The Humanist case for abolishing the death penalty

The Humanist case for abolishing the death penalty
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An actor friend of mine was distressed when she noticed a saying on a plaque on our living room wall. It read, “What one does, one becomes.” She was troubled because, as an actor, she had been called to portray all sorts of characters. She hated the thought that she was somehow becoming like them. For me, the saying was a reminder that actions speak louder than words and that it is by our actions that we demonstrate who we truly are. It’s a reminder, too, that our experiences — for better and for worse — become us in deep and abiding ways.

It’s important to ask ourselves how a behavior will affect our lives and the lives of others. Will it lead to greater understanding and meaningfulness, or will it constrict us and cut us off from one another? Capital punishment is a case in point.

On July 25, Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBarr bemoans 'moral upheaval' that has brought 'suffering and misery' Trump threatens to sue Schiff and Pelosi Democratic lawmaker says Barr's reported meeting with Murdoch should be investigated MORE directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt a proposed Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol which clears the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two-decade moratorium. The press release stated that “the Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

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For Barr, killing perpetrators is a means to appease the feelings of those who have been victims of heinous crimes and that alone justifies the killings. The proposed amendment, however, does not address the many dire consequences of capital punishment.

Those reasons have been well-documented.

Since 1973, more than 160 people who have been sentenced to death have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s death penalty as unconstitutional and “racially biased.”

As the clergy leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester and a devout Humanist, however, I’d take it a step further. Even if these factors no longer held true, capital punishment would be morally wrong. If only those who were put to death professed their guilt, agreed that capital punishment was the correct punishment, and agreed to forgo appeals and challenges to speed the process it would still be morally wrong.

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To be sure, some of the prisoners on death row are perpetrators of hideous and unforgivable crimes. Dylan Roof is one such prisoner, and the families of the victims he murdered in South Carolina deserve justice. Yet even if proponents of capital punishment acknowledge killing a murderer like Dylan Roof won’t bring their loved ones back, we must also consider the human cost of the death penalty — both for its victims and those who carry out the deed. 

The experiences of people who participated in killing inmates convicted of capital offenses should tell us a great deal about the effect of state ordered killing upon those who must carry out the sentence. As a resident of Ossining, New York, my home is just 2½ miles away from the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where 614 people were electrocuted. The State of New York employed executioners who connected the killing apparatus to inmates and flipped the switch that sent the electricity through the inmate’s body. There were five “New York State Electricians” between 1890 and 1972: Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert G. Elliott, Joseph Francel, and Dow B. Hover. None of them fully approved of capital punishment, two committed suicide. Elliott died of natural causes but was vocal in his opposition to capital punishment, writing: “I hope that the day is not far distant when legal slaying, whether by electrocution, hanging, lethal gas, or any other method is outlawed throughout the United States.”

As a Humanist, I expect that the life we are living is the only one we will experience so it’s important to make the most of the opportunity and important to protect that. We also believe that being human entails responsibility toward our fellow beings and that we demonstrate our humanity through our behavior toward one another.

Capital punishment is an example of morally wrong collective behavior. Putting someone to death forces society to make someone a premeditated killer of another human being and makes the rest of society accessories to wrongful acts. It is a wrong on top of a wrong that, far from cancelling out the injury, ensures the cycles of violence and retribution will be continued.

Bart Worden is clergy leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester and executive director of the American Ethical Union, a national organization devoted to ethics and social justice.