Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Animadversions on Radovan Karadzic
With A Few Comments on
The Death Penalty, Philosophy, and Iraq

They finally got the SOB. I could hold forth about his awfulness, but I've done that before, and nobody really needs to hear it anyway. There's actual evil in the world, and one of its clearest instantiations is in Karadzic.

Here's one thing that seems very clear to me about this case: Karadzic deserves the death penalty.

Now, a few years back, my friend Peter the Public Defender convinced me that the death penalty was extremely flawed in practice, and I came to believe that it should be used--if at all--only in the clearest cases. In fact, I am inclined to support an at least temporary ban on its use in the U.S.--until, that is, we can figure out whether/how we can apply it in something at least approaching a just manner.

However--and here's something, incidentally, that philosophers are better at than most folk--we have to separate the in-principle question from the in-practice question. The DP seems justified in principle, though not in practice. It is unjustified in practice largely because of epistemic problems--that is, the justice system is insufficiently good at determining guilt and innocence. And it is a virtual certainty that we have executed innocent people (and probably a non-trivial number of them at that).

However, this has no bearing on the in-principle question. The standard example here is Hitler--if we'd have captured him at the end of the war, it is about as clear as anything gets in this area that he would deserve execution. However, it seems to be an unextinguishable internet trope that you can never appeal to Hitler in any argument!!!11!!1 Dopey, but there it is. Appeals to Hitler play an important role in such discussions precisely because the case is so clear; everyone knows a sufficient number of facts about the case, every sane person acknowledges his monstrousness, and there are no significant epistemic questions in play.

But thing is, Karadzic is almost as good an exemplar. People might not be quite as clear about the facts in the case, but it doesn't take much digging to reveal them. He killed fewer people, but there is, it seems, little difference morally speaking. Once you've become a mass murderer on such an unimaginable scale, the difference between hundreds of thousands and millions doesn't matter much.

So, since there's no real doubt about what he did, and what he did was off the moral scale, what he deserves seems pretty damn clear.

Now, I won't try to address specific arguments against the DP here, though we've discussed them some in the past. But here's one thought to keep in mind: most arguments against the DP seem to turn, in the end, on premises that seem to entail one of two absurd claims, to wit, either: (a) No one is ever responsible for anything he does or (b) We are only responsible for the good things we do, but not the bad ones. Now, DP opponents cannot accept (a) without self-contradiction, and there is simply no coherent reason whatsoever to accept (b).

But the important--though elementary--point about method that I want to make here is just that one must not confuse in-principle opposition to the DP with in-practice opposition. However passionately one opposes the DP on the grounds that we have misapplied it, this cannot touch the position that holds that it can sometimes be applied clearly and justly. So, again, the philosophical lesson: separate in-principle objections from in-practice ones.

I want to close with a brief comment about Iraq. Intervention in the former Yugoslavia was one of Clinton's--and America's--finest moments. In that case, we intervened for genuinely moral reasons. The prudential/strategic reasons for intervention simply weren't very strong, and the motive was clearly moral. Clinton and company faced opposition not only from the international community, but from Republicans as well. But they saw what was right, and pushed forward resolutely. But, remember, they did so in a way that sought to ultimately create consensus and bring the opposition on board. Clinton was right, his opponents were wrong, but he treated them with respect by trying to gently--but firmly--reveal to them the error of their ways.

This, unfortunately, contrasts vividly with our actions in Iraq, and the motives and actions of the Bush administration. Although Saddam was a brutal fiend--like Karadzic, on par with Hitler, morally speaking--the war was not undertaken for moral reasons. Moral reasons were invoked only as it became clear that the strategic case was absurdly weak. Furthermore, since steps were not taken to insure that we would not make the situation worse, it may be true that we are blameworthy for our actions, despite the fact that we removed a brutal tyrant. And, in terms of the ultimate actual consequences, we may in fact have made things worse. Finally, instead of seeking to build consensus and show the loyal opposition the alleged error of its ways, Bush and his surrogates demonized all who failed to fall immediately into line--though we were right and he was wrong, and this was reasonably clear from early on.

So--though I don't want to become one of those people who try to turn every discussion back to the Iraq debacle--I do think that this case provides an opportunity for reflection on that case. Though this shouldn't distract us from the primary fact at hand, which is that Radovan Karadzic, mass murderer and all around evil piece of sh*t, has finally been captured.


Blogger lovable liberal said...

