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May 25, 2006

"Death penalty tops list of what Americans find morally acceptable"

The title of this post is the slightly goofy sub-headline from this report about the Gallup Poll's recent Values and Beliefs survey, which seeks to measure "Americans' views of the moral acceptability of 16 issues."  Here is a bit more context:

Six of these issues are viewed as morally acceptable by at least 6 in 10 Americans, including the death penalty, which tops the list this year with 71% saying it is morally acceptable. Following behind the death penalty are divorce (67%), buying and wearing fur clothing (62%), medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos (61%), medical testing on animals (also 61%), and gambling (60%).

For a variety of reasons, I am not sure the Gallup survey is a particularly accurate or effective gauge of the diverse and nuanced opinions that individuals hold concerning the death penalty.  Nevertheless, the death penalty finding, especially given other findings in the poll, does confirms my belief that abolitionists who argue for an elimination of the death penalty on moral grounds are quite unlikely to persuade a majority of Americans.  Interestingly, as detailed on this page, Gallup surveys reveal that the number of Americans considering the death penalty morally acceptable has increased over the last five years.

May 25, 2006 at 12:51 AM | Permalink


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Perhaps you're right about 'moral arguments' against the death penalty, especially in the current political and cultural climate, but it seems American history is replete with instances in which moral arguments had some impact in 'progressive' social change: against slavery, women's suffrage, in New Deal programs and legislation, institutionalizing the right to conscientious objection, civil rights, in institutionalizing disability rights, anti-discrimination laws....

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 25, 2006 9:55:25 AM

Defense Attorney - Attorney in Chief, Legal Aid Society, Nassau County, NY.

Posted by: Kent Moston | May 25, 2006 2:07:43 PM

"I am not sure the Gallup survey is a particularly accurate or effective gauge of the diverse and nuanced opinions that individuals hold concerning the death penalty. "

I don't think any one question could do that. This question adds a significant piece to the puzzle not revealed by the "for or against" questions.

The two most newsworthy aspects are the trend line and the party breakout.

The trend line shows that the percentage of Americans who find the death penalty morally acceptable is at the highest point in the six years of the survey, up 8% from the low point. Conversely, the percent finding it morally unacceptable is at a low point, down 9% from the peak. The DPIC et al. have for some time now been trying to create the impression that the American people are turning away from the death penalty. This poll deals a significant blow to that effort.

The other point is the party breakout. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats find the death penalty morally acceptable.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 25, 2006 2:11:12 PM

Why is this survey a surprise? The anti-death penalty community has moved on from simple morality-based abolitionist arguments.

Instead, they seek to raise doubts about mistake and caprice in the application of the death penalty. They are also concentrating on the importance of law and emotion (i.e., better use of mitigating evidence) in preventing death sentences. I guess these tactics have a moral component, but they can succeed at limiting the application of the death penalty even when a stable majority of the public are morally comfortable, in the abstract, with the existence of capital punishment.

This is consistent with the fact that the rate of death sentences has declined although the public apparently continues to embrace the morality of the death penalty.

Posted by: anon | May 25, 2006 6:27:40 PM

I notice that the death penalty information center has not yet posted this poll on its website.

as to the previous posting, the anti-death penalty community is not using the innocence argument to limit death penalties, it is using that argument in an attempt to abolish capital punishment. Certainly that tactic has a moral component and its lack of success is reflected in this latest poll.

Subliminally, I also believe that the lethal injection litigation has actually backfired on the anti-death penalty community.

Posted by: ward campbell | May 26, 2006 2:51:29 AM

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

Posted by: Annerose | Jun 5, 2007 2:59:39 PM

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