the absurd observers

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Will Saletan criticizes Bush's hypocrisy on the death penalty and stem cell research:

The standard Bush set four years ago and repeated last week is that we shouldn't take one life—even an embryonic life—in order to save others. Cost-benefit analysis is never sufficient grounds for the premeditated killing of civilians—except when it comes to the death penalty. When the discussion shifts from embryos to murderers, Bush and his spokesmen routinely argue that killing is justified not because murderers deserve it, but because it's moral to take one life in order to save others. He doesn't say that Person A should be executed because Person A is a danger to society. He says that Person A should be executed because the execution will deter Person B from killing Person C.

While Bush is a hypocrite, Saletan slightly misses the point. Bush can distinguish the killing of embryonic stem cells from the killing of murderers on the basis of guilt. There is a plausible argument (though i disagree with it) that a murderer gives up his right not to be killed when he kills someone else. This does not inherently mean that he ought to be killed, but merely that it is ok to kill him if if advances some utilitarian purpose. For someone delusional enough to believe that embryos are actually full human lives, however, it is plausible to say that embryos have sacrificed no such right and therefore cannot be destroyed for the benefit of others.

Bush's hypocrisy, however, lies in the fact that the death penalty is inherently imperfect. As numerous studies have suggested, the amount of innocent people put to death is far from insignificant. The only way to justify such a system is to say that while some innocent lives will be lost, more will be saved by the deterrent effect of the death penalty (although, notwithstanding a recent paper by Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, most studies have concluded that there is not much of a deterrent effect). Yet this is exactly the tradeoff Bush refuses to make with stem cells when the lives to be saved are indisputable and the "lives" taken barely human life. Therein lies the real hypocrisy.


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