Wednesday, September 29, 2010

American Exceptionalism

The 21st Century Nightmare post and thread below was not an attempt to have a general debate about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, as if bringing it back in the UK was some sort of a viable option, because clearly it isn’t. It was more that I began to wonder if the occasional bellow (only remaining argument?) from the populist Right – that a majority ‘support’ it – is not only morally and constitutionally irrelevant but actually incoherent, because ‘supporting capital punishment’ is, in terms of practical application, meaningless.

(If I did want to have a debate about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment generally I would certainly mention the usual and well-rehearsed philosophical arguments, such as the internal conceptual problem of a society thinking it is demonstrating that it holds life sacred by punishing murderers with death.)

But our beloved American contingent inevitably broadened the argument because in the States it is still a live issue (if you’ll pardon the expression). Difficult thing to come up against, American exceptionalism. We all hate having our business criticised by forriners, but boy, Americans really hate having their business criticised by forriners…as I suppose you would if you believe your founding documents to be, effectively, sacred texts.

All of which preambling brings me on to the point of this post. Here is a random A-Z list of some of the 137 countries that have banned the death penalty outright:

Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, Honduras, Ireland, Lichtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, Venezuala.

And here is a random A-Z list of some of the 69 countries where capital punishment is still technically permitted (although nearly 90% of actual executions worldwide occur in China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US alone):

Afghanistan, Burundi, Cuba, Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Iraq, Jordan
Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Oman, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, United States, Vietnam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

Full lists are here:

So my question is this: is there a more striking anomaly anywhere, in terms of global approaches to ethics and politics, than the fact that the US is on the second list rather than the first?


Joey Joe Joe Jr. said...

At the risk of opening a can o' worms, a list of countries with and without universal health care might look similar?

David said...

Hey, why not have Richard Dawkins write us all letters about how having the death penalty is just like shooting an intruder in your house. That'll convince us.

But I actually take keyboard in hand to write something I've been meaning to write below: it's not about any given opinion poll. I detest the idea of direct democracy, I'm all about representative government, and while it is useful to know what the public thinks, it's not a reason to do anything (although it beats "because all the cool countries are doing it"). Part of my admiration for George W. Bush is based on his willingness to do things that were unpopular at the time.

So, the point isn't that a majority favor the death penalty. The point is that a large and persistent majority, at least in the states, favors the death penalty. Although we try to hide this fact from ourselves, in the states a large and persistent majority can do anything it likes, and it would be odd to stop it.

Rather, the best argument for the death penalty is that it is the ultimate statement of civilization; we are willing to kill in its defense. Among other things, Europe's reluctance to kill in defense of civilization, though it is arguably the result of purposeful American diplomacy since the end of World War II, is why we tend to think that Europe is decadent and dying.

For purposes of this comment, I'll be agnostic about whether the UK is part of Europe.

It does occur to me that one historical reason for the difference in opinion between the US and the rest of the west is that we have always separated the death penalty from torture. We've never much used any of the more imaginative methods of killing our criminals.

David said...

Actually, now that I think about it, the "intruder in the house" metaphor is seamless. We have the death penalty because we shoot home invaders; you don't because you don't.

Brit said...

Although 13 US states don't have it of course, and apparently Nebraska effectively doesn't too. Mostly your stats are down to Texas's determinedly prolific slaughter of convicts, which I suppose might support your home invader shooting theory.

Japan and South Korea are the only two other industrialised democracies that use it, and South Korea currently has a moratorium. Re: torture, well the Japs are probably crueller than you.

David said...

Don't forget the federal government, which has its own death penalty that can be enforced in any state.

Also ... Mmmm, cruellers.

zmkc said...

It's the executioners I feel sorry for:

malty said...

The list is revealing, Leonard Cheshire, that most christian of individuals and an observer of the Japanese and their barbarity, summed up the nation quite neatly 'there is something disturbing about a people who so easily throw down their weapons and say, now show us how to be Christian' They of course have the death penalty, neither have they ever, unlike the Germans, or us, admitted their barbarity.

These is something inherently barbaric in allowing the sale of weapons to anyone then killing them when they shoot their fellow citizens.

