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March 23, 2005

A potent argument for the death penalty

Thanks to this post by Eugene Volokh at the The Volokh Conspiracy, I see that University of Chicago Law Professors Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule have produced an interesting paper on capital punishment entitled "Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs."   The paper's abstract and a link for downloading are available here.

As Eugene highlights, this article makes a number of significant points, and the (well-deserved) reputation of Sunstein and Vermeule will likely ensure the paper garners attention outside the blogsphere.   I find the topic and approach pursued by Sunstein and Vermeule quite engaging, in part because every year I challenge students to make arguments against the death penalty if they first assume capital punishment does deter and thereby saves a certain number of innocent lives.  In their paper,  Sunstein and Vermeule build on recent deterrence literature to suggest that capital punishment may in fact be morally obligatory.

If time and energy permits, I hope to comment more on this work soon.  In the meantime, readers are highly encouraged to weigh in with comments.

March 23, 2005 at 08:38 PM | Permalink


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The entire work depends on research that has been debunked. The researchers in the studies key to the work, in many instances, have not permitted their underlying data to be examined by peers. Likewise, by moving the data just a few years in any direction you get entirely different results. Further, the data sets appear (again the underlying data is not available for critique) to be arbitrarily chosen to reach a desired conclusion.

Put bluntly, Sunstein and Vermeule appear to have spilled much ink and drummed up much hype on shaky data. Take away the shaky data and all you have is pure spin dressed up in pretty words.

Shame on them.

Posted by: karl | Mar 23, 2005 9:31:43 PM

First of all, their data is wrong, as has been widely noted. But even if we accept your false hypothetical that capital punishment is a deterrent, that still does not argue for its morality. One can imagine countless social policies that would be deterrent of much crime, especially murder--for instance, ban all guns or lock up everyone with even slight mental illness (or more effective still--lock up all men), or (in the future) mandatory gene therapy to rid people of violent tendencies. All such policies have constitutional problems, or course, despite their utility at deterring crime. Deterrence does not equal morality. It's a false correlation that breaks down when you see the impact on other rights and values necessitated by the policy that achieves the deterrence.

Posted by: Kevin | Mar 25, 2005 12:17:30 PM

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