In this post, Saranga Sudarshan discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the issue of irrevocability in arguing about capital punishment and euthanasia.

Working out our moral and political views on things is a messy business. Sometimes, when we think our arguments for why certain things are right or wrong, just or unjust are really persuasive we find they have no effect on others. Other times we realise that these arguments lead to moral and political judgements that make us question whether they were good arguments to begin with. Although it is often uncomfortable, when we live in a shared social world and we exert our authority to make coercive laws to govern ourselves and others it is helpful to take a step back and think about how some of our arguments work at their core. This sort of reflection is precisely what I do in a recently published article in relation to a particular argument against Capital Punishment.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the argument that Capital Punishment should be abolished because it involves the risk of killing innocent people. But how does this argument actually work? I think it basically involves three steps. The first is to assert that sometimes, when we are trying to punish the guilty for committing crimes, we make mistakes that mean we end up punishing an innocent person. After all even though we try our best through the police, courts, lawyers, and general rules of the judicial system, we are, not perfect creatures and sometimes events themselves are complicated. In these cases, in trying to do something morally right (punishing someone for doing something morally wrong), we end up doing something morally wrong (punishing someone who is innocent).

However, the moral wrong of punishing an innocent person is usually no cause for concern. When we find out we have done it we can compensate the innocent person for their punishment. But, this is where the second step of the argument comes in. This is to assert that Capital Punishment isn’t something that can be compensated. It is `irrevocable’ because in all the important ways that typically count as compensation, we can’t compensate for death. Therefore by using Capital Punishment we run the risk of punishing people in ways that make it impossible to correct the moral wrong of punishing them if they are innocent.

The third step of the argument is to infer that the risk of irrevocably punishing the innocent gives us good reason to not use Capital Punishment. For instance, we might think the overall costs and benefits of Capital Punishment are pretty equal or too hard to weigh up, or even that the costs of punishing the innocent outweigh the benefits of killing someone who is guilty of some heinous crime. In either case we think the risk of punishing the innocent provides us a conclusive and overriding reason to not use Capital Punishment.

What I draw attention to in my article is that this “Irrevocability Argument” applies symmetrically to Active Voluntary Euthanasia (AVE). AVE is a form of Euthanasia which involves killing someone who consents to being killed by actively doing something that causes them to die. What I mean by `symmetrical’ is that the argument works against AVE in the same way it works against Capital Punishment, and if for some reason it doesn’t work against AVE it also doesn’t work against Capital Punishment. This is because all three of the steps in the Irrevocability Argument apply equally to AVE.

We can make the same sort of mistakes, no matter how hard we try to ensure we euthanise only those who give morally valid consent (eg. consent that is given without coercion, and for the right reasons). For instance, we may not be able to detect cases where people consent to be killed because they suffer elder abuse, or from systemic issues like poverty and low social status which cause them to devalue their life so as not be a burden on their family and community. And, just like Capital Punishment, when we make such mistakes we cannot compensate the person for it. Finally, just like Capital Punishment we might think the costs and benefits of AVE are pretty equal or too hard to weigh up, or even that the costs of AVE outweigh the benefits of euthanising those that do truly give morally valid consent to be killed. As a result, the argument would give us good reason to not use AVE.

The point of all this is not to defend or critique the Irrevocability Argument, or defend or critique the use of Capital Punishment and AVE. Rather it’s about realising that the argument is symmetrical in a way that should concern us. This is because many countries currently have laws that do not treat Capital Punishment and AVE symmetrically. For instance, in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and the state of Victoria in Australia, Capital Punishment has been abolished and AVE legalised. Conversely fifty-five countries permit Capital Punishment but do not permit AVE. This means at least some of the positions taken by advocates or opponents of Capital Punishment and AVE in the moral and political discourses of those countries are untenable. Either, they have to accept the Irrevocability Argument works against both Capital Punishment and AVE, or deny it works against either of them. As such, anyone who employs the Irrevocability Argument must reckon with this symmetry and decide whether they are happy with its implications, or whether they require a new argument.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.