Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

The Death Penalty: A Compromise

Capital punishment is a very controversial issue. Some would say that, regardless of what evils a person has done, it is not right to kill him, for human life is sacred, and further that there is something especially noxious about the death penalty because it is irrevocable, and if a person is ever wrongly executed there is nothing that can correct this. Others claim that we must take from the criminal something equivalent to what he has taken from his victim and from society, either as a matter or justice or in order to deter future crimes. And there are further concerns that without the death penalty murders will eventually be paroled to kill again.

These considerations may seem irreconcilable, but it strikes me that there is a “third way” one could take on the issue that would do at least a passable job of addressing the concerns of both the pro and anti-death penalty camps. The proposed compromise I have in mind is as follows: Instead of killing convicted murders, we use modern medical science to place them in an induced coma for the rest of their lives. This would respect the inviolability of human life, since we would not kill anyone. Further, if it ever came to light that a person was innocent, then and only then could we awaken them from their coma. On the other hand, from the perspective of the convict his life would be over, since he would spend the rest of it unconscious. This ought to have the same deterrent effect as execution, and since it serves to take away just as much liberty as death, it ought to serve the same retributive purposes. And the risk that a convicted murder would ever be released would be minimal, since the only way the person could ever even be woken up is if their conviction is overturned.

Question for discussion: is this a satisfactory compromise or not? If not, why not? If most people do not find the compromise satisfactory, does that suggest that the considerations given in the first paragraph aren’t at the root of disagreements about the death penalty?


April 29, 2008 - Posted by | Death Penalty


  1. Interesting idea — take it a step further and poke and prod the hell out of them in the name of science …

    Ohio won’t be on board though … pansies:

    Comment by lifeisacookie | April 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. It seems to me that this isn’t really a compromise. At least one of the reasons we value life is that consciousness accompanies it. To take away consciousness, at least to me, is to take away one of the most valuable characteristics of life. This doesn’t mean that those who through natural misfortune lose consciousness lose their dignity as people, but it does suggest to me that depriving someone of consciousness is not far removed from taking away their life.

    Comment by JohnB | April 29, 2008 | Reply

  3. Theoretically, all judicial actions stemming from a guilty plea are ordered towards reforming the guilty party. I don’t like it, but the death penalty is (again, theoretically) reserved for those who are irredeemable, those who are incapable of repentance.

    From a faith perspective, no one is irredeemable. We hear stories of converts who are on death row. Those who are undoubtedly guilty, but who would never commit a similar crime in their lives.

    Since the ‘coma penalty’ does not have a means of allowing people to come to repentance/redemption (save the case of being found innocent); it does not seem to me to resolve any of the issues surrounding the death penalty but only adds more issues to be resolved.

    Comment by Jason | April 30, 2008 | Reply

  4. Jason,

    I don’t think it’s correct to say that all judicial actions stemming from a guilty plea are ordered towards reforming the guilty party. Certainly, in most Criminal Law classes, a variety of justifications are advanced for judicial sentencing including retribution and deterrence.

    It’s always seemed to me that rehabilitation should be a goal of sentencing, but certainly not the only goal. Retribution is important too, because any sentence would be unjust unless the person in some sense deserved it through their actions. I have never found deterrence arguments particularly helpful both because it’s not clear how much such considerations affect decision-making ex ante, and becuase it treats the person sentenced as a means to another end rather than considering what they deserve.

    If rehabilitation were the only rationale for sentencing, then I think that your argument would be fairly persuasive. Also, I agree with you that an enforced coma is not really that distinguishable from the death penalty; I would be fairl ambivalent if asked to choose between one or the other; in both cases what I value most about life would be taken away. Nevertheless, punishment does serve other purposes which should be taken into account.

    Comment by JohnB | April 30, 2008 | Reply

  5. Actually the death penalty could be more rehabilitative than the coma penalty. It seems to focus the mind of the condemned wretch on eternity more.

    Comment by Adam Greenwood | May 1, 2008 | Reply

  6. About the induced coma-good idea!!! Biblically speaking, if you kill one being you are killing off a nation. Read about Cain and Able, that proves it. We could come back later and find that person to be innocent.

    Comment by travelingman50 | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  7. Another aspect of the coma penalty might be economy – would it be far less expensive to maintain a convicted murderer in a medically-induced coma than in one of the country-club prisons?

    Seems worth asking some medical professionals what are the practicalities and costs of medically-induced comas and are there problems maintaining them over a range of, say, 1 year (Jared Loughner) to 44 years (Sirhan Sirhan).

    Comment by jrbtnyc | January 25, 2012 | Reply

  8. It could be abused by those with severe depression to be put into a state of sleep instead of death.

    Comment by Bob the Chef | September 9, 2012 | Reply

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