Now, I won't try to address specific arguments against the DP here, though we've discussed them some in the past. But here's one thought to keep in mind: most arguments against the DP seem to turn, in the end, on premises that seem to entail one of two absurd claims, to wit, either: (a) No one is ever responsible for anything he does or (b) We are only responsible for the good things we do, but not the bad ones.

Whether this argument is good or bad depends on further explication, for which I assume you take responsibility, WS. Can you bridge the leap for me?

Of course, you're working on DP-in-principle, not DP-in-practice, and since I've long accepted that there are people who deserve to die because of their acts (without accepting that we can justly administer the nuts and bolts), we probably don't have a dispute.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

You know, LL, I've actually become less sure about the permissibility of the DP in principle. Here I just wanted to warn people away from arguments that end up entailing that no one is ever responsible for anything.

In one paradigmatic version of the argument, it is covertly assumed that in every case where the DP would be in principle permissible, we can find--or, actually, imagine--excusing conditions. That is, conditions which remove responsibility. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that such arguments--if they worked at all (which they don't)--wouldn't simply show that there are circumstances that remove responsibility in *every* case, including those cases in which our actions are apparently praiseworthy or morally neutral.

Yeah, to my shame I came to realize that the DP was bad in practice way too late.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Given that you are for the DP in principle, and against it in practice, is your position on RK that he deserves in principle to be executed, but we ought - for practical reasons - treat him more lightly than he deserves? Most of the time, when someone says that X deserves Y, they mean we ought to give it to them, but then your principle/practical distinction collapses.

1:23 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, I disagree with the death penalty 'cause I think it's pointless. One reason for that is that I just don't see how it's that big of a punishment when compared to the alternatives. If I faced a decision between life rotting away in a maximum security prison and death, I'd happily choose the latter. Seems to me that if you want to punish someone, you'd lock them away in a cell for the rest of their lives.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Sorry...what I wrote was quite confused, in just the way you identify. What I meant when I said that I was against it in practice in the U.S., as the system is now. There could be a system in which it was justified in practice. In the case of RK, there are no relevant doubts about the crimes, so no grounds for being against it in practice.

So, to be completely clear, I'm for it in RK's case.

I agree that there are many worse things than death. But I don't think we should try to maximize RK's suffering. Rather, I think we should give him what he deserves. My inclination is to think that he deserves death, even though it's far from the worst thing we could do to him.

5:19 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Yeah, I don't think we should maximize his suffering either. However, might I ask why you arrived at death as the punishment of which he is most deserving? Seems like it's not a very harsh one to me, honestly.

Also, I think my biggest problem with the death penalty is that it seems like death does nothing for us and nothing for the person to whom it is being applied. It doesn't really seem like that much of a punishment to me and it doesn't make the culprit see the error of his ways or anything. Seems more like a cop out. In this situation, we've got this guy who did these horrible things. We're really pissed off and we don't know what to do. So, we just kill him and move on?

Seems like a better thing to do would be to make him work to repair what he's done. Of course, any work he does will likely not repair all the damage caused by the tremendous atrocities that he's committed, but the point is that he has to actually pay for what he's done - not just fade away by dying.

Also, while not the main point of the incarceration, I hope that, in the process, he could learn how to see that what he did before was incredibly wrong and that what he's doing now (working to help better the world that he left so much worse off) is what he's obliged to do for the rest of his existence, even though he will almost necessarily fall short.

I think that basically, when it comes to self-defense, the most moral person will do what it takes to keep the aggressor from continuing on in his aggression, but once sufficient action has been taken (i.e., the aggressor is captured and restrained), the moral duty is to try to better the current situation as much as possible. There's a human being who's done atrocious things - that much is clear - but it's not clear to me that the best course of action is simply to terminate the life. The best course of action, I would think, is to make use of the power over him that we now have in his capture to do what we can to show him the error of his ways and, at the same time, probably more importantly, make him pay back for what he's done. If we can make the rest of his life in captivity yield an overall positive result (and I mean by that to take into consideration the cost of keeping him in captivity), then isn't that a better course of action than just termination?

I suppose there's some question over whether or not such a result is possible and with our current prison system, I don't think it is. We say that we "rehabilitate" but we really do nothing of the sort. Our prison system has become an atrocious punishment machine without much care for actual rehabilitation or anything like that. That's not really relevant to the core argument I'm making, but I just thought I'd throw that out there.

