Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed this morning, to the horror and disgust of many, and to almost continuous press coverage. Religious groups prayed, to no avail (as usual), and the Prime minister has withdrawn his ambassador and suspended all ministerial contact, describing the action as “cruel and unnecessary”. I will comment here on some of the moral issues raised, and for the moment adopt the consequentialist moral position which is easiest to apply in this instance.
I agree that the executions were cruel, like all executions, but that does not mean they were unjustified. Any justification would have to do with consequences. Punishments, indeed laws in general, have two distinct intertwined purposes/aspects: to make the perpetrator ‘pay’ for his or her crime and to deter others from future criminal behaviour of the same kind. It seems that the more major the offence and punishment, the more prominent the latter. The ultimate sanction, the death penalty, is surely only justifiable as a means to deter others. A consequentialist moral philosopher holds that the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined by the consequences of the act and not by its nature. So an apparently harmful and cruel act may still be the right thing to do if it gives rise to be best consequences. Of course it is necessary to specify what is meant by “best” here and also to work out future consequences, but we often have to make judgements about the future and we can sometimes decide what would be best. Consequentialists think they can deal with these matters. So if the imposition of the death penalty reduces the number of murders at a given place and time, then this would be a reason for the consequentialist to endorse it. And if carrying out a given execution – applying that penalty in a given instance – would be similarly efficacious, then the consequentialist would endorse it. Indeed, the consequentialist would not support routinely commuting death sentences, or commuting it in a given instance, if that increased the number of offences that the punishment was supposed to deter.
The next question for the consequentialist is what offence or offences should be punished by death. It seems that cold-blooded murder – ‘murder one’ – is a likely candidate because there is a symmetry between crime and punishment: the same thing is done to the offender as he or she did to the victim. The case in question involves heroin smuggling. Chan and Sukumaran were not drug mules, driven to smuggle by need or greed, neither were they the Mr Bigs of the syndicate, but middle level managers. The case for the death penalty as a deterrent in Indonesiawas that the country has a dire problem with drugs, especially highly addictive ones like heroin. The drugs smuggled in by the syndicate would have caused all manner of misery and death - the particular details are not known exactly in the way in which the victim is known to have been murdered by her killer in the case of murder, they are inferred. If in fact the death penalty for middle managers in the heroin smuggling business would be effective in reducing the flow of the drug and the subsequent pain, misery and death, then it would be a discussible position for the consequentialist to adopt.
Thus far, then, I do not see that the death penalty is ruled out on the basis of the moral system I have adopted here, not do I see that the penalty is unjustified when it comes to heroin smuggling. Now the question is whether, in the prime minister’s words, it was unnecessary in the instance, and that the sentence should have been commuted. The argument here, one that was pressed by the Foreign Minister, also had a consequentialist-type ring: Chan and Sukumaran were thoroughly rehabilitated, they were really no longer drug smugglers, in fact they did a great deal of good in prison, helping others. To execute them would be to kill good men, men who had sincerely reformed, and, says the minister, is that not the point of prison? No, says the consequentialist, the point is deterrence. (Staying with the minister, if the only point of prison is reform, then surely criminals should be kept in jail until they reform and be let out once they have reformed regardless of their crimes and how long they have served?) If someone contemplating a crime that carried the death penalty believes that his sentence will be commuted if he does X – provided he gets caught and sentenced to death – then it is clear that the deterrent is weakened because it is no longer a death penalty, because the prisoner can do X if he is caught and sentenced and get off. This is the consequentialist argument in favour of imposing the sentence on Chan and Sukumaran. I think it constitutes a convincing rebuttal to Abbott and Bishop and all the others who have joined the bandwagon. I myself do not support the death penalty, partly because I do not think it works a convincing deterrent, but that is another story.
Response to Comment: I totally agree that sovereignty is very important and endorse your point about Aus. thanks!
Hi Nakita, Thank you for your remarks. I'm lazy but I hope to keep the blog going. John