Friday, December 30, 2005

Moral Calculus and Tookie Williams

Now that the co-founder of the Crips has gone on to his just reward and public attention has moved to other things, it’s time to evaluate one of the most popular arguments for commuting Williams’ death sentence.

The argument is that he redeemed himself with his children’s books and anti-gang message.

Do those who make this argument really believe it? Consider its implications of this strange moral calculus.

First, the notion is that somehow a wrong done to one person can be “made up” by good acts done to others. I deny that this makes any sense at all. If A does a great harm to B, ruining her/his life, A doesn’t correct this by then doing sufficient good for C. No amount of good done for C absolves A of his responsibility for his harm to B. Perhaps A could absolve himself by doing a great good to B, sufficient to restore B in some sense. But B and C are not interchangeable. More specifically, if Mr. Williams orders Mr. Yen-I Yang to lie on the floor and then happily blows off the back of his head with a shotgun, and then does the same to Mr. Yang’s wife Tsai-Shai Yang and daughter Yee-Chen Lin, no number of nice children’s books can make up the harm done to Mr. Yang and his family. Disagree? Then tell me how many books it takes, how good they have to be, and why any number at all should matter. And tell me how you determined that the terrible and vicious harm done to the Yangs was less than the alleged good done by the kiddies books.

This should be sufficient to sink the strange moral calculus, but there are additional implications. The argument really is that in determining the punishment warranted by a person’s vicious act, we must balance it by also adding in the good acts done by the person. One can redeem onesself with sufficient number of children’s books and other good works. OK…so if A decides that s/he wants very much to murder B, can s/he find out ahead of time what the cost in terms of good works will be? Why not? It makes perfect sense if we buy the moral calculus at all…if you really want to commit a murder and get off with a lighter penalty, then you must agree to do as much (alleged) good as Tookie Williams did, or twice as much, or one hundred times as much, or whatever standard seems appropriate. This is a perfectly sensible if we accept the strange moral calculus of redemption by good works.

And interestingly, no temporal order is implied in this argument. Want to commit a murder and get off scot-free, or with a reduced sentence? Go out and do sufficient good works before hand – purchase for yourself the right to kill B. “Give enough back” to society (people other than B) and B’s life is yours. Well, the moral morons who make this argument don’t have the right to sell the lives of the Yangs, nor Williams other victim, Albert Owen.

I hope no one who made the moral calculus argument for commuting William’s sentence would be happy with these implications (but who knows what such people might be thinking). The moral calculus argument is typical of the empty-headedness of today’s public debate, which largely consists of mindless spouting of sound-bytes (bites?) that sound good on the surface, without even a shred of logical thought for what they mean.

No amount of good done to C can amend for the evil done to B. It’s a particularly objectionable form of utilitarianism that holds otherwise.

(As an aside, I generally oppose the death penalty for a different reason – I don’t want the state to be granted the power to execute the possibly innocent. For a few of my thoughts on this issue see David Friedman's provocative and interesting blog.

Quoting you:
"I generally oppose the death penalty..."(emphasis mine)

As one who refuses to grant the state the right to take anyone's life, in any fashion, I wonder in what circumstances you would grant the state the right to take a life?
We might be talking past each other here. By saying I "generally" oppose the death penalty I mean I oppose it, but for reasons other than the one I critique here.

I don't even grant that the state has a right to exist (this is not necessarily an anarchist position, BTW; America's founding fathers clearly argued that the state has no rights, only powers granted it by the people), hence there are no circumstances where the state has the right to take lives.

There are circumstances where it's appropriate for individuals to kill others, and these are independent of whether or not the individuals involved are agents of the state. These circumstances are the defense of life, liberty, and property against coercion -- the protection of individual rights.
Ah yes, good, and much to my relief.

I read generally and thought you meant "usually", a position I was certain you didn't share last time we spoke of such things.

And here I thought I was going to be making a trip to the Big Sky to determine which sort of alien with statist tendencies had taken over my good friend!

Darn...I'll just have to find another reason...
So if I decide to grant rights to the state to take a life, you'll come up here?

OK -- I think that the death penalty is warranted whenever a poltician who has taken an oath to defend the Constitution then violates the Constitution. The death penalty doesn't bother me in this case, since I don't care very much about executing the innocent here -- they should just take it as a risk of holding office.

Bring your snowshoes and skis.
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