“A humane and generous concern for every individual, his health and his fulfillment, will do more to soothe the savage heart than the fear of state-inflicted death, which chiefly serves to remind us how close we remain to the jungle.”
~ Ramsey Clark
What are we seeking when we want people to die for their crimes?
Immediately following the execution of D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad, the husband of one of his victims told a Washington Post reporter he was glad Muhammad was dead; he said, “I don't have to think about him anymore.” However, that sort of closure seems unlikely; whenever this man thinks of his dead wife, isn’t he likely to remember why she is gone?
The same article includes a brief conversation with the brother of another victim. The man spoke of his sadness and clearly recognized that Muhammad’s execution would not bring closure, but then said, “I think it was justice.” Perhaps he's right — but only if we define justice as retribution.
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
In the debate about the death penalty, the notion that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime is a standard argument. The evidence to support this is thin and dubious, while the evidence against it is blindingly obvious. As Albert Camus once said, “For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists.”
“Why, when we have bravely and nobly progressed so far in the recent past to create a decent, humane society, must we perpetuate the senseless barbarism of official murder?”
~ Abe Fortas, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Many people, including Divinipotent Daily, believe the death penalty is not about justice, closure or deterrence; it’s about revenge. And let’s be honest: we humans do seem to be vengeful species. But where does this impulse come from and why is it so powerful that it leads to state-sanctioned homicide?
“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
An article on the Web site of the American Psychological Association discusses research by Ian McKee, PhD, of Australia’s Adelaide University, who links “vengeful tendencies primarily with two social attitudes: right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance, and the motivational values that underlie those attitudes.” That seems a little extreme, but perhaps McKee's original research (which I have not yet located) adds some necessary nuance.
The same article also describes research into “the revenge paradox.” Kevin Carlsmith, PhD, a social psychologist at Colgate University, has found that revenge-seekers often say they’re looking for catharsis — for a release from their rage — but end up feeling angrier than ever once revenge has been exacted. The theory is, people who do not seek revenge minimize the offense and simply get over it. Those who act on vengeful impulses intensify the offense and make it more concrete and, as a result, feel worse. So why does revenge persist? Carlsmith hypothesizes that it’s a way to keep society running. "You're willing to sacrifice your well-being in order to punish someone who misbehaved."
“Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.”
~ Alexander Sozlhenitsyn
Could it really be true that revenge is a self-sacrificing mechanism for the good of society? Seems a bit unlikely, particularly when you consider research by Tania Singer of University College London. According to a report in the New Scientist, Singer enlisted volunteers to participate in a game designed to elicit feelings of revenge, and then used fMRI machines to analyze their brain activity. Volunteers were asked to cooperate or double-cross one another, and then saw both friendly cooperators and cheaters undergo an electric shock. The result: empathetic mirror neurons lit up across the brain no matter who was getting zapped, but brain regions known as the ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens and orbito-frontal cortex, which are linked to the experience of reward, lit up when cheaters got “punished.”
Considering these studies side by side, it seems we may be lured into seeking revenge by the promise of a biological reward, but it's a fleeting one. Like eating an overly rich meal, revenge seems like a good idea at the time, but you regret it later.
“The death penalty doesn’t need your assent to continue ... it needs your indifference.”
~ Ray Krone, the 100th innocent person to be released from death row
Tomorrow: The impact of brain research on the concepts of right, wrong and justice and some controversial theories about punishment.