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Justice and morality, not utility, are main reasons for death penalty positions on both sides

Earlier today, I noted Gallup's most recent poll on people's attitudes on the death penalty.  That post was updated later with some further data.

Structured questions in polls can give useful numbers, but open-ended questions can tell us some interesting things also.  Art Swift of Gallup reported separately on an open-ended question that asked people for the reason behind their position on the main question.
At the root of debates over punishment are the reasons why we punish.  There are many reasons, but they fall into two broad classifications of justice and utility.  The utilitarian reasons are the practical ones -- to achieve some tangible result that benefits society.  The main utilitarian reasons to punish are to deter others by example, to reform the offender so he won't do it again, or to restrain the offender so he can't do it again.

The other broad category I call justice but most theorists in the field call retribution.  Most people feel it is just fundamentally wrong to "let him get away with it," and that includes letting a person off too easy.

Utility and justice are illustrated in a classic psychology experiment called the "ultimatum game."  The experimenter places a sum of money on the table before two participants, call them A and B.  A gets to decide how to divide the money between them.  B can accept or reject the division.  If B rejects, the experimenter takes the money back and both get nothing.

In purely utilitarian terms, it is always in B's interest to accept.  Any amount, no matter how unfair, is better than nothing.  Yet people do reject when the division gets too unequal.  At some point, punishing the greedy, selfish s.o.b. becomes worth losing the money, even though it has no utility at all.  People value justice for its own sake.

Retribution is limited by feelings that some punishments are not moral to inflict, even if deserved.  We do not torture torturers or rape rapists.  We do, however, imprison kidnappers and take the property of thieves, and nobody seems to have a problem with those punishments.

Anyone who debates the death penalty for any length of time knows that the main partisans on both sides are really motivated primarily by considerations of justice and morality.  Arguments about deterrence, incapacitation, and cost are aimed mostly at the people on the fence.

How about the population in general?  What are their reasons for taking the positions they do?  Turns out that the same tends to be true.

Gallup's open-ended question allowed multiple reasons, so the total reasons given add to 111% for those who answered "yes" to support of the death penalty and 109% for those who answered "no."

For the "yes" group, justice and morality reasons given include those classified by Gallup as "An eye for an eye/They took a life/Fits the crime," "They deserve it," "Fair punishment," "Serve justice," and "Biblical reasons."  These total to 60%.  Utilitarian reasons include "Save taxpayers money," "Keep them from repeating it," "Deterrent for potential crimes," and "Relieves prison overcrowding."  These total to 29%.  Other responses are difficult to classify, such as "Depends on the type of crime they commit."  Along with the inevitable "duh" answer, these make up the other 22%.

For the "no" group, "Wrong to take a life" and the religious version of the same thing, "Punishment should be left to God," total 57%.  Add in "Needs to suffer longer" and the total is 66%.  Responses such as "Persons may be wrongly convicted," "Unfair application of the death penalty," "Does not deter," and "Costs more" might be considered utilitarian, totaling 28%.  Again, the hard to classify and "duh" make up the rest.

That pretty much confirms what I expected.  Most folks make up their minds on justice and morality.  These positions are largely undebatable.  One who believes that executing Ted Bundy was fundamentally right and reducing Charles Manson's sentence to life was fundamentally wrong isn't going to change his mind, and the person who believes the opposite isn't going to change his either.

The utilitarians are a minority, but a substantial one.  That is where the people who might change their minds based on data and arguments are, so that is where the arguments are directed.

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