Of course, there are many other components to an AQAL analysis, but this is a starting point.
With Americans beginning to turn against the death penalty owing to concerns about justice, one question raised by an integral analysis is whether the change reflects a shift in public opinion towards late modern to early post-modern decision-making over against pre-modern and early modern styles of thinking. Public opinion can shift rapidly, so it is impossible to draw conclusions on the basis of one year’s data; however, the questions remain to be considered in the years ahead.
My own view is that the death penalty probably contributes more harm to society than any possible benefit, and it is time for its abolition. I believe that law enforcement and courts are inadequately humane and conscious to ensure fair distribution of criminal penalties including the death penalty. Also, I believe that no system can prevent the execution of all innocents because no system is perfect, and this fact suggests to me the need for a justice system that is more humble and cautious in its dealing of justice, and one which is able to account for the value of forgiveness.
Is the American public beginning to look at issues such as the death penalty with a more complex framework, assessing competing values based on their partiality, and generating opinions influenced by integral frameworks? It’s time to start asking that question and conducting the research needed to get answers.