The Argument from Cruelty

The language of this argument is sometimes taken from the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ("Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted"); or from human-rights declarations that outlaw "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment or punishment. Thus, a brochure titled When the State Kills, issued by the British Section of Amnesty International (1990), contains the following passage under the heading "Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading": "International law states that torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments can never be justified. The cruelty of the death penalty is self-evident."

Certain methods of execution are quite plausibly said to be so painful that any application of them must be cruel. Amnesty International cites the case of a Nigerian military governor who in July 1986 ordered successive volleys of bullets to be fired at convicted armed robbers. The shots would first be aimed at the ankles, to produce painful wounds, and only gradually would the firing squad shoot to kill. Other methods, believed by some authorities to be painless, can undoubtedly cause suffering when clumsily applied. According to eyewitness reports, the first death sentence carried out by use of the electric chair in the United States; in August 1890, was very painful. But these ill effects may not be typical. Certainly the electric chair was not introduced because it was thought to be painful; on the contrary, along with other methods of execution, such as the guillotine, it was thought to spare the convicted person suffering.

Execution by lethal injection is the latest in a series of supposedly humane methods of execution to be introduced. It is now being used in a number of states in the United States. Is this technique cruel? Perhaps not, if severe pain is the test of cruelty. Deliberate poisoning is normally cruel, and Amnesty International classifies the use of lethal injection as deliberate poisoning. But is it clear that poisoning in the form of lethal injection is always cruel? What if the injection is self-administered in a suicide or given at the request of someone who is dying in intense pain? If poisoning is always cruel, then it must be so in these cases. On the other hand, if it is not cruel in these cases, then it is not necessarily cruel in the case of execution. It is true that execution is usually not in line with the wishes of the convicted person, as it is when poison is administered to someone at his or her request. But that by itself cannot make execution cruel, unless virtually all punishment is cruel: Virtually all punishment is inflicted on people against their wishes. If it is not pain and not the unwillingness of the criminal to undergo it that makes lethal injection cruel, then what does? If nothing does—if lethal injection is sometimes painless and not cruel in other respects—then there may be principles that consistently explain why it is good for murderers, for example, to be punished with death (severe crimes deserve severe punishments); why it was bad for murderers to be put to death in the past by boiling (torture is wrong); and why it is not necessarily bad for murderers to be put to death today by lethal injection.

Anxiety and Depression 101

Anxiety and Depression 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about. We have been discussing depression and anxiety and how different information that is out on the market only seems to target one particular cure for these two common conditions that seem to walk hand in hand.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment