On the Deterrence Argument (the death penalty debate)

(I’ve mentioned to my students before that statistics are often neutral – it is your duty as a GP student to use these statistics (percentages/ numbers) to make your point. Numbers are neutral, but your words are not. So it is not enough to simply plonk in statistics and numbers into your essay, without making a convincing case for how these statistics support your point.)


To illustrate this point, let’s look at the deterrence arguments for/ against the use of capital punishment. There are so many studies attempting to prove either that (a) capital punishment is an effective deterrent or (b) it really isn’t an effective deterrent for would-be criminals.

“So how?” (By the way, this post is inspired by a certain Whatsapp conversation with S – thanks for the inspiration)

So. As mentioned before, do not ignore the elephant in the room. It doesn’t matter whether you are arguing for (a) the abolishment of the death penalty or (b) that the death penalty remains necessary, but should be used sparingly. In both cases, you will have to acknowledge that there are studies showing both effectiveness and ineffectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent.

Here’s what you can do to address this deterrent argument:

If your stand is that capital punishment remains necessary (ie should not be abolished):

1. Acknowledge that the studies regarding the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent have been inconclusive and conflicting. Concede that we don’t know beyond a reasonable doubt whether it deters. Why? This is largely because it is near impossible to establish a causal relationship between crime rates and use of capital punishment. (There are many factors that can account for increase/ decline in crime rates – capital punishment is merely one factor)

2.  Majority of us do fear execution, even though there will be a number of individuals for whom the prospect of death does not deter. Death row inmates appeal for their death sentences to be commuted to life sentences – if execution is such a fearful prospect for them, it can be assumed that execution is just as fearful a prospect for the majority of would-be murderers.

3. Beef up your argument that politicians/ lawyers who still believe in the deterrence effect. Example: our very own Singapore Law Minister, Shanmugam. He believes that  Capital punishment has worked to deter drug traffickers from Singapore and should be used as a continuing punishment for drug offenders here. Or Stephen Markman, who believes that we have saved thousands of lives with the deterrent element of capital punishment. Markman: “we have saved thousands and thousands of lives with the deterrent element of capital punishment”.

4.  State: It is implausible human psychology to suppose that human beings are utterly indifferent to execution,  and that the policy of capital punishment will not affect at least some would-be offenders. It is remarkable that the abolitionists are so cocksure that the death penalty have no deterrent value. I would think that given the conflicting studies,  the abolitionists should exercise a bit more humility in making arguments about its lack of deterrent value.

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