the absurd observers

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A moral question that follows

While I applaud any restrictions on the death penalty, I wonder whether there is a meaningful case to be made for why executing a defendant who committed a crime as a17-year-old is cruel and unusual, but executing a defendant who committed a crime at 18 is not. The attainment of moral responsibility is obviously somewhat indeterminate and differs amongst individuals. Clearly some 18-year-olds are less morally sophisticated than some 17-year-olds. We have arbitrary age cut offs for many things in society, but we do so presumably because the transaction costs of figuring out individual responsibility would be too great without such an age cut off. We could not, for example, in any organized and non-discriminatory manner investigate the individual worthiness of citizens to vote. In the case of the death penalty, however, the entire sentencing exercise is an effort at determining the individual moral culpability of the defendant. After the guilt phase of the trial, there is an extensive sentencing phase where the jury specifically considers moral culpability and recognizes youth as a mitigating factor. I am not sure the imposition of 18 (or 16 for that matter) as an arbitrary, death-eligible cut off makes any sense.

The obvious answer is that minors are denied full rights in society on account of their age and so it is hypocritical to impose full acountability on them. This argument merges practical and moral judgments, so i am not convinced it is ultimately persuasive.


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