Is it consistent to oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, and also believe that life in prison is actually worse anyway?

I’m not sure I fully grasp the motivation behind your question, but here’s a guess as to how you may be reasoning:

A punishment can be ethically indefensible if it is too severe, either in its own right (50 years of continuous physical torture, say) or in proportion to the seriousness of the crime (a decade in prison for petty theft, for instance, would be excessive). If life in prison is worse than execution, then if the death penalty should be opposed because it is too severe, then we should also oppose life in prison, since if the death penalty is too severe, and life in prison is (by stipulation) worse, then life in prison must also be too severe. So if this reasoning is correct, then either
(a) both the death penalty and life in prison should be rejected on moral grounds for being too severe – a position that some may hold but many will reject on the basis that life in prison is not necessarily too severe
(b) the death penalty must not be as bad as we think, and should not be opposed.

Before addressing the reasoning here, let me say that (a) does not strike me as so implausible a stance. In my estimation, we tend to underestimate the badness of life incarceration, and in particular, the ways in which the unrelenting infringements on a person’s liberty, etc., are bad for a person. So perhaps both punishments really are too severe.

That said, there are, I’d say, two places where this reasoning seems open to question.

The first concerns your thought that life in prison is ‘worse’ than death. For one, how bad life incarceration is depends a great deal on prison conditions. Whatever its hardships, life in a Scandinavian minimum security facility is not anywhere near as bad for an inmate as life imprisonment in a US-style supermax facility that uses prolonged solitary confinement, etc. So whether life imprisonment is worse than death will turn on contingent facts. Moreover, we might question an assumption that seems hidden in your question, namely, that how bad something is depends only on its experiential properties. Suppose we grant that the experience of life incarceration is (often) worse than the ‘experience’ of death. (Note the quote marks there; I’m assuming that death is the permanent cessation of selfhood, that there’s no afterlife, that death is not something we experience, etc. — debatable propositions, yes, but let’s operate with these assumptions for now.) In other words, undergoing prolonged suffering behind bars will often be worse than simply not existing. Nevertheless, it may not follow from this that incarceration is worse than death, given that death may deprive a person of a life she wishes to keep living or of goods that she would have enjoyed had she continued to live until her natural death. (Note that these considerations make the badness of execution contingent on what kind of future a person is deprived of, how long she has to live, etc.) The death penalty may therefore be worse for a person’s overall lifetime well-being even if being dead is not worse than spending life behind bars. (Incidentally, I take it that the fact that almost every condemned prisoner exhausts their appeals before being executed is an indication that there is at least something worthwhile about continuing to live, even in the very adverse conditions life incarceration presents.)

A second set of questions we might raise about this reasoning is whether the severity of punishment is the only moral grounds for opposing a punishment. We might conclude, in connection with the death penalty for example, that it tends to be allocated in ways that are unjust — that defendants from certain social groups are more likely to be executed, etc. Note that these are moral considerations against the death penalty that don’t turn on how bad it is (or how bad it is in comparison to alternatives such as life imprisonment). Or one might oppose the death penalty believing it’s too risky for a society to impose. Death, as many have said, seems different than other punishments; it’s ‘final’, irrevocable, incompensable, unappealable, etc., in ways that other punishments may not be. So perhaps the reasons to morally oppose the death penalty is that societies ought not to risk imposing a penalty that’s unique in having these properties.

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