Section 9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral and ineffective.
Is the death penalty moral?
Putting murderers to death satisfies the desire for revenge and brings a sense of closure for many who have lost loved ones.
But an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. It neither restores the dead nor dissuades other killers; with some exceptions (notably Japan, where relatively few people are executed), the murder rate is generally lower in countries which do not have the death penalty.
Secondly, it is hypocrisy for the state first to condemn an individual for taking life and then for the state to take that individual's life.
Worst of all, where the death penalty is used, innocent people are sometimes put to death before the evidence to exonerate them appears.
So how should we deal with murderers?
The death penalty is sometimes applied for other crimes, such as homosexual acts and adultery in Muslim countries, and serious corruption in the People's Republic of China. If it is immoral for the state to put murderers to death, it is equally or more immoral for the state to execute individuals who have committed lesser crimes.
6.9a Law and lawbreakers
Every society needs a strong and principled judicial system based on sound moral principles.
We have seen that these principles cannot be religious. The confusing, contradictory and hypocritical edicts found in scriptures place a higher premium on the whims of an egoistical deity than on the needs men and women. Laws must be based on justice, not religion.
Humanist morality helps us both to define laws and to deal with lawbreakers.
At the heart of every constitution and law should be the dual principle of limiting harm and promoting human welfare. Laws should be seen as positive statements that do not restrict people's behaviour but allow them the greatest possible freedom to achieve happiness and wellbeing.
At the same time, society must be protected, through measures which detain, punish and rehabilitate lawbreakers. Of course we can and should debate the balance between punishment and rehabilitation, but if we are true to our moral principles, punishment can never be as extreme as the death penalty.
As long as we ensure that society is protected, our obligation is to promote the criminal's wellbeing, even if he / she shows no remorse for their actions. Our ultimate goal - which we should always strive for even if we seldom achieve it - is the criminal's rehabilitation.
To execute killers is to reduce ourselves to their level of immorality. To help them understand the implications of their crime is to offer them the opportunity to rise to our moral heights.
6.9b Decide to die?
Despite our best efforts, some individuals can never be released from prison because they pose too much danger to society. For them, imprisonment for life without parole may be the only reasonable sentence. In such circumstances it may be appropriate to offer those who had served a minimum term the opportunity to die with dignity rather than spend the rest of their lives incarcerated. Protocols would ensure they were of sound mind and were not under pressure from the authorities or other parties.
But that is a topic that requires lengthy discussion and which may turn out to be inappropriate. At present let us stick with the basic point:
the death penalty is immoral, as well as ineffective.
Chapter Six: Section 10 Euthanasia
Are atheists immoral?
Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith,
apparently, keep us moral.
It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values
guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.
What's good for us?
6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired
6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual
6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be
6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control
6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect
An ethical approach
6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral
6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity
6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?
6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake
How do you live when you realize that religion is false?
Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and
The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live
moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.