Dec 29, 2006

Which is Worse: Life or Death? [LINK]

As is often the case around the holidays, I argue politics with my brother-in-law, who's a nice guy all around and yet continually reminds me why I no longer consider myself a liberal. The latest round concerned the death penalty, which I admit there may be valid reasons to oppose. Still, what touched me off was the assertion that a life sentence without the possibility of parole was somehow a more fearsome punishment than a death sentence. To accept that notion is to be led to the question: Why impose a death penalty at all, when life in prison is even more punitive?

What strikes me is that the vast majority of decent people hearing this are bound to consider both possibilities equally remote, which makes such an assertion plausible to begin with. But what if you're actually in the situation of choosing between your own life or death? Of those facing the death penalty, how many direct their lawyers to try to get their sentences commuted to life? Is it not the overwhelming majority? You would expect them to clamor for the chance to die. Wasn't Gary Gilmore's case remarkable for being such a notable exception to this rule? Among those for whom the question matters, there's a strong preference for life in prison.

It strikes me as odd to argue in one context that the death penalty is an overly severe punishment, while effectively recommending it in another as less severe.

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