Sean said...

Lets say for the sake of argument that we have something like a 9/11 attack the outcry and demand for CP would be a big political issue.

Thus by not having the limited use of CP you would open the door to the BNP or such like who will run with it and make strong gains from it.

So your wrong Brit, it is an issue here, and as Garth points out in his London post, there is a widening disconnect between the metro elite and everyone else that by the laws of nature will eventually snap (just like the risks in the banks snapped)

CP in this country is an part of the issue about how we govern ourselves, an thats a very live issue. We are not at the end of history!

and as a matter of fact, CP is not altogether banned, in the EU not-a-constitution says in a footnote in that charter that the death penalty is abolished “except in the case of war, riots, upheaval”.

Banned but not banned, you could not make it up. The ultras at the EU think it a viable option do they not?

Brit said...

Yes yes, Shaun, I'm sure the Apocalypse will be along soon and you'll be allowed to hang as many Muslims as you like.

David said...


You do realize that you've now limited civilization to western Europe since the 60s?

Vern said...

David: ...and not Switzerland either, where the place is chock a block with guns but nobody in enlightened precincts cares much.

Gaw said...

Just remembered a story which relates to Brit's last post on this topic, about not trusting opinion surveys.

I was on a train and on the same table as me was a middle-aged lady and a young man. They were talking about anti-social behaviour for some reason and the young man proposed capital punishment as a solution. The woman nodded thoughtfully with a worried look on her face before he went on ' never did me no harm when I was at school'.

Peter said...

Nothing shakes your average patriotic American's faith in his country like pointing out to him that it is out of step with the likes of Finland, Slovakia and Lichtenstein.

There are a few distortions in the way this has been presented. Almost all of Asia has CP, which not only makes the suggestion most of the world is anti-CP problematic, it raises the interesting question of whether that qualifies them as barbarian hordes. The Yellow Peril really never goes away, does it? Countries like Russia and Turkey and wide swaths of Africa are onside (to keep Swedish aid dollars flowing?), but are you proud that your team of the enlightened includes countries known for their genocides and extra-judicial murders? Surprisingly, Latin American were among the first to abolish, so do we now look to the lands of guns and machismo to validate our moral superiority?

In the philosphic context you present, it's really down to Europe and the Anglosphere vs. the States. Much as I might side with Europe, I am constrained to note that the EU makes this a top-down matter like zero tariffs and standard sized wine bottles, and so trying to run up the score by listing them all as independant voices of conscience is a little like giving Beylorussia and the Ukraine their own seats in the old UN.

Brit said...

I don't see it as a question of teams, Peter, but I do think it is, or at least looks like, a bizarre anomoly when you view it from that angle.

And if it isn't an anomoly, or it isn't bizarre, why isn't it?

David said...

First, as your title for this post implies, we don't mind being an anomaly. As you may know, a large number of us are up-in-arms over the possibility that the Supreme Court might use foreign law to help interpret the Constitution, and in particular the Cruel and Unusual clause.

Let's put it this way. Show people from the UK and the US a newspaper headline "The [UK/US} Stands Alone" without any detail. Ask them if the story that goes with that headline is likely to be good news or bad news, or if they would approve or disapprove of whatever the articles about. I'd bet Americans will say good news/approve. What would people from the UK say?

Second, this argument strikes me as a version of a type of argument that I really dislike. The argument goes, in effect, "look, progress is inevitable, this is progress, you're inevitably going to do this eventually, so you might as well do this now." In various ways, this argument is made by socialists, same-sex marriage proponents, anti-death penalty campaigners and, in a particularly gruesome version, vegetarians.

All these arguments get morality wrong (the vegetarians in particular wouldn't recognize their fundamental immorality if it bit them in the arse with long, sharp, canine teeth). But they also depend on a view of historical teleology that is absolutely wrong.

Peter said...

My point is that your anomoly is somewhat artifical and self-created, first by equating countries like Finland and New Zealand with the likes of India and Indonesia and secondly by framing the issue in such stark "civilized vs. barbaric" terms. 60% of the world lives under CP laws, so who exactly is out of step here? Brit, do you secretly yearn to be a 19th century missionary bringing Truth and Light to the heathens in remote and savage lands like West Texas?

