Against and for Capital Punishment

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SUNSTEIN & VERMEULE 58 STAN. L. REV. 703

1/9/2006 10:51:05 AM

IS CAPITAL PUNISHMENT MORALLY REQUIRED? ACTS, OMISSIONS, AND LIFELIFE TRADEOFFS Cass R. Sunstein* and Adrian Vermeule**
Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect. But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. The familiar problems with capital punishment— potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew—do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent. The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve. The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

INTRODUCTION................................................................................................ 704 I. EVIDENCE .................................................................................................... 710 II. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: MORAL FOUNDATIONS AND FOUR OBJECTIONS ... 716 A. Morality and Death............................................................................. 717 B. Acts and Omissions ............................................................................. 719 1. Is the act/omission distinction coherent with respect to government?............................................................................... 720 * Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence, the University of Chicago Law School, Department of Political Science, and the College. ** Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law, the University of Chicago. The authors thank Larry Alexander, Ron Allen, Richard Berk, Steven Calabresi, Jeffrey Fagan, Robert Hahn, Dan Kahan, Andy Koppelman, Richard Lempert, Steven Levitt, James Liebman, Daniel Markel, Frank Michelman, Tom Miles, Eric Posner, Richard Posner, Joanna Shepherd, William Stuntz, James Sullivan, and Eugene Volokh for helpful suggestions, and Blake Roberts for excellent research assistance and valuable comments. Thanks too to participants in a work-in-progress lunch at the University of Chicago Law School and a constitutional theory workshop at Northwestern University Law School.

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SUNSTEIN & VERMEULE 58 STAN. L. REV. 703

1/9/2006 10:51:05 AM

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STANFORD LAW REVIEW

[Vol. 58:703

2. Is the act/omission distinction morally relevant to capital punishment? ............................................................................... 724 C. The Arbitrary and Discriminatory Realm of Homicide....................... 728 D. Preferable Alternatives and the Principle of Strict Scrutiny............... 732 E. Slippery Slopes .................................................................................... 734 F. Deontology and Consequentialism Again............................................ 737 III. COGNITION AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT ................................................... 740 A. Salience ............................................................................................... 741 B. Acts, Omissions, and Brains................................................................ 741 C. A Famous Argument that Might Be Taken as a Counterargument ..... 743 IV. IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE PROBLEMS ................................................... 744 A. Threshold Effects (?) and Regional Variation...
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