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Almost 3/4 Find Death Penalty Morally Acceptable

Gallup is out with their annual moral issues survey. As usual, it shows that opponents of capital punishment have completely failed to convince the American people that the death penalty is morally unacceptable. This article by Lydia Saad states that 65% of those asked said the death penalty is morally acceptable, while 23% said it was wrong. When we dig deeper into the data, though, we find an additional 7% volunteered the answer "it depends." That answer is the same as "acceptable" for the question actually at issue. No one thinks the death penalty is acceptable for jaywalking. The answer "it depends" means the respondent thinks it is acceptable for the worst crimes, which is all we are talking about, giving a total of 72%. Overall, the results have been quite stable for the last ten years, as these things go.



Kent, thank you very much.

I had never seen (or paid attention to) the distinction from the more detailed results which Gallup has collected (1) , which included the "depends on the situation" response. The moral acceptance or rejection of the death penalty in any given case is always specific to the circumstances (situation) of that case.

It is not only proper, but required, to add the "depends on the situation" percentages to the death penalty support, because the "depends" always includes death penalty support for those cases where the "situation" calls for it, as is understood with the question. This brings the Gallup average of the moral acceptance of the death penalty up to a 71% average, from 2001-2010, with very small variations.

This also confirms my findings, that when specific note is made of the circumstances (situation) of the murders, particularly when looking at specific death penalty eligible murders, that death penalty support is around 80%. (2)

It also appears that only about 16% of those polled oppose all executions, under all circumstances (situations), even in such cases as mass murder (as with terrorism), serial murders and the rape and murder of children. (2)

(1) See Full Trends: Moral Acceptability, 17. B. The death penalty, from GALLUP NEWS SERVICE, GALLUP POLL SOCIAL SERIES: VALUES AND BELIEFS-- FINAL TOPLINE --
Timberline: 927508, G: 327, Princeton Job #: 10-05-006, Jeff Jones, Lydia Saad, May 3-6, 2010

(2) Death Penalty Polls - Support Remains Very High - 80% http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/07/death-penalty-polls-support-remains.html

Dudley, the word "data" in the original post is linked to your reference (1).

BTW, a few people also volunteer the answer "not a moral issue." That is probably also equivalent to "morally acceptable" for the purpose of this discussion, but the number is under 1% in most years, so I didn't include it.

I disagree about your interpretation of the "depends" response.

Like you say, the death penalty always "depends" on the circumstances, so why would a person respond that way? Under your interpretation, those respondents support the death penalty but are just a little too stupid to understand the question. A better interpretation would be that they're morally conflicted and don't have a ready answer to provide. It also likely indicates that they support the death penalty on an emotional level, like when they hear the story of a particularly brutal crime, but when they're not being motivated by an emotional response they may see the issue differently. I think its important to note the difference between such conflicted answers and other answers of direct support.

But you should also note what virtually every poll on the death penalty (including Gallop's) has shown for years: that the phrasing of the question dramatically impacts the response. Even if people feel the death penalty is morally acceptable, they may still oppose it on other grounds (like cost) or favor various alternatives (like permanent imprisonment and/or restitution).

Less than half of respondents supported the death penalty over permanent imprisonment when given the explicit alternative:


"Under your interpretation, those respondents support the death penalty but are just a little too stupid to understand the question."

Quite the contrary, I think those respondents are intelligent enough to recognize that the question could have been phrased better and rephrased it themselves. That is closely related to the next point:

"Less than half of respondents supported the death penalty over permanent imprisonment when given the explicit alternative:"

Actually, what this question tells us is that less than half the respondents choose the death penalty over permanent imprisonment when the question is phrased in a way that implies they must choose one punishment for all murderers. Indeed, if I believed that was the question, I would answer LWOP myself.

Note that Gallup has not asked the question that way since 2006, even though they have polled on the death penalty many times since then. I think they recognized that the wording was problematic.

It is also remarkable that opponents can't get an actual majority for their view even when the wording of the question is skewed to the max in their favor.

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