A third objection is that you have wrenched this issue right out of its surrounding judicial/legal cultural context and made simplistic comparisons on a stand alone basis. I'll give you Europe for the most part, but please don't ask me to contemplate the moral superiority of countries with death squads on their police forces or that practice selective assassination of dissidents, or worse. The Americans are a bit in a quandry similar to what we saw in the waterboarding/torture debates in that they insist on an almost religious adherence to law and due process. What offends them more than anything is lynching or renegade soldiers or other self-help remedies. No raison d'etat like the French, no shadowy MI5 operatives doing nasty things in remote country houses. They completely reject extra-judicial solutions the citizens of many other countries will turn a blind eye to in extreme cases, and so they gravitate to desperate and dicey philosophical efforts to justify legally what others see as in extremis issues better dealt with quietly outside the law, and they feel justified in so doing. I don't see how they can square the borders of that circle with human nature and the real world, but I don't have a simple solution either, except to suggest 1776 was a big mistake, but we knew that already.

As you allow, most of us have little difficulty in imagining crimes so heinous that they morally merit a punishment of death, so I am perplexed as to why you would consider it immoral on first principles to execute such perps. The strongest objections strike me as being more empirical. In addition to forensic problems of proof, the buggar is that no one has been able to come up with a law of general application that can reliably separate the heinous from the more ambiguous, but those are not baseline moral objections. Plus, the process is too politicized in the States and makes not only the principle of CP but also its application a political football perpetually in the air.

Speaking of which, if you are looking for raw barbarism, I suggest you will find it more in the way Americans have allowed their prison system to evolve. When a DA positioning himself to run for governor chortles to the press that he's going to do all he can to make sure an accused spends many years as "Bubba's boyfriend", that is the face of barbarism and much more morally offensive to me than a jury voting to impose the death penalty or a governor declining to commute.

Plus your responses to David's arguments about popular opinion are pretty aristocratic. "It's not easy to give the people what they want"?? Ah, heavy hangs the head that wears the Crown. (OTOH, I'd love to hear how David would handle public opinion polls showing consistent support for drawing and quartering.)

Brit said...

You've both rather misinterpreted my tone, which is always a danger when using text rather than speech.

I'm interested in hearing interpretations of the observation, which you've given, not using this as an argument for why the US should abolish.

Peter said...

OK, another point of contention is your implied presumption that abolition is (and should be) a one way street, because after all, it represents not so much a more just and efficient way for a particular country to run its criminal law system at a particular point in history, but timeless and universal moral progress. The debate is largely about when the States is going to join the civilized world, not about when Europe is going to pull up its pants and get real about crime and individual responsibility, no? Abolition in much of Europe and the Anglosphere can in large part be dated from the 50's to the 80's--the heyday of liberal hegemony in the West and also liberal public opinion on a lot of issues like multiculturalism, multilateralism and light criminal sentencing. Many supporters of such things see them in the same moral, "March of the Enlightenment" context you seem to see CP in, but they are all being challenged rather pointedly and with some success by the right today. What difference is there between your argument on CP and their's on those other issues? (Two days ago here, a lower court judge struck down all our prostitution laws on the principle that they violated something called "fundamental justice". Hey, who needs elections and a parliament? Bloggers on both sides seem wildly supportive, perhaps because they are mainly young men on the eternal quest for consequence-free sex. I know you wouldn't support that kind of judicial outrage, but what is it about CP that allows you to distinguish it so sharply and discount public opinion in so many ways?)

You seem to have forgotten CP was effectively abolished in the States for most of two decades, but it didn't take. I believe reinstatement of CP in Mexico, awash in crime and murder, is now a hot topic. Would you see reconsideration as a legitimate response to out-of-control crime and violence and a breakdown of civil order, or as akin to a re-introduction of chattel slavery that could never be defended in any circumstance?

Brit said...

what is it about CP that allows you to distinguish it so sharply and discount public opinion in so many ways

I have, surely, answered that one at length in the post below and in previous ones.

