The death penalty is being kept in the national spotlight because of its inherent failures and barbarism. This is emphasized by such stories as the one about Tennessee bringing back the electric chair now that there is a chronic shortage of the execution drugs, as well as the one about the a botched execution using new and unproven drugs on an inmate resulting in an agonizing death.
But humanists have long been opposed to Capital Punishment. The birth of the modern humanist movement began in the early part of the 20th Century, during which time Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York along with, John Dewy, Albert Einstein and Julian Huxley. Back in 1938 Potter concisely wrote that “The deliberate taking of human life by the State is too grave a matter to be justified by any or all the flimsy arguments which can be advanced for capital punishment.”
Humanists have a natural opposition to the death penalty. Not only do we recognize that we are not instruments of divine retribution, but for humanists this life is the only one we have to live, there is no afterlife or rebirth, making death final. This punishment therefore raises the issue of whether or not it is just to punish a person for a finite crime with an infinite sentence. We shouldn’t deny people the opportunity to reform, nor should we deny the opportunity for someone to eventually prove their innocence, and a final irreversible sentence does just that.
Being practical and reason orientated, humanists are convinced by the numerous studies showing that the death penalty is simply not an effective deterrent for criminals, and that the cost of housing a criminal on death row and eventually executing them is far more expensive than imprisoning someone for decades or even for life. Simply stated, when we evaluate the policy of executing criminals from a reasonable perspective, capital punishment just isn’t worth it because it fails to prevent crimes and costs taxpayers dearly.
These arguments are reason enough to oppose the death penalty, but there is an additional concern based on the role of government that should give all death penalty proponents a reason to question their previous support of the practice. Humanists are wary of concentrations of power, be they economic or political, and providing the state with the permission to execute those it represents is a dangerous line, a line which is far past time to be uncrossed.
Humanists have a responsibility to work for the change we’d like to see, and therefore we must work against the dogmatic “an eye for an eye” approach to punishment that characterizes the death penalty and other unjust stabs at retribution. It’s simply unfitting for the modern age. As Humanist of the Year Steven Pinker wrote about in Better Angels of Our Nature, violence is on the decline across human history, let’s help our justice system catch-up to this reality.