I guess to summarize my argument, I put forth the following:

If we find ourselves to have captured a person who has done horrible things, the best course of action is not necessarily to terminate the life, but to try to get an overall positive result out of the capture. Perhaps termination is in order in certain cases where we are simply incapable of helping the person enough to get a positive result out of his capture, but I think we at least owe ourselves the effort it takes to try to reform the person and get a positive result.

Tangential to that is the point that I really just don't see what's so bad about the death penalty. Hell, if I were a criminal and all I had to worry about was dying, that wouldn't stop me from doing anything. The thought of rotting away in prison would be what would stop me.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

1. So, hold on, is death too bad, or not bad enough?

2. What, exactly, could Karadzic do that would yield a "positive balance" when weighed against 100,000+ deaths? Not to mention uncounted women being gang raped to death, or to the point of insanity. Or both.

3. I agree with you that it isn't clear why death is the appropriate punishment. But it seems to me that whenever we leave the realm of quantifiable financial harm, or of obvious rectifiable harm, the appropriateness of punishment becomes unclear. But death seems like a pretty good guess at an appropriate punishment for what RK has done.

6:05 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

1. I definitely don't think it's too bad. I don't know how bad his punishment should be, really, so I can't tell if it's not bad enough, but I do think that the death penalty is not that bad at all. It's worse than living a free, happy life, of course, but way better than living a life in a cage if you ask me. I don't really know why it's chosen as a punishment at all, to tell you the truth. Seems more like something done for the capturers, not the capturee.

2. I didn't mean that he had to yield a positive balance for his life overall. As I said, nothing he could ever do could fix all the horrible things he did. However, killing him won't fix any of that either. Therefore, I meant by "positive balance" a situation that would be considered "positive" overall from the point of his capture forth. If we could get a positive balance out of his life from his capture on, then that would mean that that seems like the better decision against terminating his life and being left without the positive balance that we would otherwise have attained. I did, however, admit that perhaps there are scenarios in which the captured person is so far gone that there's no way he can ever provide any sort of positive contribution to society, but we don't know if we have such a situation unless we try to reform the person.

In short, death seems to help nothing. What difference does it make that he's dead or alive if he's already been captured and stopped from causing any further damage?

Reform, however, seems like it could actually yield positive results. If that's the case, then it seems like we ought to go with the latter over the former.

If I spent my life doing horrendous things because I was so psychopathic or misguided or whatever that I thought they were the right things to do, it would be much, much easier for me to simply die a hero in my own mind at the hands of those who I thought to be the evil ones than to be captured, educated, and forced to live with what I had done, struggling to fix what I did, knowing I could never do enough to fix it.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

But administering justice isn't only about generating positive results. It's at least sometimes about giving people what they deserve. Sometimes people deserve what you might identify as positive things, sometimes negative.

Now, presumably you don't deny that people sometimes deserve things that are good for them--one might, for example, deserve some money, or a Nobel prize, or the Presidency, or whatever. Other times one might deserve what isn't good for you--you might, for example, deserve a punch in the mouth, or to lose your house, or whatever.

What's not clear is why anyone would think that it is *impossible* to deserve to die. If, for example, someone set a process in motion that would painfully kill every living creature in the universe (other than himself), it seems fairly difficult to believe that he would not deserve death.

So, once one has admitted that people sometimes deserve things, one seems forced to admit that they sometimes deserve punishment. And if one admits that people sometimes deserve punishment, it seems fairly difficult to maintain that people never deserve to die.

8:38 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

But isn't it possible to think that people get what they deserve by virtue of the fact that they've committed an atrocious crime that impacts their lives irrevocably? Punishment, to me, seems like needless and excessive consequence. Needless because it produces nothing good (that is, the state of the world after the punishment has been administered, barring other simultaneous changes, is no better off than it was before the punishment was administered) and excessive because it only adds to the consequences inherent in the situation that resulted due to the actions taken by the person in question. That is, we don't need to create any more misery for someone who's already created it for himself.

One might argue that certain people are better off, however, because the death penalty (for example) provides a sense of closure and justice now that the person who has committed the crime has been executed. However, I would put forth that this is something we ought not to promote in our society. Deriving satisfaction from the destruction of another shouldn't be promoted. Regardless of what that person has done, does causing him pain do anything to fix what damage he has done? It can't bring back the dead. It can't repair structural damage. It can't do much other than provide a scapegoat for people to turn to in order to feel better about the situation.

If that's true, then it seems like it's not that crazy to believe that people can deserve things, but that punishment isn't one of them. It's an inherently bad thing to do since its only consequence is to add misery to the world.


12:35 PM  

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