Would you see reconsideration as a legitimate response to out-of-control crime and violence and a breakdown of civil order, or as akin to a re-introduction of chattel slavery that could never be defended in any circumstance?

Although you're trying to impose it on me, I don't take the view that there is a linear moral progression in human affairs. Again, that's surely something I've made clear on this blog. I simply think that re-introduction anywhere would be a mistake. Certainly Mexico should have no reason to think that introducing the death penalty would help in any way with their crime problems as the deterrent value is negligible or nil (really, does anyone still think it has a deterrent value?)

David said...

As long as we're getting shirty about things we've already said, let me note that I've already said that my reading of the social science literature is that there is a weak consensus that there's a weak deterrent effect. If the question is really whether anyone thinks that there's a deterrent effect, than I would say most Americans do, and they're supported by the research that, if it finds a deterrent effect at all, seems to find that each execution saves at least 3 lives.

Brit said...

each execution saves at least 3 lives

Goodness. So, the more people you execute the more you save. In that case, it's a moral obligation to execute, and the more the better. Somebody tell the Swedes, they'll insist on introducing it on health and safety grounds....

David said...

it's a moral obligation to execute, and the more the better.

That was the conclusion of Cass Sunstein (now of the Obama White House) and Adrian Vermeule reacting to research showing that each execution saves 18 lives.

Since then, research that shows that this finding is not robust (it doesn't survive removing Texas and California from the data, suggesting that capital punishment has to reach a threshold frequency before it has a strong deterrent effect) has caused Sunstein and Vermeule to agree that, even though a strong showing of deterrence makes capital punishment a moral necessity, we're not there yet.

I characterize the state of research as a weak consensus on weak deterrence largely based on the research that comes after Sunstein and Vermeule's paper, particularly that of Wolfers and Donohue which suggests that combining the various models to define a model space results in a finding of weak deterrence. This finding too is subject to further research, which is one reason that it's bad to make policy based on social science.

Brit said...

First thing we do, let's execute all the social scientists...

Peter said...

You tell him, Brit. You're making me nostalgic for our Darwinist days. Evidenced-based science is no substitute for what we feel is right in our bones.

Still, aren't you afraid Skipper will weigh in to insist you are making a category error leading to a null hypothesis?

David said...

It's worth noting that both Brit and I are arguing for the status quo, our statuses having different quos.

Brit said...

...whereas Peter, clearly suffering from ADS*, is vigorously buttonholing me because I don't want to change a major law on the basis of a popular poll registering in the sixty percents...thus seriously threatening his number one Conservativer-Than-Thou status.

*Argument Deficiency Syndrome

David said...

He is the conservative's conservative.

Peter said...

Oh, I see. I state clearly twice that I'm on your side in the face of bloodthirsty cries for revenge from the Rapacious Yankee Trader, but because I don't get there by the same route, and even deign to point out that Rapacious Yankee Traders have mommies too, I'm the fanatic.

Sigh. It's not easy being Canadian.

Ian Wolcott said...

Brit -

Comparing your two alphabetical lists to see which letters are missing in each, I come up with the following:

No death penalty: JKOQWXYZ (that’s 8 missing letters)

Death penalty: FHRWX (that’s five missing letters)

My conclusions? I have two: 1) That the pro-death penalty camp is more representative of the alphabet as a whole, and 2) That there are shockingly few country names beginning with the letter X.

Hey Skipper said...


So my question is this: is there a more striking anomaly anywhere, in terms of global approaches to ethics and politics, than the fact that the US is on the second list rather than the first?

In order for that anomaly to be striking, it should actually be, well, an anomaly.

Your question pitches cause and effect into the same bucket, which prevents considering whether cause or effect is anomalous.

So, to recast:

Random A-Z list of countries having banned CP: Australia, et al …

Random A-Z list of the country where CP is imposed only for murder: United States.

Random A-Z list of the 68 countries where CP is imposed for a much longer list of crimes: Afghanistan, Burundi, Cuba, et al …

Now, it may well be that others of the remaining 68 do indeed reserve CP for murders only, but that wouldn't change my point: ignoring the cause element of the effect makes your list specious.


Still, aren't you afraid Skipper will weigh in to insist you are making a category error ...

What would you call it?